Like any metropolitan bus system, it’s something people in Brussels love to complain about. Buses are either too late or too full or often both. But it’s tough to complain about a message of love.
Since last week, Brussels’ public bus company STIB-MIVB has been calling on people to send in voice messages — and an address. Then, the special bus goes out in the early evening in a big loop to spread all the messages and leave a trail of happiness.
Yes, with smartphones and video calls, there is already a plethora of ways to communicate. But a love bus with the voices of children and dear ones?
“It gives me pleasure,” said Asuncion Mendez, 82, after hearing a message from her great-grandchildren. She said it broke the dreariness of another lockdown day indoors and momentarily eased her fear of the coronavirus.
“It was a beautiful surprise. It warms the heart and makes people come together despite the lockdown,” said her daughter Carmen Diaz, who watched and listened with her from a open window one floor above street level.
Lorena Sanchez, the daughter of Diaz and granddaughter of Mendez, says it’s a great idea. “It can really have an impact on a lot of people, especially the older ones who do not have access to technology,” said Sanchez. “It brings something very special.”
The bus company has been inundated with requests, about 750 messages from the blowing of kisses to a request by a child for someone to become her godmother, spokeswoman An Van hamme said.
Public buses are continuing to run in Brussels, with passengers required to board and exit by the back door and adhere to social distancing while inside.
The “Voice of Brussels” program is even leaving a smile on the face of bus drivers, so often the target of abuse.
Why it’s hot? Talk about putting unused assets to work to fulfill a real human need during a pandemic
Soon, toddlers can ask Alexa for help cooking in their very own toy kitchen. The Alexa 2-in-1 Kitchen and Market, from toymaker KidKraft, weaves in the Amazon voice assistant into an interactive pretend kitchen and grocery store.
Making its debut at this weekend’s New York Toy Fair, the $300 deluxe wooden play set is expected to go on sale at Amazon.com later this year, and includes 100 play pieces that prompt various reactions from Alexa. Not included: Alexa itself, which would come from their parents’ Echo smart speaker, designed to sit at the center of the play set.
KidKraft created a program that works in the Amazon Alexa world that helps kids learn about cooking meals and shopping as they play, without having to say “Alexa” to get the assistant to react. Once the parent or child asks Alexa to start the KidKraft program, the smart speaker reacts to everyday words and phrases kids may say during play. So, if Alexa picks up on a kid saying “spaghetti,” “market” or “let’s play,” Alexa will chime in with prompts for a recipe, a shopping list of ingredients, or start up a game.
But Alexa is not just responding to kids’ voices — it can also tell which items kids are playing with and react accordingly. The accessories in the play set, which include fake food and cookware, are fitted with RFID chips, and sensors can tell which items are at the register or on the stovetop. The play set then relays that info to the smart speaker via Bluetooth. That means when a child places the pot on the stove, Alexa may say, “Now that the water is boiling, can you open up the fridge and grab some vegetables?”
The play set is also programmed with several games Alexa can play. For example, the “Secret Ingredient Game” challenges kids to guess which food Alexa is thinking of based on clues. Then kids have to scan the right item at the check-out counter.
To address any concerns over kids interacting with voice assistants, Amazon requires Alexa programs for kids — including this one made by KidKraft — to follow stricter content guidelines. Programs for kids can’t include any advertising, sell anything, collect any personal information or include content that is not suitable for all ages.
Why It’s Hot
As toy companies determine the balance of technology and analog, tactile ways to play, this kitchen set seems like a great first step into how to upgrade a classic toy without the use of screens or interfering with imaginative free play.
Last year, Ben Zhao decided to buy an Alexa-enabled Echo speaker for his Chicago home. Mr. Zhao just wanted a digital assistant to play music, but his wife, Heather Zheng, was not enthused. “She freaked out,” he said.
Ms. Zheng characterized her reaction differently. First she objected to having the device in their house, she said. Then, when Mr. Zhao put the Echo in a work space they shared, she made her position perfectly clear:“I said, ‘I don’t want that in the office. Please unplug it. I know the microphone is constantly on.’”
Mr. Zhao and Ms. Zheng are computer science professors at the University of Chicago, and they decided to channel their disagreement into something productive. With the help of an assistant professor, Pedro Lopes, they designed a piece of digital armor: a “bracelet of silence” that will jam the Echo or any other microphones in the vicinity from listening in on the wearer’s conversations.
The bracelet is like an anti-smartwatch, both in its cyberpunk aesthetic and in its purpose of defeating technology. A large, somewhat ungainly white cuff with spiky transducers, the bracelet has 24 speakers that emit ultrasonic signals when the wearer turns it on. The sound is imperceptible to most ears, with the possible exception of young people and dogs, but nearby microphones will detect the high-frequency sound instead of other noises.
“It’s so easy to record these days,” Mr. Lopes said. “This is a useful defense. When you have something private to say, you can activate it in real time. When they play back the recording, the sound is going to be gone.”
During a phone interview, Mr. Lopes turned on the bracelet, resulting in static-like white noise for the listener on the other end.
As American homes are steadily outfitted with recording equipment, the surveillance state has taken on an air of domesticity. Google and Amazon have sold millions of Nest and Ring security cameras, while an estimated one in five American adults now owns a smart speaker. Knocking on someone’s door or chatting in someone’s kitchen now involves the distinct possibility of being recorded.
It all presents new questions of etiquette about whether and how to warn guests that their faces and words could end up on a tech company’s servers, or even in the hands of strangers.
By design, smart speakers have microphones that are always on, listening for so-called wake words like “Alexa,” “Hey, Siri,” or “O.K., Google.” Only after hearing that cue are they supposed to start recording. But contractors hired by device makers to review recordings for quality reasons report hearing clips that were most likely captured unintentionally, including drug deals and sex.
Two Northeastern University researchers, David Choffnes and Daniel Dubois, recently played 120 hours of television for an audience of smart speakers to see what activates the devices. They found that the machines woke up dozens of times and started recording after hearing phrases similar to their wake words.
“People fear that these devices are constantly listening and recording you. They’re not,” Mr. Choffnes said. “But they do wake up and record you at times when they shouldn’t.”
Rick Osterloh, Google’s head of hardware, recently said homeowners should disclose the presence of smart speakers to their guests. “I would, and do, when someone enters into my home, and it’s probably something that the products themselves should try to indicate,” he told the BBC last year.
The “bracelet of silence” is not the first device invented by researchers to stuff up digital assistants’ ears. In 2018, two designers created Project Alias, an appendage that can be placed over a smart speaker to deafen it. But Ms. Zheng argues that a jammer should be portable to protect people as they move through different environments, given that you don’t always know where a microphone is lurking.
At this point, the bracelet is just a prototype. The researchers say that they could manufacture it for as little as $20, and that a handful of investors have asked them about commercializing it.
On the 7 train into work this morning, I was greeted by the voice over the intercom, which I assumed was the train conductor, announced the next stop. Then, to my surprise the voice added “this is a local train so we are making all the stops, baby!!!” I thought an conductor was having fun. I was delighted.
Crowdsourcing strikes again. Incentivized by the lure of social-capital, users can submit answers to questions posed to Alexa to receive points and status within the network of answer-ers. The public, using the up-and-down vote system will presumably let the best answer float to the top.
Though, “In some cases, human editors as well as algorithms will be involved in quality-control measures,” says Fast Company.
From Fast Company: “Starting today, Amazon is publicly launching a program called Alexa Answers, which lets anyone field questions asked by users for which Alexa doesn’t already have a response—ones such as:
What states surround Illinois?
What’s the proper amount of sleep?
How many instruments does Stevie Wonder play?
How much is in a handle of alcohol?
From then on, when people ask a question, Alexa will speak an answer generated through Alexa Answers, noting that the information is ‘according to an Amazon customer.'”
Why it’s hot:
Will value-based questions be answerable? If so, owning the answer to ‘what’s the best burger in Brooklyn?’ would be very lucrative.
Can brands leverage this tech to their advantage? Either by somehow “hacking” this system in playful way, or by replicating such an answer system with their own user base, to plug into an Alexa skill?
On a broader level:
How much do we trust the crowd? Recent history has left many questioning the validity of “the wisdom of the people”.
Civil society runs on a foundation of shared understandings about the world. If we trust answers about our reality to come from the crowd, how will bad actors use such a system to undermine our shared understanding or subtly sway public knowledge to support their agenda? Alexa, does life start at conception?
Reebok is giving away limited-edition “Club C” sneakers as part of their campaign with Cardi B, and the only way to enter to win is via smart speaker. All you have to do is ask Alexa or Google Assistant to “Open Reebok Sneaker Drop” to participate in the giveaway of the Swarovski-crystal encrusted shoes.
Entrants will have to check in with their voice assistants on September 7th between 10 a.m. and 12 p.m. to see if they’ve won. The command “Ask Reebok Sneaker Drop if I won” and saying the passcode “Get my Club C’s” is the final step of the process to find out if they are one of the 50 winners or 150 runners-up.
Why It’s Hot
Limited-quantity product drops are key in sneaker culture. Adding voice assistant technology even further appeals to the exclusivity and excitement of trying to secure a coveted pair of shoes.
Voice shopping is increasingly becoming mainstream – by next year, it will eclipse $40 billion. And when shopping using Alexa, 85% of people go with its recommendation for products. So, Honey Nut Cheerios used Amazon Prime day to become the #1 cereal brand on Amazon, and the “cereal” default for millions of customers (80% of whom were new to the brand). They offered free Honey Nut Cheerios to anyone who spent over $40 on Amazon Pantry (as well as a $10 discount on their cart), automatically making Honey Nut Cheerios part of peoples’ order history, thus making them the default for those people who might say “order cereal” in the future.
Why it’s hot:
1) It’s hot: Honey Nut Cheerios is getting in on the ground floor. Before voice shopping truly becomes commonplace behavior, they’re powerfully establishing themselves as the default choice and #1 grocery item on Amazon Pantry.
2) It’s not: It feels a bit too aggressive. People choosing Honey Nut Cheerios when they were offered for free (with a $10 cart discount to boot) doesn’t mean they want them in the future. Should brands be placing themselves not just in the consideration set (as a recommendation), but solidifying themselves as the default for transacting?
During AWS Reinvent Conference in Las Vegas, Amazon announced Alexa for Business Platform, along with a set of initial partners that have developed specific “skills” for business customers.
Their main goal seems to be aimed at making Alexa a key component to office workers:
– The first focus for Alexa for Business is the conference room. AWS is working with the likes of Polycom and other video and audio conferencing providers to enable this.
– Other partners are Microsoft ( to enable better support for its suite of productivity services) Concur (travel expenses) and Splunk ( big data generated by your technology infrastructure, security systems, and business applications), Capital One and Wework.
But that’s just what they are planning to offer and the new platform will also let companies build out their own skills and integrations.
Why It’s hot:
We are finally seeing those technologies give a step to being actually useful and mainstream.
Since Amazon wants to integrate Alexa to other platforms, It can be an interesting tool for future innovations.
Google Home can now be trained to identify the different voices of people you live with. Today Google announced that its smart speaker can support up to six different accounts on the same device. The addition of multi-user support means that Google Home will now tailor its answers for each person and know which account to pull data from based on their voice. No more hearing someone else’s calendar appointments.
So how does it work? When you connect your account on a Google Home, we ask you to say the phrases “Ok Google” and “Hey Google” two times each. Those phrases are then analyzed by a neural network, which can detect certain characteristics of a person’s voice. From that point on, any time you say “Ok Google” or “Hey Google” to your Google Home, the neural network will compare the sound of your voice to its previous analysis so it can understand if it’s you speaking or not. This comparison takes place only on your device, in a matter of milliseconds.
Why it’s hot? -Everyone in the family gets a personal assistant.
-Imagine how it might work in a small business / office
-Once it starts recognizing more than six voices, can every department have its own AI assistant?
The Phillips Innovation Fellows Competition invites makers and inventors interested in health and well-being to prove their ideas in the testing ground of crowdfunding, then picks one from those successful to back with prize money intended to accelerate bringing an innovation to market. This year’s winner is Talkitt.
Talkitt is a voice recognition software that translates what people with speech disorders mean and turns it into sounds that voice-to-text applications (and people not used to listening) can understand. It works much like any voice-to-text program, by attuning itself to the peculiarities of an individual’s pronunciation and word choice, but is optimized to understand the sounds made by people with challenges in standard pronunciation.
According to statistics from the National Institutes for Health, approximately 7.5 million people in the United States alone suffer some kind of impediment to using their voices. As technology becomes progressively more voice-driven, people with these disabilities become ever more disenfranchised. Talkitt can reverse this trend by not only connecting those individuals more fully to available tech, but also by helping them connect more fully with the people in their lives.
Voiceitt’s Indiegogo campaign raised over $25,000 dollars during the crowdfunding phase, and received a $60,000 prize plus publicity assistance and mentoring from Phillips executives to bring TalkItt to market.
Voice recognition and interpretation has been a hot topic in recent weeks and months– from real-time translations (Skype and texting apps) to home entertainment (Xbox) to shopping (The North Face). So has the topic of using technology to track and improve health. This is an interesting integration of the two and has implications for life improvement.
SemaConnect, which makes electric vehicle charging stations, has launched an application on Google Glass to make it easier for drivers to navigate to the closest charging stations at a nearby Walgreens or Dunkin’ Donuts.
The app leverages augmented reality to make navigation faster and easier, with users able to locate the closest charging stations within a 20-mile radius. Users can also enable turn-by-turn navigation to station locations and initiate a charging session.
When a driver gets to the station, then the user says “Control my car” and the station begins charging the vehicle. If there is a fee applicable, it is automatically billed to the user’s credit card.
Why It’s Hot
While the Google Glass is still in its early days, and people are just getting started in getting and using this device and figuring out its capabilities, electric vehicle owners are most likely early adopters anyways.
The big advantage to using the Google Glass is that the user need not take her hands off the wheel or her eyes off the road. And the app is also driven largely by voice commands.
Outdoor gear and apparel retailer The North Face continues to see strong results from its use of natural language and voice-enabled search, helping its sites across mobile and desktop in several European counties to deliver a 35 percent increase in search conversion rate and 24 percent increase in revenue from search.
EasyAsk has been deployed across 11 sites in nine countries, including Britain, Germany, Netherlands, Sweden, France, Italy, Spain and Austria. As a result, visitors to these sites can use specific terms for what they are looking for in their local language as opposed to using traditional keyword search.
Voice-enabled on-site search makes sense on mobile because users are familiar with speaking into their smartphones. The problem is still accuracy–I keep getting “pizza places” recommendations from Siri, whenever I search for Dry Cleaners…
For on-the-go users who may be trying to find something quickly, natural language search means they can quickly and easily find what they are looking for without having to use a general keyword and then have to scroll through a lot of unrelated results.–I get it for public restrooms: bit how urgent is your need for a new “warm winter jacket”?