Voice Control and China at IFA

Well, I’d like to pretend that this editorial was carefully planned and thought through, but the reality is that it’s being hammered out in my hotel room as we desperately try to get both issues finished while still keeping our IFA ‘balls in the air’. We have shorter issues this week as we have mostly kept the news from IFA for our special report.

As well as the dominance of OLED as a display product, voice control was a strong topic and TCL showed a demonstration of the Baidu voice engine. If the demonstration was a real one, and not just a ‘mock up’ for the press event, then it was very impressive and it was easy to see why this would be attractive to a lot of users. The system seemed very good at understanding quite complex commands and seemed more sophisticated than Alexa (which is one reason that I wonder if was really a live demo). I have reported before that Ferdinand Maier, CEO of Ruwido, one of my favourite companies and a developer of extremely sophisticated remote controls, has said that voice is the best mode of operation when you know what you want. When you are not sure and want to browse or consider, it’s not so good.

I agree with him, partly because he doesn’t make statements like this without doing a lot of human factors research, but also because it seems to make sense. Voice won’t supplant remote controls and physical controls, but it can enhance the operation of sophisticated systems. It also has the advantage that cloud-based services such as voice control and recognition can be exploited by IoT devices and equipment with only a limited level of processing. Given the vast volume of good quality microphones from the smartphone business, the added cost if you already have an internet connection must be tiny. IHS Markit is forecasting a 15% CAGR for mems microphone volumes. Given that smartphones are not increasing at that rate, the company clearly sees a potential for a lot of volume in other devices. IHS reported the value of the market at around $900 million in 2015, so it’s a big business.

However, at the moment, the voice systems seem to be independent of the remote or other controller. I haven’t dug into this, but it seems to me that a combination of voice with mechanical, while difficult to implement, might be much more intuitive and useful than an either/or approach.

Anyway, it’s clear to me that voice input is going to be a big, big topic over the next couple of years.

If the Baidu system is as good as it looks, it could well threaten Amazon’s dominance. That’s something we’re not used to seeing – Chinese technology, especially software technology, challenging American dominance. At last year’s IFA, IHS repeatedly emphasised the need to look at what is happening in China and at IFA it seems to me that we have seen the first signs of this ‘on the street’. I expect to see even more at CES and at other events in the future.