Amazon has launched a start-up accelerator program focused on developing and building out its Alexa voice technology capabilities, according to the company blog.
Dubbed the Alexa Accelerator, the program is aimed at start-ups with expertise in speech technology or voice applications, which can help to innovate and design new functions for Amazon’s Alexa domains in return for the guidance and mentorship of a Silicon Valley giant.
The program, powered by Techstars, will begin accepting applications in January 2017.
The power of voice
Alexa is the voice service that powers Amazon Echo – the company’s smart speaker designed to enable applications around the smart home – but Amazon clearly has ambitions way beyond that.
The company has been investing in voice technology start-ups for more than a year through its Alexa Fund – a $100m investment fund to develop voice technology innovation, which now includes 22 investments – but this accelerator program, an Amazon first, is seeking to move beyond just investment to build working relationships with these start-ups.
In particular, Amazon said it wants to address areas like wearables, hearables, connected cars, health and wellness, as well as the connected home. This could involve creating new capabilities for the Alexa Skills Kit – a skill is simply a function for interacting with the device, such as the skill to play music – or developing an entirely new product or service. It’s about moving Alexa out of the home and into other real-world applications; a natural progression.
Alexa, Siri, OK Google…who do you prefer?
Voice technology services have been around for many years, but the quality and functionality has often been found wanting. These days that’s a different story as applications like voice-to-text and text-to-speech technology are widely regarded as easier to do than typing. It’s also deemed safer for things like authentication and security in banking applications.
Cameron Worth, founder of SharpEnd, a UK IoT agency, spoke to IoB about this importance. “Voice technology is a fundamental shift in how brands can play a useful and contextual role in consumers lives,” he said. “As brands fight to play a bigger role in our day to day lives the most meaningful interactions in the future won’t come from more screen time, they will actually come from less.”
It’s a competitive market, though, as you’d expect. Google has Google Assistant – it’s machine-learning powered personal assistant for the home – Nuance Communications has a whole suite of offerings for this Internet of Things (IoT) world through the company’s Dragon technology, and Apple is not expected to sit quietly in this department.
Martin Garner, SVP at CCS Insight, noted that Amazon had moved early with its Alexa Development Fund in July 2015, and continues to build this out.
“Amazon was clear that it could expand the abilities of its platform much more quickly by tapping into the creativity of the developer community,” he told IoB in an email.
“As other players move into the AI-powered voice assistant market, a race is developing to build a large following among developers. As we saw with smartphones, developer support will be a critical factor in the long term viability of a system, and developers are unlikely to support a large range of options.”
So who’s in the lead? For Worth it’s not that clear cut. “From a product perspective, it has to be Amazon,” he said. “The Echo has the largest range of ‘skills’ and partnerships with 3rd party apps and services.
“From an experience perspective, the leader right now is to be determined. Skills are pretty basic as brands dip their toe in, but there are some really interesting integrations on the horizon (some of which his company, SharpEnd, will be responsible for). Commerce is going to be a key battleground, but services will come to the forefront, I think, once everyone figures out the breadth of opportunity.
Worth is unsurprised by Amazon’s move, but admitted “I’m looking forward to seeing what comes out of the accelerator as a rich ecosystem benefits everyone.”
Through information sessions across London, Berlin, New York, San Francisco and Tel Aviv, to name a few, Amazon hopes to spread the word about the Alexa Accelerator and find the right people to help it grow the solution.
For those that wish to apply to the 13-week program in Seattle, applications can be made, as of January, here.