By Dale S. Laszig
Throughout the payments journey, sound has played a key role, from synchronizing dial modems to interactive voice response (IVR) systems. Mastercard added sound to its logo in February 2019, garnering praise for creativity. Raja Rajamannar, chief marketing and communications officer and healthcare president at Mastercard, called the signature chimes "an important part of our brand DNA."
Brent Bowen, senior vice president of payments at Valid, a payment card issuer, has seen companies leverage technology to stimulate senses through sound, light and biometrics. "In Mastercard's case, the company saw sound as a new way to resonate with its customers, creating customized haptics to confirm transactions."
Today's digital voice assistants use voice as an interactive medium, taking sound to a new level. Siri, Alexa, Cortana and Google Assistant answer questions, play songs and place orders. Brian Roemmele, scientist, researcher and public speaker credited with coining the term "voice first," believes smart speakers are just a fraction of voice technology's potential and capabilities. There are many reasons why this is called the "Voice First Revolution," he stated.
In a February 2019 white paper titled The Digital Assistants of Tomorrow, Juniper Research predicts the installed base of voice-enabled digital solutions will reach nearly 8 billion by 2023. Additional data from OC&C Strategy Consultants estimates voice shopping revenues will increase from $2 billion today to $40 billion in 2022.
Interactive voice solutions will continue to evolve, becoming deeper, wider and more various, researchers noted, citing four key distribution channels:
Researchers found overlapping skill sets among service providers. Google, for example, is both a platform and software integrator. The report characterized business-to-business and business-to-consumer channels by target market and function. B2C channels typically involve consumer products and services; B2B channels help organizations manage administrative tasks.
"In B2B deployments, voice assistants are finding their biggest home in the [organizational] space, with their largest degree of usage being intelligently sorting and booking meetings and appointments," researchers wrote. "These can range from conference call scheduling to office cleaning, depending on how the assistant is deployed within a given company."
Scott Goldthwaite, president at Aliaswire, a payment processing platform provider, called voice "the original killer app for mobile phones," noting that voice assistants make it easy to transact and pay bills. In his view, growing and scaling these technologies will ideally require principled design, tangible benefits and a strong supporting infrastructure.
When people change the way they shop, service providers must change the way they pay, not the other way around, Goldthwaite added. He pointed out that Samsung Pay and Apple Pay introduced a new way to pay when in-person payments were already easy and fast. Consumers presented cards at the POS. Mobile wallets required consumers to interact with their phones and merchants to integrate the solutions into their POS, adding complexity without removing friction.
"Digital assistants have simplified online searches, shopping and commands but require a lot of complexity in the back end to make transactions seamless, secure and reliable," he said. "It's easy to ask Alexa about the weather. It's difficult to ask Alexa to pay my mortgage and add an extra $100 to principal. Translating these concepts into machine learning can be complicated."
Kevin Shamoun, CEO at Zeamster, a platform hosted by Amazon Web Services, said his company has developed a slew of B2B Alexa commands. "Our partners and their merchants can ask Alexa to close a batch, light up a terminal or transact on a specific terminal in the store. But the best feedback we've received from larger ISOs has been about Alexa's batch totals skill."
Zeamster partners estimated that approximately one third of help desk calls are batch total requests, which digital assistants can mostly eliminate, Shamoun said. "With integrated voice, a business owner sitting at home can ask a digital assistant for batch totals. There are so many other skills we can do, but eyeballs go up when we mention our batch total feature."
Gary Glover, vice president of assessments at SecurityMetrics, sees ease of use as a key driver of voice commerce adoption, particularly around the home, where consumers can ask Alexa to buy things. "These tasks are simple to execute at home on a connected device, but I don't see voice recognition being widely implemented in retail; there are too many authentication issues," he said.
Recalling a recent DefCon presentation called Your Voice is My Passport, Glover cautioned against using voice as an authentication method. With voiceprints all over the Internet, hackers can break voice with a minimum of effort, spoof a target and get into a service that's deployed today, he stated. DefCon presenter and data scientist John Seymour noted when people say, "my voice is my passport" to authenticate online, the irony is completely lost on them.
Glover mentioned another trending concern in the security community is VoiceAI, which can detect frequencies that are inaudible to humans. Security analysts raised the possibility that hackers could use white noise or high frequencies to mask malicious commands. James Vincent, a reporter specializing in robotics and AI, suggested that transmitting stealth messages to VoiceAI is common practice among device manufacturers and marketers.
"Using ultrasound as [a] discreet form of digital communication is actually pretty common," Vincent wrote in "Inaudible ultrasound commands can be used to secretly control Siri, Alexa and Google Now," published Sept. 7, 2017, by The Verge. "As pointed out in a Fast Company report on the topic, Google's Chromecast and Amazon's Dash Buttons both use inaudible sounds to pair to your phone. And advertisers take advantage of these secret audio freeways too, broadcasting ultrasonic codes in TV commercials that work like cookies in a web browser; tracking a user's activity across devices."
An independent study commissioned by Gemalto and published by Juniper Research in October 2018 describes the Internet of Things as interconnected devices, software and communications protocols. Titled IOT Security: The Key Ingredients for Success, the study calls for a multilayered approach to protecting IoT assets.
"The idea of layers in cybersecurity is a fundamental concept," researchers wrote. "The reason for this is that, should one layer fall to the efforts of a cybercriminal, other layers remain in place that help to mitigate any potential damage done."
As Juniper previously noted in The Digital Assistants of Tomorrow, the voice value chain is also a multilayered landscape, populated by cloud-based service providers, device manufacturers and sales channel partners. Software integrators work with hardware vendors and APIs to incorporate products and services into retail and IT enterprises and make them available for commercial use.
The report summarizes cybersecurity objectives as restricting data access to authorized users, effectively screening data and maintaining continuity of service. These controls promote data integrity and service availability, researchers noted. However, security analysts question how to implement these controls in a voice first world. Glover proposed that multifactor authentication would provide voice users with safer ways to enter their PINs and confirm their identities.
Interoperability is a key consideration in multilayered ecosystems. Consumers do not always understand when their digital voice assistants redirect them to secure checkout pages. Lin Nie, research scientist at Dataminr and user experience specialist, urged developers and OEMs to close gaps between platforms to improve voice-to-screen transitions.
"When a single experience is distributed across devices, comprehensiveness and consistency of messaging across touchpoints is crucial," Nie said. "A frictionless hand-off should not require users to continue interacting with the first device after passing control to the second. Hand-off instructions from one device to another should also be written consistently on both ends. A user should not have to think if different words, data, controls, or situations mean the same thing."
Nie proposed the following approaches to creating seamless voice-to-screen transitions:
Home automation, also known as smart home, enables consumers to establish nodes on the IoT and manage personal infrastructures from anywhere. Shamoun said home automation simplifies routine tasks, such as managing music playlists, lighting and reordering household items.
Pete Philomey, national sales manager at South Seas Data LLC, recalled when Amazon promoted placing smart buttons strategically around the house. Press your kitchen button to reorder eggs; press the laundry room button when you're getting low on detergent. The buttons failed to generate enough reorders or meet expectations; Amazon eventually pulled the project.
"Who wants buttons all over the place?" Philomey said. "Subscription models make it easy to manage everyday products, and VoiceAI is taking home automation to the next level."
Philomey said his digital voice assistants are always on and always connected. They play music in one room or all over the house, dim the dining room lights to 50 percent, remind him of upcoming calls and even tell him when it's time to leave for a meeting.
"Amazon has a conference every year," Shamoun said. "At the last one, AWS CEO Andy Jassy was talking about voice as the next evolution. He mentioned that in Asia, voice has replaced text as a primary communication method. This is literally a voice message that you record and send."
In a March 2019 post in TechRadar, titled "Finding your voice in this fast-moving digital world," Mastercard's Rajamannar highlighted how digital assistants are changing consumer and brand relationships. Acknowledging the ubiquitous presence of screens in everyday life, he suggested tomorrow may have a different look, feel and sound. "An army of virtual assistants, marching into our homes and lives in the form of smart speakers, bots and much, much more is beginning to challenge the status quo [by] doing away with screens entirely," he wrote.
Dale S. Laszig, senior staff writer at The Green Sheet and managing director at DSL Direct LLC, is a payments industry journalist and content development specialist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at @DSLdirect.
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