Edge voice assistants and accessibility
Jan 28, 2022
7 MIN READ

How Edge Voice Assistants are Making the World More Accessible

While pushing buttons, touching screens, scrolling, tapping, typing, and swiping are still popular interfaces for devices of all sorts, voice interfaces are bridging the gap between those with the physical and mental abilities to interact with them and those for whom accessibility has been limited. Access to products that require manual dexterity, good eyesight, and the ability to understand the necessary inputs has historically been limited or unavailable for a large portion of the population. The addition of a voice assistant not only increases the ease of use, efficiency, and convenience for those using a device, it makes access to a world of technology more inclusive for those with physical and mental limitations, seniors craving independence, and children.

Voice AI technology opens up more options and opportunities for people where physically interacting with a product has created more barriers than possibilities. According to Pew Research, there is a digital gap between those with physical disabilities and those without, with a 19% difference in owning a desktop or laptop and a 16% difference in owning a smartphone. Often, having to read a screen or interact with buttons and swiping are barriers to entry. Voice AI broadens the possibilities for how people can interact with the devices around them, enabling those with differing abilities to use devices that were previously out of bounds. 

Voice assistants on the edge open up possibilities

The advent of voice AI brought the promise of accessibility to millions of people around the world. While the technology has lived up to the promise in many ways, most devices people interact with in their daily lives still require pushing buttons, turning knobs, and even typing or swiping to access. The challenge for manufacturers has not been the availability of voice AI but the cost, development time, and memory footprint required to provide a voice interface. 

As those barriers to entry for manufacturers are being removed with the availability of greater Natural Language Understanding (NLU), accuracy, and higher performance in noisy environments, now available through advancements in voice AI, manufacturers can begin to imagine the possibilities of making their products more accessible to a greater portion of the population.

The challenge for manufacturers has not been the availability of voice AI but the cost, development time, and memory footprint required to provide a voice interface. 

Advances in voice AI technology are making devices less dependent on cloud connectivity and adding more functionality. Device manufacturers can now choose between a variety of connectivity options, depending on their needs and the needs of their users, including embedded voice assistants that have no connection to the cloud, edge voice AI that is embedded but with more processing power, or hybrid options that have both embedded and cloud connectivity. When voice assistants require only limited or no cloud connectivity, the possibilities for accessible product solutions become endless. Manufacturers can lower manufacturing costs while providing hands-free operation, ensuring greater privacy, and delivering increased product functionality. 

Companies in a variety of industries are already realizing the advantages of voice assistants on the edge. Early adopters are discovering how providing greater accessibility, convenience, and ease of use has made their products more accessible for people of differing ages and abilities.

Let’s take a deeper dive into 4 industries where voice assistants are making inroads to products and devices of all types to better understand how and why voice assistants are moving to the edge to make people’s lives more accessible.

We’ll explore the possibilities in 4 industries already entering the voice-first era:

  • Smart devices
  • Home entertainment
  • Hospitality
  • Retail

Smart devices with edge voice AI make spaces everywhere more accessible

Voice-enabled smart home technology has the power to increase independence for seniors and people with disabilities. By voice-enabling devices, such as air conditioners, ovens, washing machines, sprinklers, blinds, coffee machines, garage doors, and lights, anyone could simply use their voice to complete daily tasks that they might otherwise need assistance to do. 

Instead of having to walk to a device, push buttons, or read screens, voice assistant users can ask questions like:

  • “Set the temperature to 68℉ and turn it off at 6 pm on weekdays.” 
  • “Start the washer in 1 hour on delicate and cold with fabric softener and an extra rinse.” 

Even if there are background noises, such as music or chatter, or if the user is far away from the device, advances in voice AI mean it can still accurately understand and respond to queries.

Voice-enabled smart home technology has the power to increase independence for seniors and people with disabilities.

The introduction of more connectivity options gives more companies the opportunity to incorporate voice AI into their products without incurring the high price of cloud-based subscription fees and implementation costs. Oftentimes for smart home technology, the cloud is not needed or required for basic command and control functions, and edge or embedded voice assistants can achieve the tasks quickly and efficiently at a lower cost and faster time-to-market.

Security and privacy are also a huge concern for many users. Embedded, edge, or edge hybrid voice assistants allow manufacturers to ensure greater user privacy since sensitive data—such as passwords or codes—can be stored locally on the device. Limited or no cloud connectivity gives the added level of privacy and lowers the possibility that an outside entity could access daily routines or other personal information from cloud recordings. Edge voice technology also allows for greater personalization by allowing users to set preferences.

Now that additional connectivity options are available, manufacturers can begin to imagine the benefits of adding voice to their devices, including greater accessibility.

Entertainment and media will thrive in accessibility with edge voice assistants

Many seniors or people with vision or mobility limitations have difficulties accessing entertainment, news, and other information. Entertainment and media devices that have voice assistants can broaden possibilities for what can be achieved without having to push buttons, scroll, or tap screens, including:

  • Voice-activated TVs and remotes
  • Children’s toys
  • Hearables and wearables

Voice-activated TVs and remotes don’t just provide the ability to search for movies and shows hands-free. They also often act as a central hub connecting to other smart devices throughout the home. Users with physical or visual limitations can access a wealth of entertainment by simply using their voice while also having easier access to other things in the home that are historically operated physically, like blinds, lights, and air conditioning or heating. 

Depending on whether or not the manufacturer wants users to be able to reorder supplies, make service requests, or get answers from the cloud, devices can have limited cloud connectivity or hybrid connectivity—including fully-embedded and cloud connectivity. Automotive manufacturers are good examples of those for whom the whole range of embedded plus cloud is a key to their user experience. The range of connectivity options now provided are bringing more device manufacturers into the voice-first era, and increased accessibility is one of the many benefits that voice gives. 

The range of connectivity options now provided are bringing more device manufacturers into the voice-first era, and increased accessibility is one of the many benefits that voice gives. 

Members of the youngest generations also face limitations when it comes to using technology. Very young children may not yet know how to read or understand how to navigate complex knobs and buttons to work a toy or learning device. Voice assistants give children opportunities to learn and play independently without the need for a parent’s assistance. Advances in Natural Language Understanding (NLU) allow voice assistants to understand imprecise or slurred speech and are now able to better understand children whose speech may not yet be fully developed. In addition, limited or no cloud connectivity afforded by edge and embedded voice assistants’ can help manufacturers give parents greater assurance that their children’s privacy is safe and secure. 

Children’s toys and learning devices can be at the lower end of the price point spectrum, with a need for low implementation costs. Since children’s toys don’t often require cloud connectivity, edge and embedded voice assistants allow toy manufacturers to voice-enable their devices while delivering faster time-to-market and keeping manufacturing costs down.

Other devices that increase accessibility through voice AI include hearables and wearables. Smartwatches, earbuds, and hearing aids can be operated easily, conveniently, and hands-free with voice AI technology. Whether the goal is to listen to music or track one’s health, voice assistants on the edge can keep processing power lower and provide a voice interface that doesn’t put too much strain on battery life. 

Hybrid voice assistants create more options for hospitality

Voice assistants provide more accessible options for customers at hotels, cruise ships, QSRs, and fast-casual restaurants. Seniors or people with vision or mobility limitations can experience more independence by being able to operate in-room controls and entertainment devices hands-free. 

The increase in connectivity options allows manufacturers of devices designed for the hospitality industry more opportunities to include voice interfaces. Embedded voice interfaces can provide command and control of in-room devices, while an edge device might allow guests to order room service or make restaurant reservations. Hybrid devices that include access to the cloud can give guests greater access to news, information, and even local events. For cruise ships where the internet is often not available, devices with edge connectivity can operate when the ship is at sea and then can connect to the cloud once it arrives at a port where internet is available.

For cruise ships where the internet is often not available, devices with edge connectivity can operate when the ship is at sea and then can connect to the cloud once it arrives at a port where internet is available.

Voice-enabled rooms at hotels, whether through a smart speaker or smart TV, voice assistants allow guests to turn on lights, open or close blinds, navigate the TV, or turn on the air without having to push buttons or look at screens. Guests can also receive information about amenities, put in requests for more towels, order room service, make dining reservations, or check out simply by using their voice. 

Voice-enabled kiosks at QSRs, hotels, and cruise ships also remove the need to touch, type, swipe, or read screens. Customers can order food at QSRs, check-in or out of hotels, and find on-ship amenities hands-free. 

Retail looks to increase accessibility with embedded voice AI

From in-store kiosks to vending machines, the retail industry is finding ways to increase accessibility through voice assistants. Voice-enabled in-store kiosks can allow customers to search for information about products and find where they are located without needing to type, swipe, or scroll. Voice AI gives them the autonomy and independence to learn the information they need to complete their shopping experience, without searching for an employee or asking for assistance. 

Vending machines that sell everything from coffee, soda, and snacks to phone chargers, USBs, and other technology offer a unique challenge for both those who have physical and visual limitations. To operate one, users have to read the number and letter combination and push a series of buttons. With voice AI, users can ask for what they want without knowing what the number-letter combination is or what exactly it is called. 

Voice assistants on the edge give retailers the opportunity to provide greater accessibility and convenience through in-store kiosks and vending machines. Additional connectivity possibilities also open the door for manufacturers to voice-enable devices of all sizes without the high implementation costs and cloud-based service fees. 

Additional connectivity possibilities also open the door for manufacturers to voice-enable devices of all sizes without the high implementation costs and cloud-based service fees. 

Smart devices, entertainment and media, hospitality, and retail are all industries where voice assistants on the edge can transform accessibility. While voice assistants offer convenience, ease, and efficiency for all users, they can also provide the means to independence, entertainment, socialization, and education for those with physical or visual limitations. Brands looking to widen the door of possibilities of what can be achieved should consider the benefits of voice AI and the additional capabilities of embedded, edge, and edge hybrid connectivity.

Want to know more about voice assistants on the edge? SoundHound recently published a guide, Discovering Possibilities of Voice Assistants on the Edge, that discusses edge voice assistants as a product solution across industries and a way to increase functionality, accessibility, and privacy.

At SoundHound Inc., we have all the tools and expertise needed to create custom voice assistants and a consistent brand voice. Explore SoundHound’s independent voice AI platform at SoundHound.com and register for a free account here. Want to learn more? Talk to us about how we can help bring your voice strategy to life.

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