Technology

What happens when every brand in your home gets a voice?

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Chris Monroe/CNET

During Amazon’s Alexa Live event Wednesday, Verizon announced a new smart display, sensibly called the Verizon Smart Display, with “Hey, Verizon” capability. That ability is powered by Amazon Custom Assistant, a “comprehensive new solution that lets device makers and service providers create intelligent assistants tailored to their brand personality and customer needs.”

The program was announced in January, and several brands hopped onboard, including global automaker Stellantis, Qualcomm, Garmin, as well as Elektrobit and Continental. We saw Verizon’s smart display coming a few weeks ago thanks to an FCC filing and while today’s announcement isn’t groundbreaking, it does mark the continued success of Amazon’s new business strategy of selling Alexa out to other companies for customization. 

Admittedly, this is much easier for companies than creating their own assistant. Amazon provides the bones, and companies fill out the assistant with their own specific traits and personality. But where does it end?

When assistants multiply 

With Amazon’s new build-your-own voice assistant, our smart displays and speakers could start to feel spammy. Amazon is basically selling Alexa to companies, allowing them to put their own brand on it and choose varying levels of brand-specific functions. They then take that voice assistant and put it into their own device or integrate it into existing Alexa-enabled products.  

On the consumer side, the question becomes: Are you ready to talk to all the brands in your home? 

Sure, there are ways this could be cute and fun. I’m not opposed to a conversation with the Charmin bears or Tony the Tiger. In fact, I have some real questions I could ask those cuddly brand ambassadors. Managing multiple voice assistants for specific tasks? Significantly less fun.

Like many folks, I have more than one voice assistant in my home. I chose that lifestyle based on the products I want to use and the amount of information I want to dole out to certain companies. But it’s a pain to ask Alexa to do one thing and Google to do another. I can’t see how adding more cooks to the kitchen makes anything easier. 

At a minimum, these new assistants should be a choice as well. Specific brand interactions should stay tucked away in a skill I choose to enable on my display or speaker, and purely just for entertainment. If I want to order something, Alexa should be able to do it without passing me on to a brand voice. 

The added complexity of needing to talk to a specific assistant within my assistant feels overwhelming. Is there a future where I need to address each brand by name to accomplish a task? If “Hey, Spotify” is in my future just to start a playlist, that changes how I interact with my smart devices. It’s extra brainpower I need to expend. Each time I want to do something, I need to remember who to ask. It reminds me of the annoying middlemen of some smart home skills that force me to remember to ask Alexa to ask someone else to do something (including Spotify, if you don’t set it as your default music player). 

Read moreAmazon outlines plans for Matter, custom Alexa commands at Alexa Live developers conference

Different isn’t always better

Even if we can manage our new cast of characters, who says that truly improves the experience? Is there something these assistants can offer me that Alexa can’t? It’s hard to imagine any real reason to talk to a brand rather than Alexa, since any brand voice is built on the Alexa platform and Alexa can surely perform the task herself. 

If, however, brands pay Amazon for exclusive capabilities, effectively walling Alexa off from brand-specific actions like renewing subscriptions or ordering products, we’ll soon find ourselves dealing with one speaker embodying multiple personalities. 

It’s a marketing department’s dream. Commercials will be filled with clever, funny clips that aim to push the charm of talking to your favorite cereal mascot or dog food brand. While a chat with Ronald McDonald sounds like a fine way to spend the afternoon, it could push us into an Idiocracy level of brand worship and integration at home. 

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The Verizon Smart Display includes a camera, speakers and a 4G LTE modem. 


FCC/Verizon

As for the Verizon Smart Display, the device is scheduled to launch in beta this fall, with broader distribution in 2022. It’s tough to get a real sense of what the smart display will do, exactly. We have a few details on specs and services, but not much else at the time of this post.

Long article short, I’m skeptical. Look, I could be wrong about all of this. Simple skills with voices from the brand that offer specific information could be helpful. We don’t know a lot about how these new brand voices will function in a real home. For now, I’m not ready to start the conversation. 

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