April 22, 2021 at 05:42PM

Voice spent much of the last week or so making itself heard in a variety of applications designed to be more relevant to consumers’ day-to-day lives. The new features rolling out across voice platforms are helping users do everything from choosing the right wine pairing for their dinner to finding a COVID-19 vaccine site.

And with more capability comes more investment and increasing competition, as players big and small race to construct that killer voice use case.

Alexa, Can You Schedule My Vaccine?

Long committed to being America’s favorite digital helper, Alexa this week has added a new capability as COVID-19 vaccine eligibility has opened up to all adults nationwide. Consumers can now get Alexa’s help with finding vaccination sites just by saying “where can I get a COVID vaccine?” to their smart speaker or another supporting device. Alexa can also filter the search by a specific city. Customers can also say, “Alexa, call the first one” to connect to a location and learn more about vaccine or appointment availability.

According to Amazon’s blog, the expansion into helping consumers connect with vaccines comes as part and parcel of the company’s efforts to help Alexa become a resource for consumers during the pandemic period.

“Customers have continuously turned to Alexa for accurate and timely information about COVID-19. In fact, in the last year, Alexa has answered tens of millions of questions related to COVID-19 from customers around the world. To ensure Alexa always has the information customers need, we worked quickly to grow Alexa’s knowledge about COVID-19,” the blog noted.

The vaccine-finding feature joins other COVID-related Alexa skills, such as finding information on vaccine availability and eligibility requirements for more than 85 countries and scheduling tests at the closest testing facility.

And Alexa wasn’t the only assistant in town looking to level up its usefulness this week.

More Ways to Automate Google Assistant

While Google Assistant can already do all kinds of things for its users — place calls, make dining reservations, summon an Uber and more — the customer doesn’t always want to talk, or it might not be convenient or appropriate to vocalize a command. That’s why Google is developing a feature called “My actions” that, according to the firm, can be configured to do anything that Assistant can do, with a tap of a button on the home screen.

Though reports are still emerging on the new addition, it seems to be similar to features already available through Assistant Routines, which was rolled out last year to make it easy for users to trigger multiple tasks with a single voice command. That program also allowed users to place one-tap access commands on the home screen. “My actions” seems designed to make that existing process more straightforward.

In other Google Assistant news this week, it looks like Assistant Driving Mode, which launched in the U.S. about a year ago, is finally gearing up for global expansion. Created to replaced Android Auto’s on-phone mode, Assistant Driving Mode can help drivers read and send messages, make calls and control media with their voice so they don’t have to leave the navigation screen. As of the latest announcement, Android users in English in Australia, Great Britain, Ireland, India and Singapore should be able to access the early preview of the expanded feature.

NVIDIA’s Big Voice Bet With Mozilla 

Mozilla and NVIDIA announced a partnership this week that will see NVIDIA investing $1.5 million in Mozilla’s Common Voice open-source initiative in an effort to democratize and diversify voice technology development. The open-source platform is aimed at helping startups develop high-quality speech recognition technologies, particularly in non-English-speaking corners of the world.

Common Voice aims to level the playing field by mitigating artificial intelligence (AI) bias, enabling anyone to donate their voices to a free, publicly available database that startups, researchers and developers can use to train voice-enabled apps, products and services, per Mozilla’s blog. With more than 9,000 hours of voice data in 60 different languages, it is the world’s largest public domain set of voices, with over 164,000 people around the world having contributed to the project.

“This investment will accelerate the growth of Common Voice’s data set, engage more communities and volunteers in the project, and support the hiring of new staff,” stated Mozilla.

“Language is a powerful part of who we are, and people, not profit-making companies, are the right guardians of how language appears in our digital lives,” noted Common Voice Foundation’s Executive Director Mark Surman. “By making it easy to donate voice data, Common Voice empowers people to play a direct role in creating technology that helps rather than harms humanity. Mozilla and NVIDIA both see voice as a prime opportunity where people can take back control of technology and unlock its full potential.”

“The demand for conversational AI is growing, with chatbots and virtual assistants impacting nearly every industry,” said Kari Briski, senior director of accelerated computing product management at NVIDIA. “With Common Voice’s large and open datasets, we’re able to develop pre-trained models and offer them back to the community for free. Together, we’re working toward a shared goal of supporting and building communities — particularly for under-resourced and under-served languages.”

A Virtual Sommelier Enabled by Voice

Finally, in fun news from the world of voice technology this week, the Decoy winery is bringing wine country into the homes of wine enthusiasts via its own voice assistant experience. Using any smart device where Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant is enabled, consumers can converse about original recipes, exciting food and wine pairings, and tasting notes for all Decoy and Decoy Limited wines. The voice experience will also offer virtual tastings, classes and other events to help users better connect to the winery and its products.

Decoy is one of the first wineries to unveil a Voice Assistant experience to enhance and encourage consumer engagement, and will push the project via a national awareness campaign.

“At Decoy, our mission is to make exceptional wines more approachable by delivering the highest quality at an accessible price,” said Decoy’s Winemaker Dana Epperson. “Building on this philosophy, we are embracing this technology to create new opportunities for our customers to taste and learn along with us. After a year in which it was difficult for many people to come to wine country, we are excited to be pioneering a new way to bring wine country to the people.”

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