A series of cities have been installing floor-level pedestrian traffic lights to stop phone zombies wandering into traffic. But rather than our environment adapting to us, will smartphone technology be the voice of reason?



Being run over by a car while texting is one clear and devastating consequence of screen fixation. But there are more subtle implications too. “Smartphones actually transform interpersonal processes. The mere presence of a smartphone, even if not in use - just as an object in the background - degrades private conversations, making partners less willing to disclose deep feelings and less understanding of each other,” reports Virginia Tech psychologist Shalini Misras as part of her research in Environment and Behavior (Psychology Today). 

However, there is a light at the end of the tunnel (or at least a strip on the floor) as a new user interface looks to set us free from the omnipresent screen and offer brands a new way to engage their audiences. Voice technology is sweeping the world as assistants like Amazon’s Alexa and smart speakers like Bejing Linglong Co’s Dingdong capture our imagination. With no need for typing and swiping, voice allows us to shift our gaze away from our devices and get reacquainted with the real world around us. 



In the home, everything from refrigerators to television sets are integrating voice activation with the rise of the Internet of Things. In JWT’s recent Speak Easy research on voice technology, (carried out in collaboration with Mindshare), 69% of global smartphone users agree that it would be much easier if technology could speak back to them.

Of course, liberation from the screen is unlikely to be absolute with the introduction of screen-based smart speakers, but as augmented and mixed reality go mainstream, even referencing a visual won’t require users to look down at their smartphones. Seamless conversations everywhere will mean you won’t need to disengage from the real world. 

53% of global smartphone users believe voice technology will help people interact more with each other as they won’t always be looking down at a screen.

C J Frost, principal solutions architect/Alexa automotive at Amazon, says: “We really believe that the vision, and the value, is that Alexa is everywhere – the idea that you can have this consistent experience with a voice service wherever you are, wherever you’re engaging, bringing people together in the home, with the family, in the work place and out there, in the real world.”  In this way, voice holds the potential to power better human interactions and bring us together. JWT’s research showed 53% of global smartphone users believe voice technology will help people interact more with each other as they won’t always be looking down at a screen.

Think about the creative opportunities in this new consumer landscape. If voice technology becomes an integral component of our everyday lives, how will advertisers best capture our attention, and how will consumer expectations change when inanimate objects speak and delight us with useful and entertaining content? Lucas Peon, JWT’s executive creative director, says all advertising will have to become interactive – “a poster without voice will feel more dead than ever”. This may come in the form of digital signage, services via voice assistants in smart speakers and retail display units, or even connected packaging – at CES 2017, we saw the launch of talking packaging in the form of Cambridge Consultants’ AudioPack concept for drugs and medical devices. Brands need to consider how and where voice can genuinely augment the touchpoints along the
consumer journey. 



There’s also the consideration of the actual tone of voice and how it develops. How can voice reflect a brand’s DNA? Should it be casual, flirty, authoritative? Do you opt for male or female, young or old? Will the voice change over time and become more familiar, much in the way people speak differently to each other as they become friends? Or should it be a celebrity voice? The Grand Tour skill for Amazon Alexa uses the pre-recorded voices of Jeremy Clarkson and his cronies, while the BBC News skill uses a pre-recorded presenter’s voice. 

JWT’s research has shown that people have strong preconceived notions about what a brand should sound like – globally 74% of regular voice tech users say a device’s voice and personality should be unique. 

74% of regular voice tech users say a device’s voice and personality should be unique. 

Amazon is making strides in this area. Its Speech Synthesis Markup Language allows Alexa to sound more human and do things like whisper, take a breath to pause for emphasis, adjust the rate, pitch and volume of her speech, and more. Whatever the situation calls for, the key is to hit the right note. If successful, presenters can be music to their customers’ ears. 

The more voice technology sounds human, delights its users and delivers useful solutions, the more attachment will inevitably grow. Almost half (43%) of regular voice technology users globally say that they love their voice assistant so much that they wish it were a real person. 



More astonishingly, 29% of regular voice users globally say they have had sexual fantasies about their assistant. Is this what the future holds for intimacy? 

At least in the short term, there are signs that voice will make a positive impact on personal interaction as the screen becomes less pervasive. The 47% of global smartphone users who depend on voice technology at least once a month will be open to new experiences. While this might make new inventions such as strip-light traffic lights redundant quickly, we’ll all be spending more time interacting with the people (and brands) we love. The central question for our industry is: how can we capture their ears and imagination?  


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