How the BBC is using voice assistants like Amazon Echo and Google Home

Next year, the BBC will pair editorial staffers with its software engineers to figure out what content experience people want from voice-enabled devices like the Amazon Echo and Google Home in order to inform new interactive editorial formats that are technically feasible.

“We will do some experiments together,” said Mukul Devichand, editorial lead for BBC Voice. “We are keen to understand what it means to natively publish in this platform — no one has cracked it yet.” Continue reading “How the BBC is using voice assistants like Amazon Echo and Google Home”

Believe the Hype: The Most Buzz-Worthy Trends of 2017

In the 20 years I’ve covered the great digital transition, empty buzzwords and phony trends have been the rule, not the exception. Bullshit is not a byproduct of a startup economy of building scale before substance; it is actually a doctrine.

And yet, in this past year there have been some trends that almost certainly will have a deep impact on the survivability of media businesses into the future. Here I explore some of these trends and try to cast a little insight as to why they matter, and how they might continue to shakeup the landscape as we look ahead to 2018. Continue reading “Believe the Hype: The Most Buzz-Worthy Trends of 2017”

BBC is launching an interactive radio show for Echo

The future of entertainment is here. The BBC, in collaboration with Rosina Sound, is working on an interactive radio play for artificial intelligence-enabled home chatbots like Amazon’s Echo and Google Home.

The production will be the first of its kind — the first to use this kind of technology and to function in this way. It plans to release this futuristic, high-tech play by the end of the year.

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The play

The story, called the Inspection Chamber, will work similarly to choose-your-own-adventure books and games, in which users can influence the direction of the story by the choices they make.

The creators of the Inspection Chamber, though, are seeking to take that idea a bit further and make listeners really feel like they’re in the story.

The story’s narrator will ask you, the listener, questions throughout the story. Your answers to those questions will change the outcome of the narrative.

The questions are designed so the listener doesn’t have to step out of the story to consider their decision, but instead feels like they’re a character in the story. It’s meant to feel like you’re interacting with the other characters in the play.

The creators of the play said they took inspiration from games like The Stanley Parable and Papa Sangre, and authors such as Franz Kafka and Douglas Adams. The story became, in the creators’ own words, “a comedy science-fiction audio drama.”

The technology

The sci-fi elements fit well with the medium through which the story will be presented. The show’s creators say they’ve built a “story engine” that lets the story work on a variety of different voice devices.

First, the Inspection Chamber will come out on Amazon Echo and Google Home, but the BBC is looking into other devices, like Apple’s HomePod and Microsoft & Harman Kardon’s Invoke speaker, as well.

The project comes out of a wider BBC initiative called Talking With Machines that is exploring spoken interfaces. It’s looking at ways to share content through these technologies and improve interactive audio interfaces. It also aims to create a platform for these interfaces that works across devices, instead of relying on one particular device.

Merging art and technology

In some ways, the plot of the Inspection Chamber had to conform to the limitations of the technology used to share it. For example, Amazon’s Alexa requires users to speak every 90 seconds, and these devices only understand a limited number of phrases. The story’s writers had to come up with a way to incorporate these phrases and time requirements into the story, without making it feel forced.

The use of this technology to tell a story may be experimental now, but as the technology improves, this type of content will likely become easier to create with fewer limitations on creativity. This presents some interesting ideas about the future of creative fields and technology. Rather than shy away from tech in favor of the traditional, the BBC is going full force into it.

Physical books and theater productions may never go completely out of style due to their many virtues, but using new technologies creates new possibilities with a plot, user experience, and more.

Kayla Matthews is a technology writer interested in AI, chatbots, and tech news. She writes for VentureBeat, MakeUseOf, The Week, and TechnoBuffalo.

Apple, podcasting’s dominant (and mostly benign) middleman, is rebooting how it delivers shows

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 122, published June 6, 2017.

I sunk a lot of hours this weekend trying to write a column on “Peak Podcasting,” following some inspiration from a tweet by the esteemed Lizzie O’Leary — which speaks to a broad feeling that I’ve been seeing a lot of — but I’m going to postpone that discussion to next week. For now, let’s talk WWDC, Gimlet, and JSON.

WWDC. The big Apple developer’s conference — which serves as a periodic hub for major product and upgrade announcements from the tech colossus — started in San Jose yesterday, and there are two big things you probably need to know.

(1) We’re getting a redesigned Podcasts app that’ll come with the announced iOS 11 update. Official details are scant at the moment, and while your mileage may vary with sourcing Reddit, there are a couple of screenshots of the new app floating about from this thread, which also hint at potential upcoming livestreaming tool support. Meanwhile, on the WWDC schedule, there’s an Apple Podcasts session due to take place on Friday, and it notes in the description: “iOS 11 upgrades the Apple Podcasts app to support to new feed structures for serialized shows.” From screenshots coming out of Twitter, it looks as if this in part means bundling by season, and providing a little more control over how episodes are presented to listeners over the feed. (It’s the small stuff that goes a really long way.)

As a sidenote, it’s notable that these changes seem to be particularly focused on better serving serialized shows, to the point it even shows up in the official language. Such shows — like Serial, S-Town, Missing Richard Simmons, and so on — do tend to be the medium’s breakout hits, though they are merely one of many show structures that exist in the space. Anyway, there’s probably a lot more to come on this; I’ll be on the lookout.

The iOS 11 update is scheduled to drop sometime this fall, alongside the new iPhone.

(2) You might already be aware of this, given that it was the closer: Apple finally unveiled its own foray into smart speakers, which comes in the form of a bulbous appliance rather awkwardly called the HomePod. (Apropos of nothing, it might time to rename this newsletter. I’m taking suggestions.)

It goes without saying that Apple finally breaking into the smart speaker category — and bringing with it the full body of its media ecosystem — is a big, chunky story with a lot to parse out. Now, I’m no technology journalist, but I will say that I’m deeply curious to see how Apple’s move here will add competition to the market currently dominated by the Amazon Echo. Some indicators suggest that Amazon has built a pretty far lead in this category with its line of fairly affordable smart speakers, and given the fact that Apple’s HomePod is priced at $349 to start (for reference, the Echo Dot goes for about $50), it seems as if Apple will be sliding into the market on the luxury end and will at least initially play more toward its moneyed base, which was more or less what it did with the smartphone. While it’s understandable to replicate that move, it does mean that whatever improvements the smart speaker brings to the podcast listening experience — and whatever listening gains for publishers and podcasters might come from it — we’re probably not going to be seeing much of a substantial broadening of the active listening base from a demographic perspective, at least not initially. Indeed, if anything, we’re probably going to see a deepening within the category of audiences already predisposed to podcasts.

Nevertheless, it’s worthwhile to think through the big picture here: The higher aspirational register for this emerging set of products is the seeding of an audio-first computing experience, one of the alternative beachfronts for the “ambient computing” version of the consumer tech future highlighted in Walt Mossberg’s final column. To play this out further, the long-term structural value that this potential shift brings is one that ultimately liberates the growth trajectory of on-demand audio content from being principally tethered to the mobile device toward a trajectory that extends across whatever vessels audio-first computing is going to be channeled through in the future.

All right, that’s a whole lot of horizon-staring chin-stroking, so let’s kick it back a notch and talk present-day industry scuttlebutt. (Read the Nieman Lab writeup if you’re looking for more keynote takeaways for publishers.)

Gimlet makes a curious acquisition. In what is probably a sign of the times, Gimlet announced this week that it’s bringing on a new show from outside its trendy Gowanus walls: The Pitch, which is basically Shark Tank but a podcast. The show is made and hosted by Josh Muccio, a Florida-based entrepreneur.

The Pitch was first published in 2015, when Muccio developed the show in partnership with Silicon Valley venture capitalist Sheel Mohnot. The show was able to carve out a niche audience during its initial run, and as the story goes, after the first season, Muccio decided to take it in a different direction, redeveloping the concept and raising a small production team around the enterprise that included, among others, Devon Taylor, a freelancer who worked on Radiotopia’s Millennial.

Muccio shopped the second season around different networks — a common practice these days, in case you weren’t aware — before Gimlet ultimately moved to pick it up. That happened earlier this year, and I’m told that the acquisition process took about three weeks after Gimlet officially expressed interest in the project. As part of the deal, Muccio joined the company full time in early March, and Taylor, who by the way cofounded the now defunct podcast review site The Timbre (R.I.P.), was brought in full time as well.

The Pitch marks the first independent podcast that Gimlet has absorbed into its ranks, though it isn’t the company’s first acquisition. (The network brought over Science Vs, along with host Wendy Zukerman, from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation last year.) In many ways, it’s a bit of an unexpected addition for the nearly three-year-old company, which has thus far built a strong reputation off a portfolio of highly produced, narrative-driven programming — you know, the kind of stuff you’d lump into a pile with This American Life and 99% Invisible. The Pitch feels considerably different from the rest of Gimlet’s portfolio…though, if pressed, I’m not quite sure what I mean by that. I quite enjoy the podcast, but I have a bit of trouble seeing how it fits into the Gimlet brand and house sound. And as I dig deeper into my gut reaction to the news, I can’t quite tell whether my response says more about my prejudices about reality programming — which I have a distinct palate for, by the way, one that I keep separate from the rest of my entertainment diet — or my own conceptions of what the Gimlet house style is supposed to be.

Matt Lieber, president of Gimlet, appears to hold a broader definition of that house style than I do. “I think it’s pretty consistent with our strategy,” he said when we spoke by phone Monday. Gimlet shows, according to Lieber, are largely defined by, among other things, a sense of curiosity, high production quality, and a strong point of view — all things, he argues, that The Pitch shares. Plus, the ambition of the whole reality programming dimension, and how it mingles with these core Gimlet principles, is a big part of what drew Gimlet to the project. “It combines the best of reality TV — that tension and excitement — and the best of narrative storytelling,” Lieber said. “Reality has always been a category we’ve been intrigued by. If you think about it, the first season of StartUp had some of those qualities.”

That StartUp connection, I think, is pretty meaningful. One way of reading the company’s history is to see it as having built an initial core audience off a show, StartUp, that appeals to those who are drawn to stories about entrepreneurship and technology. From this position, The Pitch, then, is an expansion of that genre offering within Gimlet’s portfolio, one that deepens the available product range for the entrepreneurship-oriented audience — and, subsequently, its extractable value for advertisers. Think about the kinds of people who listen to StartUp and podcasts about entrepreneurship, and then think about the types of advertisers who value that set of ears, and then think about capitalism and the resulting CPM rate. (Speaking of which, I’d love to tie NPR’s How I Built This into this somehow.)

One more thing before I move on. I was curious as to why Muccio decided to move onto a network, why he eschewed independence. Here’s his response:

1. The #1 way people find out about podcasts is on other podcasts. So the right network presents an opportunity for audience growth that would take years to build as an independent.

2. Advertising. Some networks have horrible CPMs and are known for really bad ads. But Gimlet is not one of them. They’re one of the best in the biz. If not the best. We sold our own ads for The Pitch. It’s really REALLY hard to do well. This wasn’t an area I was willing to compromise so I’m lucky to be joining a network that is really crushing it on the advertising front. Bottom line? Ads on The Pitch are higher quality and more profitable.

3. Focus and specialization. I wore all the hats as an independent producer. I did pretty damn well considering, but still you can only be so good at any one thing when you have 50 other things you also need to be good at. Joining a network has allowed me to focus on building a great show, refining my skills as a host and building a team that can carry the vision of the show with me. Ultimately building something with a team of amazing people is more fulfilling to me than building something in a silo.

The Pitch debuts under new management on June 14. There will also be a crossover episode with the StartUp podcast on that day.

Side note. Deadline reported a new development on the upcoming Homecoming TV adaptation: Julia Roberts is currently in talks for the lead role, which was played by Catherine Keener in the podcast. The project looks like it’s still in its pretty early stages, so fans shouldn’t get too attached to the prospect of an adaptation just yet.

A directory, a list, a market. “Podcast discovery is broken,” goes the familiar critique, the opening gambit of most product pitches that hit my inbox. And it was as true two or three years ago as it is now — though as longtime readers might know, I’m wont to think of it mostly as a secondary issue, not one that’s fatally prohibitive to the long-term fate of the space. I imagine some will disagree. In any case, I still read every email that hits my inbox on the matter.

The latest of such gambits is something called PodSearch, and there is some reason to pay attention here. A project of Patty and Dave Newmark, proprietors of Newmark Advertising and longtime audio advertising operatives with strong relationships on the advertising side of the industry, PodSearch boasts a premise that’s so straightforward as to be blunt: It’s the Yellow Pages, but for podcasts.

There isn’t a ton about PodSearch that’s interesting from a design perspective, particularly on the business-to-consumer side. A lot of its touted features — search, personalization, top-show categorizations — are table stakes as far as digital products in 2017 are concerned, and there are some things about the interface that create an unnecessarily high level of friction for potential users, like requiring visitors to make an account before being to actually use the platform.

I see the theoretical value of the product for consumers, of course. Having a consolidated point of reference for the whole space that’s marginally more organized than Apple Podcasts (née iTunes) is nice, though perhaps not quite the drop of water in the desert it’s made out to be, and I’m partial to the view that more competition on the directory and search portal-level is always good for podcast discovery. However, execution matters more than ideas, as the old adage goes, and there’s a long road ahead for PodSearch to make a good first impression. (And second, and third, and fourteenth.)

That said, here are two things to consider:

(1) PodSearch has potential to create genuine value for advertisers. In researching this story, a few people brought up the way in which it might quietly solve a discovery problem of another kind: Advertisers and agencies, I’m told, currently have to do a fair bit of manual digging around to generate a list of podcasts (and their respective contact information for sponsorship inquiries) to potentially buy spots off, and so a directory that’s able to provide an easily digestible serving of the menu on offer, with the relevant contact information, would be useful for this community. And given the Newmarks’ expertise and history, I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re able to create a decent market on the advertiser side of the equation.

(2) One way that PodSearch is interesting to me is how it can serve as a vessel to get the most utility out of search engines for its listed podcasts writ large. When I spoke with Dave last week, he spoke of a meaningful volume search queries for terms relating to podcasts on a general level — “What is a podcast?”, “How do I listen to one?”, and so on — and how there isn’t much incentive for individual publishers to aggressively capitalize on those generic paid search terms. And so, by assuming the position of a wholesale podcast directory, PodSearch is able to make those spends on behalf of publishers and extract value from those broad queries for its listing participants. There’s a lot of juice in this fruit, and I’m compelled to see if the utility here can be appropriately realized.

In sum, I really do think there’s a lot more value for PodSearch to pursue a more explicit business-to-business path than one that also tacks on a business-to-consumer dimension. Solving discovery for everyday users is a tough and deeply nuanced problem in 2017, and as far as digital media categories are concerned, we live in a world with high thresholds for user experience expectations — and it’s only going to get higher.

Two more things to mull over in your own assessment about the service:

  • There’s a cost associated with listing on the directory ($9.99 a month, which might feel steep for most that are already paying comparable amounts for hosting), and a small cost for advertisers to access the aforementioned point-of-contact information ($19.99 a year). I’m told that the costs are to qualify leads on both sides, and I imagine it also generates revenue for the platform to keep the lights on, which is fair.
  • The Newmarks are kicking off PodSearch with some major publisher partnerships already in the bag; in the press outreach email, I was informed that the company is fielding sales chiefs from National Public Media, Public Media Marketing, Midroll, and Panoply to talk on the record about the initiative. We’re talking institutional support here; let’s see how that shakes out.

Developments over at HowStuffWorks. Back in March, it was reported that Will Pearson and Mangesh Hattikudur, who founded the online curiosity Mental Floss back in 2001, were leaving the company to develop a new podcast for HowStuffWorks. That project is now public: it’s called Part Time Genius, and it appears to be some combination of game show and a piece of education media. In other words, the show sounds a lot like Stephen Dubner’s Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, and it fits into HowStuffWorks’ wheelhouse pretty neatly.

Part Time Genius will launch with four full episodes in the feed. That happens on June 7.

Meanwhile, HowStuffWorks has also relaunched its popular Stuff Your Mom Never Told You podcast, almost half a year after the show’s previous hosts, Cristen Conger and Caroline Ervin, left the show to launch their own independent media company, Unladylike Media. (You can find my story on that, which touches on questions of ownership and network arrangements, can be found here.) The new setup features Emilie Aries and Bridget Todd in the hosting seat, and they will be based in Washington, DC.

“Replacing a host or hosts is not easy, especially when you consider that so much of what makes podcasting great is the personal connection between listeners and the hosts,” wrote Jason Hoch, the chief content officer of HowStuffWorks, through a PR rep about the transition. “We really wanted to take our time finding new hosts that could continue on with the show’s message, but we also wanted to make sure we were pushing ourselves to continue to evolve the show. We felt from the get-go that it was better to take our time finding the absolute best hosts for the show instead of rushing into this.”

Hoch added: “For any podcast, it does take some time to settle into a rhythm and build chemistry between co-hosts, producers and listeners. But this is also what makes podcasting so special — it’s analogous to finding a new friend. It builds over time.”

An uptick in support for a new podcast delivery format. I don’t spend a ton of time digging into the technical and infrastructural end of podcasts, and I’d like to be clear here that I only have a pedestrian understanding of the issues. But a recent string of announcements have caught my eye: Over the past week or so, a few third-party podcast apps, including Breaker, Fireside, and Cast, have all added support for the JSON Feed format. JSON is a data-interchange format, a way in which computers exchange information with one another, and JSON Feed is an RSS-like feed format built on top of it. The trend was written up by noted technology writer John Gruber at his site Daring Fireball, which is how I initially bumped into the story.

As far as I can tell, there’s some philosophical significance here among technologists who are developing tools for the podcast space. But I wanted to get a broad sense of what it means for those outside that category of people, and so I reached out to Leah Culver and Erik Michaels-Ober of Breaker to help explain some things to me.

The main takeaway? It’s largely a matter of efficiency, as the argument goes.

“JSON is generally more compact than XML,” the team wrote back. (XML is the format that provides the foundation for RSS which, as you might know, is currently the primary format of the podcast space.) “All things being equal, the JSON Feed could be transferred between two computers 27% faster and the transmission costs would be 27% lower. In a competitive marketplace, these types of cost savings are typically distributed in one or more of three ways: (1) returned to consumers, in the form of lower prices, (2), returned to shareholders, in the form of a dividend, and (3) reinvested in the business. Each of these has either direct or indirect benefits to consumers and podcasters. Essentially, the argument here is that efficiency is an end in itself. There no reason for computers to communicate more verbosely when they could communicate more concisely.”

They added: “Beyond efficiency, there are no new capabilities unlocked by JSON Feed. If all goes according to plan for JSON Feed, consumers and podcasters won’t notice that anything has changed—other than the podcast services they use have become cheaper or better, due to improved resource utilization.”

So, what’s listed here is actually an abbreviated version of a much longer Q&A with Michaels-Ober and Culver, which gets fairly wonky and technical. You can find the full discussion in this Google Doc.


  • NPR’s Invisibilia returned for its third season last week, and this time around it boasts a unifying season-wide structure: playfully tethered to the idea of a “concept album,” this chunk of episodes will all revolve around the theme of concepts. (NPR)
  • Feral Audio, home of Harmontown, recently launched a comedy podcast focused entirely on stories and the happenings that go on in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Los Feliz. It’s a curious take on the whole locally-minded media thread; we’ll see if they actually harvest anything interesting out of the conceit. (Feral Audio)
  • Kids Listen, the loose collective that advocates for children’s programming in the podcast space, has a website now. Watch the space for upcoming initiatives and roster expansions by the group. (Kids Listen)
  • AudioBoom recently commissioned a study with Edison Research on listener demographics. It’s worth checking out in full, but here’s a data point that caught my eye: Only 22 percent of respondents reported that they currently have mail-order subscriptions to companies like Blue Apron, Birchbox, and Barkbox. That’s a lot lower than I would ordinarily think. (LinkedIn)
  • Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has a podcast now…and, uh, I didn’t think much of it. (WBEZ)
  • Not directly podcast-related, but I loved reading this: “In well-mannered public radio, an airwaves war,” a story about WBUR and WGBH, which have struck up a fascinating coexistence in the public radio-friendly city of Boston. (The Boston Globe)

How NPR considers what new platforms — from smartwatches to fridges — will get its programming

Here is a (far from complete) list of places where you can listen to NPR programming: Your old school radio. Your car radio. Your smartphone. Your smartwatch. Your Amazon Echo. Your Google Home. Your refrigerator?

If you own a Samsung Family Hub fridge (which features a giant screen on one of its doors), you can get a bulletin briefing of your calendar for the day, as well as an hourly news update, via NPR. (That’s in the United States. In Europe, the news partner is Upday; in Korea, it’s Kakao.)

“Folks in the building have the same questions. I heard somebody talking about the fridge the other day — ‘Is that true, we’re on a fridge?’ I said, yeah,” Ha-Hoa Hamano, NPRs senior product manager, told me, amused at my excitement. (Full disclosure: I have an explicable obsession with this fridge thing, which we first wrote about here five long years ago. I fixated on it when writing about Upday’s expansion across Europe, as well.) “But we take into consideration a lot when approaching these — the level of effort it takes on our part, whether the audience there makes sense for us, whether our audience is there already, whether we’re going to gain new audience from it. Generally, we try to get to ‘yes’ faster than we try to get to ‘no.’”

Samsung is already a technology partner for NPR, and approached NPR with a list of Samsung devices — “the pitch for the fridge was that the kitchen is the new hub for family and entertainment interaction early in the morning” — they wanted to see offer NPR. NPR One is available on the newer versions of the Samsung Gear smartwatch; the fridge integration was an easy extension.

“As opportunities like these come up, we can talk monthly, or weekly at times. For a lot of upcoming things, sometimes it works out for us to collaborate super heavily on a project, but sometimes it’s a little more far-reaching,” Hamano said. “We have a super lean team, so sometimes it has to be, ‘yes, but not right now,’ or ‘yes, but this may take a lot more time.’” The core team that works with new platform projects is indeed lean: Hamano, the same legal team that looks over contracts with partners, a designer — “the same few people working on a dozen of these projects at once.”

The NPR One API facilitates some of these partnerships. Through its API service, advertising (er, sponsorships) are built in for devices with or without screens.

Its developer center is open, and developers working on projects of any scale can first dip their toes into what having NPR on a certain device might look like. Then there’s a formal queue (of mostly of inbound requests) that ranges from kickstarted startups designing a quirky little device that allows for hands-free control of a phone to larger projects, like fridges and Lexus cars. The kickstarted device, for instance, “went out and ran a beta with users on personal keys for as long as they could, and when they were ready, came to us for full certification,” Hamano said.

Some projects, like an NPR One radio made using a Raspberry Pi, don’t require any commercial licensing, and any interested tinkerer is free to create their own little radio for personal use, a project that doesn’t require tech review and legal certification on NPR’s part.

On its end, NPR has to be cautious about maintaining technical standards for partner platforms, since “we definitely don’t want to be out there on a platform where users are super frustrated and think issues are coming from NPR when it’s a problem with the device,” Hamano said. Sometimes tech partners will pass along bug reports from users. (So far, there hasn’t been a technical failing serious enough to cause NPR to pull out of a partnership.) With projects like NPR on Amazon’s Alexa, keeping up with the evolving features of the platform itself is a challenge on its own.

Diehard NPR One or NPR app users, for instance, want specific features — being able to binge-listen podcasts in a preferred order, for instance — or want the exact same experience in their NPR app as on their Amazon Echo. A few listening habits have emerged there, according to Hamano, such as heavy usage on weekday mornings (halved on weekday evenings) and most usage shifting an hour or more later on Saturday and Sunday mornings.

“With all these platforms, it is a challenge for us to figure out: Is it the platform? Or is it the product?” Hamano said. “We always try to keep our baseline metrics about audience size and listening hours, and stay lean in terms of reacting to what audiences tell us needs to be addressed.”

A Santa Claus decor item and a vintage radio on top of the refrigerator in the Lustron Home at the 1950s exhibit at the Ohio History Center Museum in Columbus, Ohio. Photograph by Sam Howzit, used under a Creative Commons license.

Coming soon: Amazon Echo push notifications

Amazon Alexa-enabled device like the Echo will soon be able to deliver news, weather, or health-related alerts with notifications from their Echo smart speaker.

The move would make Alexa the first among companies like Google and Microsoft whose third-party voice apps can proactively send notifications.

Announced in a blog post this morning, Washington Post, Life 360, Just Eat, and AccuWeather will be among the first four skills with the ability to share alerts.

Users will be required to opt in to receive alerts.

“When available, users will be able to opt-in to notifications per skill using the Amazon Alexa App and will be alerted when there’s new information to retrieve by a chime and a pulsing green light on their Amazon Echo, Echo Dot, or Echo Show device,” said head Alexa evangelist David Isbitski in a blog post today. “When users enable notifications on a skill like The Washington Post, the skill will send status updates to the device. Users can simply ask, ‘Alexa, what did I miss?’ or ‘Alexa, what are my notifications?’”

The ability to make phone calls and proactively send push notifications were among predictions about intelligent assistants in 2017 made by VoiceLabs CEO Alex Marchick in the 2017 Voice Report. The ability to make phone calls and send messages with an Alexa-enabled device was made available last week.

In an interview earlier this year, Marchick told VentureBeat he believes the ability to send push notifications and connect with friends will be critical to creating the killer app for Alexa.

Another prediction from Marchick: These notifications should be limited to three or four a day, but unfortunately for users, just like mobile, voice app notifications will get out of hand.

“First there’s going to be the capability of a push notification, and it will probably be abused, and then it will get cracked down on, and then they’ll realize that you’ve got to do this intelligently,” he said.

Amazon has not shared an expected release date for Alexa skill notifications.

Mixed reality, computer vision, and brain–machine interfaces: Here’s the future The New York Times’ reborn R&D lab sees

When it comes to emerging technologies, there’s a lot to keep newsrooms busy. Virtual reality has promise, and so do chatbots. Ditto, too, for connected cars and connected homes. In fact, the challenge for most newsrooms isn’t figuring out potential new platforms for experimentation but rather determining which new technologies are worth prioritizing most.

At The New York Times, anticipating and preparing for the future is a job that falls to Story[X], the newsroom-based research and development it launched last May. A “rebirth” of the R&D Lab the Times launched in 2006, Story[X] was created to look beyond current product cycles to how the the Times can get ahead of developments in new technology. (The previous R&D Labs’ Alexis Lloyd and Matt Boggie landed just fine, taking high positions at Axios.)

Heading up the unit, which will total six people when fully staffed, is Marc Lavallee, the Times’ former head of interactive news. Lavallee said that while Story[X] will always ask how practical new technologies are, the group is more likely to err on the side of the speculative than the safe — a mental model that isn’t always easy to adopt in newsrooms full of people trained to ask pointed questions like: “Is this even real?”

While that skeptical lens is helpful, “we want to have a sense that, even if we feel like something isn’t ready today, if we feel like there’s some sense of inevitability, we want be thinking about it and experimenting,” Lavallee said. A lot of these developments will be outside the Times’ control, but if Story[x] does its job properly, there will be “fewer fire drills induced by some keynote from some tech company that changes the game and requires us to play catchup.”

In a wide-ranging conversation, Lavallee and I spoke about how the Times evaluates new technologies, which areas he believes are most ripe for expermentation, and what technology news organizations aren’t paying enough attention to. Here’s an edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.

Lavallee: With VR, we’re doing a lot of experimenting around telling individual stories that bring readers to another place. There’s a rich vein of exploration to be done there. I don’t think we’ve even fully explored that. That’s a good place to be working while we wait to see what the adoption of the current and next generation of these devices is.

The reason why I’m fixated on whether there are non-linear stories for us in VR is that that, to me, feels like the thing that’s actually going to drive wider adoption. Social experiences and gaming to me feel like the way that we’ll see this become more of a mass experience, I think. And I’m not sure that there’s necessarily a thing for us to do there. We have to keep doing what were doing and wait for other parts of the ecosystem to flesh out.

I do think that there is a tremendous potential for us in the AR space. That’s where we can do things that are more utility-driven, which is where we’re seeing today’s pickup through, for example, being able to place a virtual IKEA couch in your living room to see if it would fit.

Bilton: We haven’t talked too much about advertising, which is also a part of the mandate at Story[x]. What are the potential innovations there?

Lavallee: There are a couple of ways we’re working through it. I’m of the opinion that the full scope of the potential for the The New York Times in the 21st century is incredibly broad, because we have this brand flexibility. It’s something that is basically with you all day every day and helping guide every decision you make and being that trusted ally in your life.

We’re not going to do that alone. It does require a different kind of partnership with a bunch of different kinds of companies. The tech space is the easiest to find those kinds of opportunities. I would say the partnership with Samsung is the first of a genre of partnership that we’ll see much more of over the next couple of years, where neither of us would be able to do something like that 360 video of that scale alone. But together, we can each play our part in speeding the evolution of the technology and content in parallel, as opposed to waiting for one to happen and then doing the other.

Bilton: We’ve talked about a lot of different potential areas of innovation. Is there one that you don’t hear as much chatter about that you think has a lot of promise?

Lavallee: There’s a cluster of ideas that combine what’s happening in the quantified self movement and what’s happening in your brain at any point in time. That leads to the kind of brain-machine interface stuff that Facebook was demoing last month. They’re saying that within two years they’ll have a skull cap that will let you think at 100 words per minute.

I see that as technology that will let us understand how much attention you’re paying while reading or listening to something, what you retained, what you perk up at, and how the content experience can adapt and understand what kind of learner you are. I think there is tremendous potential to do that so the content is more tailored to your level of interest. That’s something that I’m not aware of media organizations diving into yet, but I think it’s a huge frontier for us. Over the next few years we’re going to be thinking a lot more about what’s going on inside readers’ heads.

Photo of Google Cardboard VR by Othree used under a Creative Commons license.

The state of voice in five charts

While it remains a specialized technology, voice is booming. EMarketer released its first forecasts for the voice assistant market, and it’s grown faster than many analysts expected after Amazon introduced the Echo to a wide audience in 2015.

Here’s what’s happening in voice, in five charts.

Amazon dominates, and cheaper devices are a major reason
It’s easy for consumers to try something new if it’s cheap. While the Amazon Echo ($150) and the Google Home ($129) cost about the same, the Echo Dot, the pint-sized Alexa speaker Amazon introduced last fall, beats them at a cost of just $50. Amazon dominates the speaker market on the whole, with nearly 70 percent of the market, according to eMarketer, and the Dot has been the driving force. “The Echo Dot definitely helped drive Echo sales since the release of the second generation model in October 2016,” said Josh Lowitz, partner and co-founder of Consumer Intelligence Research Partners. “Amazon priced it aggressively.”

Breakdown of Amazon Alexa devices owned. Research and chart by CIRP.

Younger audiences are playing with these things the most

Just as millennials and their younger siblings drove adoption of streaming video and augmented reality, millennials are using voice technology far more than other cohorts. According to eMarketer, nearly twice as many millennials (29.6 million) will interact with voice assistants on a monthly basis as their Generation X counterparts (15.3 million), and the usage gap between millennials and older consumer segments is projected to widen over the next three years.

By 2019, the number of millennial voice assistant users is expected to grow over 30 percent to 39 million, while adoption among Gen Xers will grow just 10 percent. Baby boomer use will remain close to flat.


… and they are asking questions
People are already using voice for a variety of purposes. Voice’s wide array of use cases partly stems from its availability not just in speakers like the Dot, but on all the major mobile platforms (iOS, Android and Windows), as well as a growing range of automobiles. While Business Insider Intelligence research suggests that over half of all consumers using voice technology use it to text, that’s something that you can only do on an Echo if you’re an AT&T customer.


Competition among publishers is already stiff
The number of skills available on a platform like Alexa has already soared past 7,000 in January, according to the voice analytics platform VoiceLabs.

News-focused skills are the second-most popular type of skill on Amazon’s platform, second only to games and trivia bots, VoiceLabs data suggests. Publishers like Hearst are already building centralized voice teams, which will be expected to develop products that can be used on both Alexa and Google, as the platforms begin to diverge from one another.


Users are unforgiving
You only get one chance to make a first impression, and that is especially true in voice. While many publishers are building regular user bases on voice assistants, it’s hard to get people to come back. The below chart, which shows new versus returning users for a Google Home app in late December, shows that just 3 percent of all skills users are active in the second week.

Those numbers may bend as the platforms introduce mechanisms for promoting skills. For now, research suggests any offered skills must be ready for prime time once they hit the platforms’ stores.

The post The state of voice in five charts appeared first on Digiday.

Can you hear me now?: Voice picks up steam as bot hype fades

In 2016, an unusually high number of bright, shiny objects were waved in the faces of media executives: Virtual reality! Live video! Artificial intelligence! Personalization! Voice! Bots!

Like all good media executives, many of them pounced, and by the end of 2016, publishers big and small were declaring they’d opened VR studios, built bot teams and unleashed crack squads of live video mavens to help them win the internet.

But now, reality has set in. By some estimates, augmented and virtual reality are a decade away from becoming mainstream technologies. Bots and the artificial intelligence that powers them are much more valuable to retailers than they are to media companies. Live video barely works for anything besides sports, and by the time you read this, Facebook and YouTube will probably have changed their minds about what kind of video they’d like media companies to make (again).

There is, however, one exception to this rule. Even though the number of voice-powered devices like the Echo, Dot and Google Home sold by the end of 2017 is expected to be far below the number of people that, say, go fishing every year (about 33 million), voice will have more effect on media — both positive and negative — than any of the other whizbang technologies that have grabbed so many headlines the previous two years.

Here’s why:

Voice works
While people expect artificial intelligence and virtual reality will be ready for prime time eventually, the speech recognition technology that makes voice possible is already here. In 2010, machines could understand about a million words at about 70 percent accuracy. By 2015, that number had risen past 10 million, and at about 90 percent accuracy, according to Google research that Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers analyst Mary Meeker shared in 2016.

Getting to 100 percent, where Google or Alexa (or something else we haven’t met yet) understands words we mispronounce, or utter by mistake, is probably another few years away. But today, it’s possible to ask an assistant about almost anything, and people are asking: according to Hound, a voice-enabled platform built by Shazam competitor Soundhound, its active users pose Hound multiple questions every day, on a wide variety of topics.

Andrew Ng, chief scientist at Baidu, says that half of all internet queries by 2020 will be done either through voice or speech.

The hardware is already here
Another big piece of this puzzle that’s already been solved is hardware. It could be years before Oculus Rift (which costs $600 and requires a powerful PC with serious graphics processors) become widely affordable and before smartphones that can handle live video streaming are ubiquitous.

Meanwhile, an Echo Dot will set you back just $50, and pretty much every smartphone on the market can handle cloud-powered voice queries. And if you don’t have your phone on you, that’s not necessarily a problem, either.

“It’s not just your phone, your Amazon Echo,” says Beerud Sheth, founder of voice and chat development platform Gupshup. In addition to the Echo and Google Home, Ford, VW and BMW are all working on cars that have Amazon’s voice platform, Alexa, inside them. Google Assistant, which is expected to become standard on high-end Android smartphones, is also expected to make its way into Android Auto, an operating system available in a growing number of connected automobiles.

And that, Sheth says, is just the beginning. Soon, voice platforms will be accessible from smart devices that we would never consider technologically advanced. “It’s your toaster oven, maybe even your table and chair,” Sheth says.

The advertising infrastructure is there
Whenever a new medium emerges, it takes a while to figure out what its advertising will look like (or, in this case, sound like). But voice has a head start. Thanks to nearly a century of terrestrial radio advertising, publishers including The Washington Post are already monetizing their flash briefings on Alexa.

And once Google and Amazon add the ability to programmatically target listeners, the money is going to flow. Audio advertising is already projected to account for nearly 12 percent of marketers’ budgets and programmers’ ad placements by the end of 2017, more than double the share it claimed in 2015, according to a survey conducted by Ad Age and The Trade Desk.

Add in the ability to claim an offer, or make a purchase directly through a media company’s skill, which is expected to be possible by the end of 2017, and it’s on: Suddenly, voice becomes a way to drive transactions, subscriptions, and other meaningful revenue sources

“What radio’s always been missing is a direct back channel,” said Pat Higbie, the founder of XAPP Media, a digital ad developer and a top Alexa developer. “What we have here is the intimacy of radio as well as the instantaneous feedback from users.”

The money for future innovation is already there
Amazon has set aside up to $100 million to invest in companies that it thinks could boost voice. An accelerator program, created in partnership with the mentorship-focused accelerator firm Techstars, will launch in July. And while Google does not have a similar voice-oriented fund, partners at its venture capital arm, GV, have said that they think voice is going to be the future.

“They are very invested in identifying use cases they’re not thinking about internally,” says Cody Simms, who heads accelerator programs for Techstars, said of Amazon.

The platforms are already there
If there’s one thing guaranteed to inject rocket fuel into a new idea or technology, it’s goliaths like Google, Amazon or Microsoft battling to own its ascent. Consider what competition between Facebook and Google did to increase the profile of streaming video.

That fight will be good for speeding the innovation that’s sure to occur on Google Assistant, Alexa et al. But what will be most interesting is seeing what happens when that innovation starts to really distinguish these nascent platforms from one another.

For now, there is very little that separates Google from Amazon. But once Google allows users to control things like Gmail, or Gcal, or YouTube from Assistant, or starts using people’s search histories to personalize each listener’s voice experience, it’s going to be very different from Amazon, which in turn will have access to an enormous trove of user purchase history, intent and other data.

“People aren’t going to want to have to interact differently, depending on what microphone they’re talking to,” said David Beisel, a partner and co-founder at NextView Ventures. “There’s a lot of complication there.”

But that’s not a problem for right now. For now, the stage is set for voice to take off. And while Amazon, Google and Microsoft’s long-term strategic visions for voice may differ, they’re all going to be focused on the same thing, for now.

“If they want to foster a rich ecosystem,” Beisel said, “they’re going to have to reward folks for it.”

The post Can you hear me now?: Voice picks up steam as bot hype fades appeared first on Digiday.

The Guardian’s adventures with Echo

Results of a Guardian survey using data collected between 19 October 2016 and 4 November 2016, with respondents primarily recruited from callouts on Twitter.

The three primary uses were:

  • When asked what the Echo was used for, listening to music and setting a timer were extremely common usages, throughout the day, but especially so over the weekend.
  • Flash briefings were a popular morning use, but beaten by the weather with 70% of people asking for a weather update between 6 – 9am.
  • What happens when you move towards the evening? Between 6 – 9pm, listening to music, podcasts and the radio were the primary uses. Not surprisingly, timers also featured heavily: the assumption is whilst cooking.

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