Smart Speakers Go Beyond Waiting to Be Asked

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Alphabet Inc.’s

Google and

Amazon.com Inc.

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are experimenting with features for their smart-home devices that more proactively assist users instead of waiting to be called on each time.

Google’s newest Nest Hub device can automatically deploy radar to track users’ sleep patterns every night, once they set up the feature. The device uses microphones and sound, light and temperature sensors to monitor coughing, snoring and other factors that can affect how well a person sleeps.

The Amazon Echo Show 10 automatically moves its display to face the user, even if it is performing a task that doesn’t need user input, like showing a recipe on the screen.

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Proactive or not, features in smart-home devices need to address a real user need, not stack the product with unnecessary and potentially confusing tools, said Ashton Udall, senior product manager at Google. The company developed sensor technology to monitor sleep, for example, because its research showed that consumers frequently forget to use or charge the wearables often employed for sleep tracking, or find the devices uncomfortable, he said.

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Amazon and Google hope the experiences will help them compete for users and more fully integrate their devices into people’s lives.

Smart-speaker adoption continued to increase during the pandemic, with about 94 million people in the U.S. estimated to own at least one smart speaker in 2021, up from 76 million in 2020, according to data from Edison Research. Twenty-four percent of Americans own Amazon’s Echo devices and 13% own Google devices, with people who have smart speakers having 2.3 speakers per home on average, according to the data.

But while adoption has increased, device owners tend to try fewer new activities over time, researchers said. Proactive user experiences give tech companies another chance to present how useful smart devices can be, said Tom Webster, senior vice president at Edison Research.

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Seamless features that create less friction for common tasks is one way to encourage people to keep trying new activities with these devices, including common tasks such as video calls, he said.

“And if the device kind of invisibly makes that easier, that’s really the key to getting people to adopt new behaviors,” Mr. Webster said.

But consumers still think about voice assistants as command-driven tools, voice technology experts say.

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“There’s this delicate balance between how to communicate proactively that I can do these things for you, but also being at your beck and call and unobtrusive,” said Eric Turkington, vice president of strategic partnerships at RAIN Technology Inc., a voice and conversational artificial-intelligence firm.

Google announced updates coming to its smart-home devices with screens last year that proactively address some common tasks. The displays show different user interfaces that change throughout the day, showing the weather at one point, for example, and users’ upcoming meetings at another time. In the evening, the device suggests ways for users to wind down, such as listening to relaxing sounds.

Nest Hub devices also automatically enlarge the information on their screens when people are farther away and surface more granular details as people get closer.

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Proactive user experiences in smart-home technology are still nascent, said Toni Reid, vice president of the Alexa experience at Amazon.

“It can be absolutely magical—but you also can get it wrong,” Ms. Reid said. “And so you need to make sure that what you’re building actually does create delight.”

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“The more that a truly ambient experience that’s happening and it is proactive and it is helping the customer, it actually reduces the burden or cognitive load on a customer to have to think about all the things that Alexa might be capable of doing,” Ms. Reid added.

Product features designed to anticipate someone’s needs, like car headlights that automatically turn on at night, have been around for many years. But technologies like smart-home devices have a chance to help users with mundane, everyday tasks, said Ben Williams, global chief experience officer at R/GA, a digital agency owned by

Interpublic Group of

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Cos.

“We’ve grown tired of repeat functions,” Mr. Williams said.

Write to Ann-Marie Alcántara at [email protected]

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