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Poly and Microsoft announce voice-enabled hearable devices

October 15 2019
by Raul Castanon-Martinez


Introduction


Speech-enabled intelligent assistants like Amazon Alexa and Microsoft Cortana are available on many of the devices used in the workplace. Most are devices that cross over between the consumer and enterprise segments – including laptops, tablets and smartphones – but some are designed specifically for the workplace, such as desk phones, meeting room equipment and hearable devices. In this report, we look at how a growing number of workplace devices that integrate with speech-enabled intelligent assistants – including unified communications (UC) headsets from Poly and newly launched earbuds from Microsoft – could influence enterprise adoption of voice user interfaces, leading to improvements in workforce productivity.

The 451 Take

Enterprise adoption of speech-enabled applications and intelligent assistants is still in early stages. Early deployments show that – unlike the consumer segment, where adoption is largely device-driven – enterprise adoption tends to be use-case-driven. However, speech-enabled devices such as the hearables from Poly and Microsoft will play an important role, expanding the surface for speech-enabled applications and intelligent assistants in the workplace. We expect this trend will continue, with more vendors enabling integration of workplace devices to speech-enabled intelligent assistants.

New hearable devices expand the surface for intelligent assistants in the workplace


We previously noted that speech-enabled applications and intelligent assistants have become standard features on many devices used in the workplace, but enterprise adoption of voice-enabled applications still lags the consumer segment. However, there are indications that speech-enabled interfaces are increasingly influencing human-computer interaction (HCI) in the workplace. In a recent report, we described how innovations such as speech-to-intent automatic speech recognition and predictive analytics are being used by companies like Voicea (Cisco) and Apprente (McDonald's) for enterprise use cases where voice input can be an effective alternative to keyboard or touchscreen interfaces for workflow automation.

We are also seeing a growing list of workplace devices that integrate with speech-enabled intelligent assistants such as the new hearable devices launched by Microsoft. The company recently announced its new Surface Earbuds, a set of Bluetooth-enabled devices that work with Microsoft Cortana –; the speech-enabled intelligent assistant that is integrated with Windows 10 and Microsoft productivity applications. The earbuds are voice-assistant-neutral and also work with third-party assistants including Amazon Alexa, Samsung Bixby, Google Assistant and Apple Siri.

This is not the company's first voice-enabled hearable device; last year it launched its Surface Headphones, which work with Microsoft Cortana. What differentiates the new Surface Earbuds – in addition to being voice-assistant-neutral – are capabilities that are specifically designed for the workplace. The earbuds contain two microphones, one to block background noise and a second one to detect the user's voice. When they are paired by Bluetooth to a PC or mobile device, tapping and holding either earbud will activate the default voice assistant on the device. This will enable access to Office 365 applications to perform tasks such as dictating into a Word document, reading and responding to emails on Outlook or running a PowerPoint presentation; other capabilities include live translation into another language.

Poly – the company that resulted from the merger of Polycom and Plantronics – recently announced that its Voyager 4200 Bluetooth-enabled UC headsets will now integrate with Amazon Alexa and Alexa for Business (A4B). Users will be able to invoke the intelligent assistant on their mobile phones by pressing a button on their headset and ask Alexa to place a call, send a message, schedule a meeting or manage their calendar using voice commands. Other devices that feature A4B integration include the Poly Trio conference room phone.

A4B is the intelligent assistant technology for workforce productivity use cases launched two years ago by AWS. A4B simplifies meeting rooms and helps users control conferencing systems and schedule meeting rooms. It integrates with other productivity applications offered by AWS including Amazon Chime as well as third-party video conferencing solutions such Zoom, Cisco Webex and RingCentral.

In September, Amazon announced several crossover devices that integrate with speech-enabled intelligent assistants. They include the Echo Buds, a set of wireless earbuds that feature Bose Active Noise Cancellation. Each earbud has two outer microphones and one inner microphone that work together to reduce ambient noise. They also allow users to access their phone's native assistant – Siri or Google Assistant.

Other companies that aim to bring AI voice assistants to workplace devices include Cisco, which provides Webex assistant – the company's voice-enabled intelligent assistant – with many of its meeting room devices to enable users to schedule and join meetings using voice commands. Google Cloud is also making headway in the use of voice user interfaces to redefine HCI across its product portfolio. Earlier this year, it announced the integration of Google Assistant with G Suite. Currently in beta, it allows users to get up-to-date information on their appointments using voice commands and will work across different Google Assistant surfaces – including automotive and Google Home Hub. Last year the company announced the use of voice commands in Hangouts Meet hardware for managing video meetings.

Security and integration remain key challenges for enterprise adoption


The integration of workplace devices with speech-enabled intelligent assistants is convenient for the end user, but in the near term will have a limited impact in terms of productivity and employee engagement. Speech-enabled applications and intelligent assistants will become more useful in the workplace when they provide integration to business applications and data sources; this entails secure access and some form of user and device authentication. Nonetheless, devices that are designed specifically for the workplace – such as the hearables from Poly and Microsoft – will play an important role, expanding the surface for speech-enabled intelligent assistants. This will open opportunities for organizations to explore use cases where speech can be an effective alternative for human-computer interaction. They will also reinforce user familiarity with speech-enabled applications and intelligent assistants in the workplace.