In a world suddenly afraid of touch, voice technology is taking on a new look.
Voice-activated systems like Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa and Apple's Siri have seen strong growth in recent years, and the virus pandemic could accelerate this, analysts say.
Voice assistants are not only responding to inquiries and purchases, but are also being used for smart home control and a variety of commercial and medical applications that can increase interest as people seek to limit personal contact.
"Voice has already made significant advances in the space of the smart home and voice control can mean avoiding commonly touched surfaces around the home, from smartphones to TV remote controls, light switches, thermostats, door handles and more," said analyst Jonathan Collins of ABI Research.
The pandemic is likely to provide "additional motivation and encouragement for voice control at home, which will help raise awareness and adopt a variety of smart home devices and applications," said Collins.
ABI estimates that shipments of voice control devices for smart home devices reached 141 million last year and in 2020 will grow globally by almost 30%.
For the broader market for voice assistants, Juniper Research estimates 4.2 billion devices in use this year, growing to 8.4 billion in 2024, with most of the interactions on smartphones.
– Smart locks, buzzers –
Collins said he hopes to see a growing interest in smart locks and bells, along with other smart home systems, to eliminate the need for personal contact and face-to-face interaction as a result of the pandemic.
Avi Greengart, a technology analyst and consultant at Techsponential, said the data is not yet available, but that "interestingly, the use of the voice assistant is going up" as a result of blockages.
Greengart said he expects a wider range of business applications for voice technologies in response to health and safety issues.
“Looking ahead, office spaces will need to move towards more controls without touch; voice can be a solution, although motion triggers for lighting are often easier and more friction-free, ”he said.
“However, I expect smart speakers – along with a list of email commands – to be a common feature in hotels and other rental properties. The fewer points of contact, the better.
– Post-pandemic perspectives –
Julian Issa of Futuresource Consulting said that there appears to be "an increase in the use of voice assistants since the virus outbreak" during the pandemic.
"While avoiding touching surfaces may play a small role in this, it is mainly due to consumers who spend much more time at home with their devices," said Issa.
Chris Pennell, another analyst at Futuresource, said he expects adoption of digital assistants is likely to accelerate, "especially in customer-oriented areas such as healthcare, retail and entertainment."
An example of this already in use is a Mayo Clinic tool using Amazon Alexa, which allows people to assess their symptoms and access information about the virus.
Other medical applications are also being worked on for voice technologies.
Veton Kepuska, professor of computer engineering at Florida Tech, specializing in speech recognition technologies, seeks to develop voice-activated medical robots that can help limit physical contact and contagion.
"If we had this infrastructure installed, we would be better off today," said Kepuska, encouraged by the outbreak of COVID-19 to seek funding for the research effort.
Kepuska said that this effort could lead to a "humanoid" medical robot, which can take on many tasks of doctors or nurses with voice interaction.
"The pandemic has created a situation where we need to think about how to provide services to people who need our help without putting ourselves in danger," he said.