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Talk Before Touch: How Voice Assistants are Taking Centre Stage in COVID-19

< 11 June 2020 >

Voice assistants

A surprising impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the rise in voice.

Using voice tech right now makes sense, as it limits our physical interactions with the world around us. Think about it – we step into a grocery store and instead of pressing a button on the self-service counter, we articulate a command via voice. This prevents the risk of infections through public spaces, with major implications for office locations.

Employees could record attendance via voice instead of registering a fingerprint (which could contaminate a physical surface). They could place orders through voice in the cafeteria, ensuring social distancing with staff. The list of use cases goes on.

Not surprisingly, voice tech has witnessed a significant spike in use during the pandemic. A report found that nearly one-third of users are turning to voice “a bit more” than pre-coronavirus rates. 13% are using this technology twice as much as prior to the pandemic. Only 9% are using voiceless now than they did before.

Now voice recognition and voice-led services have been around for a while. But one of its major obstacles to going mainstream was a limited applications market. Developers weren’t releasing voice applications at the same rate as touch, which meant that you had to wait for weeks if not months to access your favourite Android services on Alexa or Google assistant. This is now changing owing to COVID-19.

Amazon has recently partnered with Mayo Clinic to develop COVID-19 skills for Alexa. Among these skills is a self-assessment tool that lets users analyze their symptoms to understand the need for COVID-19 testing. Orbita has a similar voice application, meant for healthcare workers. It offers information on COVID-19 based on data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And there is a very strong use case for leveraging voice technology to cut through the isolation. For people living alone, voice assistants could offer a channel for engagement and interaction, allowing users to self-assess for symptoms and request timely interventions.

In the context of COVID-19, accessibility has become a must-have for every user and voice is making our lives slightly simpler, and safer. We won’t go as far as to say that touch is dead; it continues to be the predominant form of our interaction with the digital world. However, concerns around physical proximity, sanitization, and isolation could push the development of voice tech into third gear – allowing it to hit maturity, much earlier than originally expected.

For now, we expect those traditionally shying away from voice to experiment with this technology in both their personal and professional spheres. As we spend more time in our homes, tinkering with our devices, it is only natural to explore the available possibilities. This rising interest, coupled with growing needs, will speed up the development of applications in the voice sector. From there, it is just a matter of time before we see widespread adoption.

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