The market for virtual assistants (VAs) shows strong positive momentum, driven forward by a combination of rising consumer demand and improvements in the enabling technologies. According to a report from Futuresource Consulting, global shipments will exceed 2.3 billion units by 2023, up from a projected 1.1 billion for 2019, with a CAGR of 20 per cent over the reporting period.
“As the capabilities of smart devices continue to improve, the industry has migrated from voice assistants to virtual assistants,” says Simon Forrest, Principal Technology Analyst at Futuresource Consulting. “No longer limited to voice alone, virtual assistants now combine speech recognition with cameras and screen displays; 2019 is becoming the year of broader language support and enhanced conversational ability.
“We’ve seen Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant and Samsung Bixby all pledging support for additional countries this year, extending the regional market opportunity. And with multiple assistants in the home reacting in unison to generic wake-words, there is a growing requirement to uniquely identify each assistant. We expect to see fully configurable wake-words being introduced, allowing consumers to address devices individually by name.”
This new publication extends Futuresource Consulting’s previous reports on voice assistants and related devices in the home, adding smartphone, tablet, enterprise PC and automotive segments to the original data sets.
Personal Electronics Get in on the Action
“VA technology is making its mark on the personal electronics category,” says Forrest, “with many vendors using it to differentiate their proposition and augment headphones, smart watches and other wearables. Last year, shipments of these devices increased by 120 per cent year-on-year, largely due to an upsurge in headphones with virtual assistant capabilities.
“Conversely, the smartphone market has hit maturity. Apple Siri was the first platform released, back in 2011, and now Google Assistant, Baidu DuerOS and Samsung Bixby all feature alongside as capable virtual assistants in their own right. Although Android is the dominant operating system for smartphones worldwide, the landscape for virtual assistants is markedly different. Many smartphones adopt the Android Open Source Project to build customised versions of Android, and it’s entirely possible to replace the Google Assistant with another voice platform. It’s also possible to download virtual assistant platforms as an app; this is notable with Baidu’s DuerOS assistant in China.”
AV an Opportunity
Media streamers, smart TVs and soundbars also present an opportunity for VA, with many vendors and products already adopting the technology. Media streamers like Roku, Amazon FireTV and Google Chromecast present the greatest opportunity, as they favour near-field virtual assistants within the remote control, providing an intuitive voice interface. However, there are signs of far-field assistants being introduced into smart TVs. These appear to be early trials before TV vendors commit to wider deployment of the technology.
The smart home category presented itself as a proving ground in the early days of virtual assistants, affording consumers the ability to control home lighting, heating, security systems and smart appliances through voice alone. Last year the category almost doubled in volume, rising above 54 million units and achieving 96 per cent growth. Smart speakers continue to account for the lion’s share, responsible for 97.5 per cent of built-in VA shipments in this category.
Automotive Market Evolution
The automotive sector is experiencing an influx of solutions, targeting both native factory-fitted integration and after-market products. As the car becomes increasingly connected and automated, automotive OEMs are looking to in-car digital technology as an important part of the brand experience. Since 2017, CarPlay and Google Assistant have been widely adopted, offering a functional hands-free solution for utilising smartphone entertainment content.
“The long automotive product lifetime, more than ten years, and extended development cycles have always restricted in-car technology innovation,” says Forrest. “However, new business models and revenue opportunities are developing alongside the connected car. This is leading to a much greater level of focus on technology-based innovation. We’re seeing car OEMs shifting their core positioning from providers of a product to purveyors of an experience.”
The VA Future
VAs are beginning to develop beyond simple command and control mechanisms, transforming into platforms with advanced conversational ability and intelligent anticipation. Ultimately, voice-enabled products will be able to interject in conversations and deliver new monetisation opportunities for service providers beyond harvesting data on usage behaviours.
At the same time, consumers must become more comfortable with the data harvesting, monitoring and sharing that underpins the wider proposition of virtual assistants. This raises fundamental privacy and security concerns that could restrict development of the market. However, on-chip neural networks promise to mitigate some of the risks by processing data at the edge. Notably, both Google and Amazon launched smart displays that allow the cameras and microphones to be disabled, demonstrating a renewed commitment to user privacy.