Digital Assistants Connect Consumers to the Internet of Things in a Mobile Moment

In today’s increasingly mobile connected world consumers are literally living and shopping among the “Internet of Things”. Connecting to those things on the internet can be cumbersome at times – how many apps do you need on every device to keep up to date and in touch?


Photo courtesy Sean MacEntee

As a frequent traveler, I have apps from Hilton, Hyatt, and Marriott as well as United, American, and AirTran on my tablet – and I still have a problem keeping up without TripIt (yep, another app) to make sure reservations all end up on my calendar where I can find them. Last week, I discovered a curious thing – Cortana (the voice assistant on my Windows Mobile powered Lumia 1020) read one of my emails and then asked if I wanted her to track their set of 3 connecting flights on different airlines to a remote international location. Intrigued I said yes and Cortana gave me real time updates when the flights took off and landed. This reinforced a notion I wrote about in a blog on NoJitter after SpeechTech – the voice activated digital assistant on your personal deice can be a nearly human interface to the Internet of Things.

Siri, Cortana or Google Now leverage voice recognition to help complete tasks from the mobile devices on which they live as native apps searching for information on the internet, tracking the weather, telling jokes and more. These capabilities are moving into other devices now, with Amazon announcing impending availability of the AmazonEcho on Nov 6. This device, a 9 ¼ inch tall cylinder, is a home-body compared to your smartphone delivering a digital assistant that can live on your bedside table or living room bookshelf as it finds music playlists, sets alarms, keeps a to do list, and searches for answers to questions like “When is the next full moon in New York City?” or “How do you spell vacuum?”

Many companies, in their rush to capture business in a mobile moment are developing their own digital assistant capabilities to make it easier for customers to interact with them to buy their products and use their services. For example, Domino’s Pizza has created a virtual personal pizza assistant “Dom” who will take your order and deliver it to your door using natural language – even suggesting the Chocolate Lava Cake as the perfect pairing with your Italian Sausage and Pepper Trio pizza.

Online banking has been around for years, and it gets easier (and hopefully soon more secure rather than more worrisome) every time I visit a site. I remember being amazed the first time I could simply stuff a stack of bills or a check into an ATM without an envelope or deposit slip, a moment only topped when I took a picture of a check at home and saw my bank balance go up without leaving my kitchen! Interactions Corporation is working on new more conversational paradigm to make banking customer interactions via automated systems more natural, blending online and spoken communications with natural language recognition – their demo at the Finovate Conference earlier this year showed a very natural conversation across multiple products and inquiries progressing with no human agent involved.

Smarter solutions are helping people to interact with the most familiar things in their life as well – like their home and their car. A simple solution from Lockitron allows you, or a trusted associate, to lock and unlock doors or gates from your mobile device,

but more complex home security solutions, like AT&T Digital Life, allow you to secure and manage not just the doors, but also the lights, heating/air conditioning and cameras in your home.

Who doesn’t have a remote lock/unlock/alarm key fob for their car these days? They are as common as fleas on a hound, but what if you had all that plus the ability to check fuel level and tire pressure, verify the location of your vehicle and send directions to it, or remotely activate the alarm from your mobile device when beyond the range of your key fob? Many telematics solutions provide all this today, including GM’s OnStar-based RemoteLink Mobile App.

In the real world, you can’t just talk to things – sometimes you actually need to speak to other humans. Readers may be thinking “Duh, that’s why Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in the first place,” but what if that other person does not speak the same language as you? The capability to deliver real time translation service (like the Universal Translator from the Star Trek television series) is becoming a reality today. Imagine a transmission repair shop in a rural area who is presented with a customer who does not speak the same language as the shop staff – apps like these turn those moments into revenue opportunities instead of frustrating, confusing, and generally unprofitable interactions. Some vendors like SpeechTrans translate spoken languages to communicate via a BlueTooth connected wristband (which can also act as a watch and Bluetooth speaker phone) enabling bi-lingual communications via a smartphone – even with emergency response personnel.

Microsoft promises this capability will be available via Skype for both voice and IM conversations in the near future as well, making a pre-beta version available November 4 (demo’ed by Gurdeep Singh Pall at ReCode’s Code Conference) that translates in 45 languages.

People in today’s fast paced world need to be connected to things as diverse as the internet, their car, a soda machine, or their bank and to people ranging from friends to business associates to subject matter experts they have never met before. Today digital assistants help us with contacts, calendars, and real time communications – a capability that was still new to mobile devices 10 years ago. Tomorrow these digital assistants will find and connect their users to more useful information, topical experts and distant friends faster than ever before.