Remember When Phones Were Actually For Talking?

I Am T-Pain iPhone with Auto-Tune application

Photo: iTunes

Remember when mobile devices were for actually making calls? Even iPhone fanboys will grudgingly admit that making calls is not really the device’s long suit. But even as mobile apps, text-messaging, and social media has taken off, things are coming full circle, and voice is back, with companies ranging from Apple to Google to mobile operators and developers taking notice.Voice has found its voice, so to speak. Here are four examples.  

1. What Steve Jobs bought from the Feds

Search is still the lion’s share of revenue that Google makes from its hundreds of ‘projects.’ In mobile, the company has launched voice-enabled services and search following similar moves by Yahoo with their Vlingo investment and Microsoft and their acquisition of TellMe. Steve Jobs is betting that voice will create the next frontier of innovation in the search market. Apps are now fully-fledged personal assistants. Perhaps one of the most interesting voice-based search applications is Siri, founded in 2007 and acquired by Apple this year for a rumoured $200M, reportedly the largest single app M&A to date.

What Siri proved is that voice-based commands will evolve drastically as smartphones evolve. It also takes a new and useful approach to voice recognition apps by connecting a huge list of popular APIs to the commands users make. The underlying technology behind Siri was developed by SRI using federal DARPA grants and took years to perfect. That’s right. The U.S. government was the key innovator in the most economically valuable mobile app to date, considering Steve Jobs forked over $200M to outright acquire the application and technology infrastructure. Apple sees Siri in a bigger light beyond the app and could be a key component to the future of mobile search with a vision that super-apps can replace a search based consumer behaviour. Why search the mobile Web when everything you need is in an app?

2. Gaming gets to ‘holler’ while consumer dollars follow

What did voice do for games? It added a microphone. Sound manipulation turned consumer voices into hit songs and creative gaming characters. Smule’s “I am T-Pain” application enabled consumers to auto-tune their voices allowing everyone to sound like contemporary rappers and gained over 2 million paid users. “I am T Pain” allows users to ‘live the life’ and get a taste of the hip-hop experience. Not only was auto-tune technology previously unavailable to the average music fan, but the technology was never so easy to use and share via social media.

Outfit7’s Talking Tom Cat is riding the same social, voice-based wave. The app displays an animated cat that you can interact with in different ways. He’ll repeat what you say in a funny, customised voice, scratch you if you pull his tail or fall over if you push him down. Some may call it pointless, but the millions of downloads prove differently. The idea is simple enough, and the app (and the rest Outfit7’s characters) has stayed at number one of the iPhone entertainment apps since launch, in rare company with major gaming brands like EA, Ubisoft and Glu.

These are two examples of indie developers outpacing the major game publisher industry, and doing it on a consistent basis with voice as the key differentiator.

Why? In both cases, voice is the primary interactivity function. There is no better way to personalise one’s experience then by adding your voice. Even the big guys are taking notice. Disney Pixar’s Toy Story Read Along, has a built ability for parents to narrate the book in their own voices, one of the most popular features of the premium app.

3. Voice Blogging trumps Twitter when it comes to authenticity

Voice blogging is a phenomenon in Asia. Think of it as a voice-based Twitter. Users receive an SMS message they can simply click-to-listen when celebrities, brands, or friends they follow update a voice-blog – recording their status update in their own voice.

The trend’s is already exploding in India, with over 3 million users and 1.9 million paid users in the country. Established in both emerging and advanced media markets in Asia, voice blogging is integrated through the largest carriers in the India and Japan, with plans to expand throughout the rest of Asia this year. In India, it’s attracted the biggest Bollywood celebrities and is even upstaging Twitter when it comes to number of followers for big-name celebrities – and those users are paying to follow them.

For carriers, it’s monetizing social media. For consumers, it’s connecting people with the authenticity of voice. In a world where almost anyone can tweet on behalf of a brand or celebrity, nothing beats actually hearing someone’s voice update, driving deeper levels of loyalty, engagement and emotion.

4. (Not) Lost in Translation

Verizon’s famous commercial highlights the need for connection strength with, “can you hear me now?” The next question global travellers want to answer is, “can you understand me now?”

Being a road warrior myself, there’s no question that earlier incarnations of pocket translators are either not effective or simple too bulky to carry around. Translation apps have been a huge hit, and the best feature is actual voice translations that communicate tone, pitch and pronunciation. iLingual is a combination game and translation service and Jibbigo is gaining traction with the U.S. Armed Forces using it to translate English into Arabic to better communicate with Iraqi citizens and combat troops.  Translation apps have just begun in their cycle of innovation. I believe the best is yet to come with such experiences as they relate to voice including the ability to measure accent authenticity.

In a sea of one million apps, developers are increasingly finding it harder to stand out from the app crowd and get discovered. Voice-based technology has proven itself time and time again as a game-changing feature and a way to create something compelling, interactive, and viral.

Thomas Clayton is the CEO of Bubble Motion. He has started, run, and worked for numerous high-tech companies, including BEA Systems and Bang Networks.

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