There’s a confluence of technology advancements that are dramatically changing “search”: mobile, artificial intelligence, big data and natural language processing. From Siri and Alexa to Facebook M and Jibo, voice UIs and virtual assistants are the future.
Ahead of its public unveiling on Monday, the Washington Post ran a story on next-generation virtual assistant Viv. Viv could be described as Son of Siri or Siri 2.0, with much more focus on AI and commerce. It’s built by the same people who launched Siri before Apple acquired it, including co-founder Dag Kittlaus.
Believe it or not, Siri launched way back in 2009 with the goal of advancing the search experience using a natural language interface and delivering actionable/transactional results rather than a SERP. The Post article uses the example of ordering pizza from a nearby restaurant to showcase Viv’s conversational-transactional potential:
“Get me a pizza from Pizz’a Chicago near my office,” one of the engineers said into his smartphone. It was their first real test of Viv, the artificial-intelligence technology that the team had been quietly building for more than year. Everyone was a little nervous. Then, a text from Viv piped up: “Would you like toppings with that?”
In fact, this was always the vision for Siri. The idea was to enable people to speak their questions and objectives, which would then be fulfilled by third-party providers via back-end API integration, thereby cutting out the SERP. However, that vision was only partly realized before Apple acquired Siri. And while Cupertino has certainly improved Siri’s functionality and usability, it hasn’t invested to enable Siri to achieve its full potential.
Now, Viv hopes to pick up where Siri left off.
The company has been building its technology for several years. But rather than present itself as a next-gen search engine, or even a digital assistant, Viv’s positioning is much more focused on the AI angle. The company’s website says it “radically simplifies the world by providing an intelligent interface to everything.”
If this doesn’t sound like Google or a replacement for Google, I’m not sure what does.
The Post article says that there have already been acquisition offers from Google and others. It also reports that Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is an indirect investor. If Viv can deliver anything approaching its lofty ambitions, it will be bought in short order. However, Kittlaus and his co-founders might resist, hoping to see what the technology can achieve if allowed to mature.
Another intriguing angle in the Post story is the way that Viv (and related technologies) might not only displace search but might equally disrupt apps. With a voice-powered virtual assistant that can can fulfill transactions (“order a pizza,” “get Uber,” “make a hotel reservation”), apps hypothetically become less necessary, if not unnecessary.
The issue, as with the original vision for Siri, is deciding who fulfills the request. However, I’m sure Kittlaus and his team have thought carefully about this question.
In the pre-Apple thinking about Siri, users would be able specify a favorite provider (e.g., OpenTable, Kayak) to handle fulfillment. But because voice is an imperfect interface and complex transactions cannot, at least today, be fulfilled by voice prompts alone, it’s likely that apps (and the mobile web) will stick around for the foreseeable future.
According to 2015 research from MindMeld, use of voice search and virtual assistants is growing dramatically. In addition, Amazon Echo (with assistant Alexa) has proven to be the company’s most popular hardware device. And Microsoft just announced that Cortana “has helped answer over 6 billion questions since launch.”
All these developments show significant momentum for voice and virtual assistants. As that continues, powered by AI and better results (including predictive results), major questions will arise for publishers, developers and advertisers. For example, what will happen to SEM and the search ad model? How can publishers and brands optimize content for voice search?
Nothing will change in the near term. Yet the combination of the technology developments I mentioned above will all but guarantee that search, content access and commerce will look radically different in a few years from the way they do today.