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Published: 21 Feb 2018

MIT Enterprise Forum: Advancing Voice Tech

Google Home Mini

Voice is on the verge of becoming a primary tech interface, according to speakers at the Advances in Speech Technology MIT Enterprise Forum in New York (February 15).

Key areas of development include the emerging field of "conversation design" – creating personalised and context-sensitive dialogues between humans and machines – and the rapidly advancing area of intelligent speech transcription. We round up the highlights:

  • Voice-to-Visual Spectrum: Dan Padgett, head of conversation design at Google, said the company is building an ecosystem spanning voice-only (for example, smart speakers), intermodal (smartphones, for instance) and visual-only (like televisions) devices. The goal is to co-ordinate experiences across these platforms, Padgett explained: "If [users] ask about shirts at Gap, it might be better to move them to a screen and show what they look like," rather than verbally describing every shirt.
    Google also launched the petite Home Mini smart speaker last autumn, and announced screen-equipped smart displays similar to the Amazon Echo Show at CES last month, set to launch mid-year. Google Home devices are now available in 12 markets spanning eight languages.
  • Cracking the Conversation Code: AI-powered speech recognition is advancing quickly, with a word-error rate of 4.9% in 2018 compared to 6.1% at the end of 2016, said Padgett – who describes his role as "teaching robots to talk to humans".
    While technology can recognise speech, understanding what users mean remains challenging. For example, 'Springfield' could refer to a town in Missouri, Massachusetts or elsewhere; while a request to play 'Yesterday' is likely to mean the Beatles track – but the Boyz II Men cover is also a popular version.
    It's crucial for voice-led tech to acknowledge ambiguity, let users clarify their intent, and remember user choices for the next encounter. Slowing down the interaction is preferable to getting it wrong, given users' low tolerance for error.
Google Assistant on JBL smart display
Google Assistant on LG smart display
  • Designing Oral Dialogues: Designing for voice revolves around interactions that are "linear, always moving forward and ephemeral", said Padgett. Information must be structured to support easy recall. The "end-focus principle", for instance, requires that old or known information is stacked at the front, with new facts at the back.
  • Strides in Transcription Tech: Several companies showcased AI-fuelled speech transcription tech, primarily targeted at enterprise customers. Silicon Valley speech-tech start-up AISense is seeking to "translate all spoken conversations as usable data, regardless of linguistic difficulty", said Seamus McAteer, head of revenue and partnerships.
    Launched in February 2018, the company's Otter app records and transcribes audio – for example, from meetings or calls. AISense also powers a feature introduced in January 2018 by video-conferencing firm Zoom that offers automatic transcriptions of meetings held on the platform. This feature is likely to become standard for web conferencing in the next few years.
    Stenopoly, the first product from Philadelphia-based Lovoco, performs real-time bilingual captioning, translation and transcription. The company is primarily targeting the meetings industry and academia.
    Californian tech firm VoiceBase's software performs speech analytics, pulling out keywords and topics. A user can click on a keyword to find all instances of it in audio or video recordings, or search millions of voice conversations with a simple query. The company also uses deep learning to analyse conversations at scale and predict, for instance, which customers will convert in a given timeframe, or which transactions are fraudulent.

See 10 Tech Trends to Watch in 2018, CES 2018: Home Electronics and IFA Berlin 2017 for more on the rise of talkative technology. For an overview of voice-first marketing developments, read Advertising in the Alexa Era.

Published: 20 Feb 2018

2018 Olympics: Payment-Embedded Merchandise


Multinational corporation Visa has created a range of gloves, stickers and commemorative pins embedded with payment technology to enable fast, contactless transactions at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

At the event, Visa is showcasing the future trajectory of monetary exchange, whereby users pay for goods and services via embedded tech, leaving their credit or debit card at home. This is made possible through the continued development of near-field communication (NFC) chips, which enable any object to process payments when within a four-inch radius of a receiver.

Visa has released three different payment-embedded items suited to the conditions and culture of the Olympic Games. The commemorative pins are inspired by the custom of both spectators and athletes collecting pins as souvenirs of the event, while the stickers serve as flexible micro tags that can be attached to any surface for easy use. The gloves allow users to pay for transactions while keeping their hands warm in Pyeongchang’s cold climate.

Each device purchased is pre-loaded with a monetary value that the user wishes to spend, avoiding the need for the merchandise to be connected to their bank account. During the event, Visa’s merchandise is available to purchase from on-site stores as well as from vending machines located across the Olympic grounds.

Read NRF 2018: Tech-Driven Retail for examples of how emerging tech is shaking up the retail environment and creating seamless check-out experiences. For more on how digital innovations in packaging are transforming products into services, see Digital Packaging Futures.

Published: 19 Feb 2018

Thai Smart Visa Targets Digital Nomads

Growing numbers of consumers are swapping the nine-to-five for a nomadic lifestyle

Thailand's cabinet has approved a new Smart Visa in a bid to attract investors, start-up entrepreneurs, high-level executives and skilled professionals.

The Smart Visa does not require a work permit and will give recipients a four-year visa instead of the current one-year option. It also gives dependents the right to live and work in the country and extends the standard 90-day reporting period to immigration to an annual check-in.

According to officials, "the Smart Visa is intended to increase knowledge transfer and skill development in desirable fields such as technology and medicine". Eligible applicants will need to prove a minimum monthly income of 200,000 baht ($6,258). Applications for the visa began on February 1.

Other countries in Southeast Asia are also making efforts to attract digital nomads. Working in partnership with Malaysian urban regeneration group ThinkCity, the Malaysian Global Innovation & Creativity Centre (MaGIC) is aiming to repopulate Kuala Lumpur's centre by creating co-working spaces that will attract foreign and local creative workers.

"Digital nomads will come in and bring new ideas," said Duncan Cave, ThinkCity's programme manager. "The synergies between them and local Malaysians should be great."

The Work/Life Revolution is gaining momentum across the globe. For more on the flexible workers who are swapping the nine-to-five for a nomadic lifestyle, see Tomorrow's Wandering Workers and Digital Nomads.

Published: 14 Feb 2018

MoveCar: QR Codes Tackle China’s Parking Shortage

China has an estimated shortage of 50 million parking spaces

In a bid to solve China's parking problem, Alipay – the world's largest mobile payment platform – launched MoveCar within its app last month. The programme enables people to anonymously contact the owner of a parked vehicle that is blocking their car, and ask them to move it.

MoveCar's Chinese name translates roughly to "move a car with a code immediately" – which is exactly what the programme does. Drivers create a custom QR code, print it out, and place it on their windscreen. If a car is blocking someone's way, anyone can scan the QR code and contact the driver to let them know they need to move it.

By using a QR code, both parties remain anonymous and the car owner does not feel as exposed as they would if they'd provided their phone number instead, for example.

Chinese cities are famous for their traffic jams, but parking is an even greater problem, with an estimated shortage of 50 million spaces. With MoveCar, Alipay is aiming to tackle part of the issue. Consumers are already on board – the tool attracted 40,000 users within 10 days of its release.

For more on transport innovations, see our CES 2018: Automotive report.

Published: 13 Feb 2018

Nuro: Autonomous Delivery Van


California-based start-up Nuro has designed an autonomous cargo vehicle specifically for delivering goods from local businesses.

Unveiled last month, Nuro "is a self-driving vehicle designed to run your errands for you", co-founder Dave Ferguson said in a statement. "It is poised to change the way that businesses interact with their local customers."

The self-driving vehicle is fully electric, completely unmanned and its top speed is 35mph, which means it will stay off highways. It's half the width of a passenger car, to enable the vehicle to move around narrow streets easily, as it's designed to move goods between and among businesses, neighbourhoods and homes.

Nuro's interior can be customised to meet the needs of each business. A grocery delivery company, for example, could opt for a refrigerator and shelves, while a drycleaner could include a hanging rack. By automating these services, Nuro could help small local businesses compete with giants like Amazon.

Nuro was founded by two engineers who used to work for Google's self-driving car team, now known as Waymo. The start-up has raised $92m in venture capital, which means that it could drive the disruption of last-mile delivery.

For more on the future of autonomous cars, see our report on CES 2018: Automotive. 

Published: 8 Feb 2018

Truth About Britain: Consumer Traits Revealed

Some 62% of Brits are proud to be from the UK, compared with 58% in 2010

Ad agency McCann Worldgroup has released a revealing study called Truth About Britain – a survey on the mood of the UK that splits Brits into three cohorts.

  • The Castle Keep: Security and stability, legacy and heritage, and moral fairness and justice are most important to Castle Keep consumers. Some 62% of Brits are proud to be from the UK, compared with 58% in 2010. However, three in five feel like the UK is being eroded. What's more, 57% say their home is their sanctuary because the world feels like a scarier place – a figure that rises to 64% among 18- to 24-year-olds. 
    Castle Keep brands are expected to be companies that consumers can rely on – reassuring names that are regarded a 'classic'. At a time when three-fifths of Brits prefer a brand that feels local to one that feels international, it is critical for Castle Keep brands to reinforce the fabric of Britain and behave as a guardian of national destiny. To do this, they should highlight tradition, uphold core British values and unite the nation.  
  • The Rocky Boat: This consumer group values a spirit of risk and innovation, ambition and achievement, and transformation towards a better tomorrow. In the UK, two-thirds of 16- to 30-year-olds run their own business or would like to in the future, while twice as many 18- to 24-year-olds choose 'ambitiousness' as a defining British value than the average. 
    Rocky Boat brands should stand up for what they believe in, provide consumers with dreams, and have a strong identity and clear role in the world. They need to find ways to connect with consumers in today's age of entrepreneurialism, and inspire action in an era of uncertainty and frustration. It's time to celebrate risk-taking.  
  • The Field of Green: Members of this cohort value freedom, community, harmony and sportsmanship. Some 42% of Brits think freedom best defines British values, while two in three believe that in an uncertain world, it's more important to enjoy yourself today. 
    Field of Green brands need to bring society together, understand consumers' frustrations and have a voice on social issues. To cater to this consumer group, they should strive to create spaces for exploration and experimentation, foster community cohesion, and enhance the good-natured aspects of British culture. Empathy plays a critical role here (read Empathetic Brand Engagement for more). 

For more insights into the attitudes and behaviours of British consumers, see Engaging Non-Urban Consumers and UK Consumers Grow Impatient.

Published: 7 Feb 2018

The Black Paper: US Diversity Insights

Black Americans' spending power is expected to rise to $1.4tn by 2020

New York-based multicultural communications agency Bold Culture has published The Black Paper – the first in a series of white papers to educate industry professionals about the importance of diversity in advertising.

Released in January 2018, The Black Paper focuses on the underrepresentation of black people in the media, marketing and advertising, as well as their huge influence in popular culture. Key points from the US report include: 

  • High Spending Power: Black Americans' spending power is expected to rise to $1.4tn by 2020, up from $320bn in 1990. That's because this audience is now more educated than ever and continuing to grow at a rapid rate, with 2.6 million individual businesses in the US owned by black Americans. 
  • Hyper-Connected: There are 11.5 million black millennials (aged 24 to 37) in the US. Given that 55% of them spend an hour or more on social media each day, compared to 49% of the total millennial population, this is a demographic that should be targeted on social media.
  • Trusting Influencers: When making purchases, black consumers are 96% more likely than white consumers to be influenced by celebrity endorsements.
  • Underrepresented: Popular culture and advertising have long been influenced by African-American culture – from music to fashion and slang. However, Bold Culture warns that ad execs have not increased their spending on advertising to this audience; nor have they hired more diverse talent in their agencies.

For more ways to create and communicate a culture of diversity, see Diverse Talent, Superhero Staff.

Published: 6 Feb 2018

UK Female Boomers: Myths Exposed

Four-fifths of Elastic Generation women in the UK care less about what others think of them than they did when they were younger

Female boomers (aged 53 to 72) in the UK are refusing to grow old in the way that previous generations did. Brands need to take an age-agnostic approach when targeting this cohort, according to new research from global marketing communications agency J. Walter Thompson.

Released in January 2018, the report named this group of women the Elastic Generation to capture their resilience, strength and potential. Key findings include:

  • Big Spenders: This consumer group controls a huge amount of discretionary spending. Eight in 10 make most of the purchasing decisions in their household, while 55% are the main breadwinners. Elastic Generation women spend 66% more on retail goods than millennials (aged 24 to 37) and they are the most likely group to buy a sports convertible. These women also don't stop working when they get older: Barclays bank reported a 132% rise in women aged over 65 opening business accounts.
  • Tech-Savvy: Elastic Generation women don't like to be patronised when it comes to tech. Some 78% would never buy tech especially designed for older people.
  • Life Lovers: Growing older has made Elastic Generation women more comfortable in their skin. Four-fifths care less about what others think of them than they did when they were younger, while 68% use beauty products that make them feel and look good, not younger. Elastic Women embrace their age: two-thirds enjoy life more than ever now they're older.   
  • Feeling Invisible: More than half of Elastic Generation women feel their age makes them invisible to society. Brands are struggling to address their needs: 82% of Elastic Generation women think the clothes aimed at them are "way too old-fashioned" and they are rarely represented in advertising, with 67% saying that advertisers only care about young people. As a result, 72% no longer pay attention to advertising.

For more on the purchasing power of older generations, see Boomers Rising: Ready for Adventure and Senior Fitness: Channelling Wellness.

Published: 5 Feb 2018

Papier Machine: Electronic Booklet

Papier Machine

Two French designers have created Papier Machine – a booklet of interactive electronic paper toys designed to help people understand the mysteries of electronics by revealing circuits and letting people play with them.

Papier Machine is printed with silver ink, which conducts electricity. These electric circuits can then be easily manipulated by drawing on the pages in pencil, as graphite is also conductive. Vol.0 – the first of a collection the designers intend to publish – is themed around sound.

People will be able to create paper electronic instruments or sound games using just the contents of the booklet. Six activities are included: Resistance, Gyroscope, Playing Track, Wind Sensor, Writing Track and Tilt Switch. These are brought to life by using the accompanying button cells, metallic marbles, piezoelectric sensors and sound components.

The project has received multiple awards, including the Red Dot Design Award and Audi Talent Award. Its Kickstarter campaign was launched in January 2018, with the first booklets expected to ship in July 2018. Prices start at €45 ($56).

For more on educational tech toys, see Gen Alpha: Childhood Rebooted and Kids & Family Tech Trends.

Published: 30 Jan 2018

GroBox One: Next-Gen Indoor Greenhouse

GroBox One

San Francisco start-up GroBox has designed GroBox One – a fully automated indoor greenhouse that uses hydroponics to help anyone grow their own produce at home.

The GroBox One requires no soil, controls its watering schedule and air flow, and is more sustainable than other gardening methods. It also features LED lights that mimic natural sunlight, which makes it possible to grow plants even when the weather wouldn't normally allow it.

In addition, it automatically monitors and manages temperature, humidity, nutrients and pH balance in order to maintain the ideal conditions for growing healthy plants, without the use of pesticides.

Users only need to add water and fertiliser once a week, and adjust the greenhouse's settings according to the plants they choose to grow. No prior knowledge or experience of gardening is required.

The GroBox One's Kickstarter campaign has already surpassed its funding goal of $10,000, raising more than $75,000 at the time of writing. The greenhouse can be pre-ordered for $999 and will start shipping in October 2018.

The hydroponic equipment industry has grown at an annual rate of 4.4% over the past five years (IbisWorld, 2017). More people are aware of the health benefits of organic produce and are willing to cultivate their own vegetables, while marijuana legalisation across several US states has fuelled rising interest in hydroponic growing methods.

For more on indoor gardening and the products streamlining plant care, see Nature Embracers. See also Women Embrace Weed.

Published: 29 Jan 2018

Walkoo: App Supports Urbanites

According to Walkoo, urban dwellers "are living the fast life instead of the good life"

French start-up Walkoo is developing an app to encourage urbanites to slow down and explore their city on foot.

Users create a profile detailing their interests, with the app then providing personalised suggestions based on their tastes. The app, which is expected to launch in March 2018, provides city maps featuring off-the-beaten-track destinations – from street art corners and secret green rooftops to organic grocery stores and restaurants.

Most importantly, Walkoo users are expected to walk to these places. Using its WalkooMeter, the app measures the distance covered during these walks and rewards users with points that can be converted into gifts from Walkoo's partners, such as a free coffee or treat from a café.

Walkoo's idea is based on the philosophy of the Slow Movement, which advocates a less-is-more approach to life, focusing on the quality of life rather than the speed at which it's lived (see also Essentialist Communities). Walkoo's goal is to help people adjust their lifestyle and take the time to enjoy their city's unique character.

According to Walkoo, urban dwellers "are living the fast life instead of the good life", with research suggesting that they're more prone to depression compared to those living in rural environments (Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health, 2016). The company explains that "the city contains all the antidotes to the poisons of hectic life – all you need is to find them".

For more on how technology can help improve our emotional wellbeing, see Nurturing Mental Health and The Purpose Collective.

Published: 23 Jan 2018

Autonomous Cars for Retirees


Californian self-driving taxi company Voyage is rolling out its service in The Villages, Florida – one of the largest retirement communities in the US.

Voyage launched its autonomous taxis in a small retirement community in San Jose back in October 2017. However, The Villages – one of the fastest-growing US cities (US Census Bureau, 2017) with 125,000 residents and more than 750 miles of road – requires a higher level of driverless technology.

According to Voyage, The Villages is "the largest deployment (by area size) of self-driving cars in the world". It was made possible after the company raised $20m in its Series A fundraising round last year. Voyage has agreed to give property owners in the community equity stakes of 0.3%.

The taxi service employs human safety drivers to remain behind the wheel in case of emergencies. This is an important move, considering the first customers of its robo-taxis are over-55s – a generation that reportedly mistrusts self-driving cars. In the US, only 12% of boomers (aged 55-64) feel comfortable in completely autonomous vehicles, while 63% prefer assistance technologies that help the driver, but allow them to remain in control (MIT, 2017).

For more on the transformation of personal and public modes of transport, see our Radical Transport report.

Published: 22 Jan 2018

BYP: Network for Young Black Professionals

In 2017, fewer than one in 10 management jobs in the UK were held by members of black, Asian and minority ethnic groups

London-based entrepreneur Kike Oniwinde is developing a social networking app that aims to connect likeminded black professionals in the UK and elsewhere and help them find support in their careers in order to break the 'glass ceiling'.

Through the Black Young Professionals Network (BYP Network) app, users can not only form friendships but also collaborate professionally and pursue business opportunities together.

Oniwinde created the app following her own experiences as a young black professional in the UK and US. Looking to extend her professional network, she would often go to networking events, but found they were too formal and did not always reflect her own cultural background.

"A lot of young black people I met had achieved some success in their corporate careers or businesses, but many had the feeling of 'What now?'," she said. "They felt like they could do more, but there always seemed to be a limit to what they could achieve due to the culture of the workplace and the so-called 'glass ceiling'."

In 2017, fewer than one in 10 management jobs in the UK were held by members of black, Asian and minority ethnic groups (McGregor-Smith Review, 2017). Oniwinde believes the BYP Network will help black professionals inspire one another to fulfil their potential and ultimately change the public's perceptions of young people of colour.

For more on the importance of inclusivity and diversity in the workplace, see Diverse Talent, Superhero Staff.

Published: 16 Jan 2018

VIDEO: CES 2018 Trend Preview

Consumer Lifestyle editor Kate Johnson reveals two important trends emerging from CES 2018, the world's largest consumer electronics event.

As the autonomous driving era approaches, car brands are focusing on self-driving vehicles that offer functions far beyond transport alone. Both Japanese giant Toyota and Swiss automaker Rinspeed introduced modular containers on wheels, with cabins that can be switched or redesigned for different purposes.

Toyota's boxy e-Palette concept has numerous interior options, providing services as diverse as parcel delivery, ride sharing, on-the-road stores or mobile hotel rooms and spas. The arrival of this type of customisable vehicle will have a huge impact across multiple industries in the future.

Regarding personal electronics, we've noticed a rise in innovative accessibility tech, with new products designed to help an ageing population and those with disabilities.

A noteworthy example is Graphiti – a device from US non-profit organisation American Printing House for the Blind and tech developer Orbit Research that ensures equal learning opportunities for all. The book-sized product sits on the desk of a visually impaired child and contains tiny pins that rise and fall in changing formations. This allows students to feel pictures that they wouldn't be able to see on the board or computer, such as an illustration of cells in the body, or a graph.

CES ran from January 9-12 in Las Vegas. Look out for our full analysis of the event, publishing on January 22.

Published: 15 Jan 2018

Google Patents Everyday Heart Monitors

Google's optical sensors could be placed in the patient's mirror

This month, Google published a patent application that shows how optical sensors placed in personal devices or everyday objects could monitor and measure cardiovascular function. This would help patients to prevent heart disease and motivate them to adopt a heathier lifestyle.

According to the patent, optical sensors could be used from the patient's smartphone, computer or Google Glass, and could even be placed in their bathroom mirror, where the programme would be able to gather data without any effort from the user. The sensors could measure hemodynamics (the patient's blood flow dynamics) by assessing physical appearance, such as skin colour.

Over time, Google's invention will be able to determine a cardiovascular trend for the patient and share the data with them or a medical professional. It will also be able to make more direct health assessments. For example, a sudden colour difference between the patient's two cheeks could mean they are having a stroke.

Cardiovascular diseases are the number one cause of death globally (World Health Organisation, 2017), but most heart-related diseases can be prevented by making behavioural changes, such as adopting a healthy diet and an active lifestyle. One of the most important potential uses of Google's invention is its ability to motivate at-risk patients to change their behaviours by giving them positive feedback, as existing methods are not only inconvenient, but also expensive.

For more on innovative at-home technology for diagnosing, monitoring and treating illnesses, see CES 2017: DIY Doctor and Wellbeing Warriors.