29 November 2017 Startup 2018: The companies and issues to watch

Overcoming the teething problems of voice activation

Startup 2018: A flood of apps built around voice are expected to emerge in the coming year, while audio content is set to get a long-awaited boost.

‘There’s no doubt that voice platforms are going to be as, if not more, important than mobile or web,’ says Jess Williams, co-founder of voice agency Opearlo. Just a year after Amazon released its first Echo speaker, the technology is still very much in its early stages, but is pitted to be as transformational as the app store on smartphones. Brands, big and small, are in a race to create game-changing apps that will become the Ubers, Deliveroos and Airbnbs of this new territory.

While tech giants Amazon, Google, Apple, Microsoft and even Tesla – which has dubbed its voice assistant Elon – are building the platforms on which these apps will run, app development itself is an open playing field. Early entrants will target consumers in any scenario in which it’s best to be hands-free – cooking, driving, walking – but there’s also huge commercial scope for voice tools in construction, manufacturing and even surgery.

Day-to-day, with the help of wireless headphones and voice apps, Oyster cards could be topped up en route to the station, phone bills checked, and flight prices compared. ‘It’s like a background assistant, for all the annoying things,’ explains Williams.

For now, there are plenty of teething problems. Discoverability is an issue; a screen is still the most intuitive interface for browsing. It’ll also take some time for people to become habitual users of voice assistants – to check the weather, turn music on and off, set alarms, and more, as those apps are developed – and for privacy fears to be resolved.

Radio 2.0

Beyond practical uses, voice also opens up massive opportunities for content creators. ‘Audio as a medium has not really seen a spate of innovation,’ says Govind Balakrishnan, co-founder of audio content app Curio. ‘You can’t ask an article a question and have the article speak back to you.’ That day is coming, though – the BBC has already created an interactive radio play set for release in the next few months, in which the characters will ask the listeners questions, and their answers will steer the course of the narrative.Innovative formats could be welcome news for media companies.

Since launching earlier this year, Curio has partnered with over 30 newspapers, magazines and content platforms, including the Guardian, Medium and the Financial Times, to convert their articles into audio. It uses an algorithm to decipher their most listener-friendly content, and then employs voice actors to record it for podcasts.

Balakrishnan is targeting consumers in moments between screens, which he estimates amounts to four hours per day. That time, he reckons, is ideal for consuming Curio’s content: ‘We want media and publishing to fit around our lifestyles.’ With audio book sales up 20% year-on-year in the US – and 19% of those listeners having used a voice-related platform to access them – he might just be onto something.

Now, with a wealth of insight into what people listen to and how they listen to it, as well as which formats work best for which types of stories, Curio is helping publishers create original content to target specific audiences. It’s also planning to produce some of its own, drawing storylines from popular TV programmes across the world – call it Netflix, for audio.