Amazon launches Alexa Custom Assistant to let brands build their own voice assistants


Amazon today launched Alexa Custom Assistant, a product that allows automakers and device manufacturers to create intelligent assistants built on the AI technologies powering Alexa. It marks the first time Amazon is granting third parties access to Alexa’s framework, and the company says it will enable brands to create assistants featuring voices, custom wake words, and capabilities that can coexist with Alexa.

The pandemic appears to have supercharged voice app usage, which was already on an upswing. According to a study by NPR and Edison Research, the percentage of voice-enabled device owners who use commands at least once a day rose between the beginning of 2020 and the start of April. Just over a third of smart speaker owners say they listen to more music, entertainment, and news from their devices than they did before, and owners report requesting an average of 10.8 tasks per week from their assistant this year compared with 9.4 different tasks in 2019.

Amazon describes Alexa Custom Assistant as a “simultaneous multi-assistant cooperation” service that allows two assistants — Alexa and a branded assistant — to work in tandem to fulfill users’ requests. Basically, the service allows a brand’s assistant to act as a product specialist with features unique to it, while Alexa handles tasks like setting timers, serving up notifications, and the rest of the experience.

Amazon says that Fiat Chrysler (FCA) will be the first to integrate Alexa Custom Assistant into its vehicles. FCA previously supported Alexa through app integrations, allowing customers to do things like start their cars or lock their doors using an Amazon Echo, and the automaker’s Uconnect 5 infotainment software added Alexa support to newer Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, Ram, and Fiat vehicles for controlling music, sports and weather updates, and more.

“Voice assistants are a key part of the digital experiences, but building a custom, intelligent experience can be a costly, complex endeavor … Alexa Custom Assistant enables access to the same voice technology that powers Alexa, as well as Alexa’s ongoing improvements in AI, privacy and security, and new capabilities that are delivered to the vehicle automatically,” an Amazon spokesperson told VentureBeat via email.

Alexa Custom Assistant adopts the core tenets of Amazon’s Voice Interoperability Initiative, a coalition aimed at ensuring that voice-enabled products like smart speakers and displays allow users to choose among multiple voice assistants. A whitepaper published earlier this year by the group — whose over 77 members include Facebook, Salesforce, and Microsoft — lays out suggestions for agent transfer and universal device commands (UDCs), which address user requests one assistant can’t fulfill without summoning another assistant. UDCs are commands any assistant recognizes even if the assistant wasn’t used to kick off the experience, including volume and timer controls.

On the one hand, Alexa Custom Assistant appears to be a play for the increasingly lucrative and expanding automotive market. While skyrocketing used car sales are expected to depress new car sales at least through 2022, VynZ Research anticipates that the automotive voice recognition system segment will grow at a 30.5% rate between 2020 and 2026, eventually eclipsing $39 billion. Moreover, in-car conversational assistant use is expected to become widespread within the next three years. Statista found that 54% of respondents in a 2019 survey expect to tap assistants like Alexa, Google Assistant, and Siri “all the time” in their cars “in the near future.”

Alexa — which was already available in Audi, BMW, Ford, Toyota, Lamborghini, and Rivian vehicles; Amazon’s cassette-shaped Alexa-powered Echo Auto; and a range of in-car devices from JVC, Kenwood, iOttie, and Nextbase — competes with Google, Apple, and SoundHound, among other rivals, in the automotive voice assistant space. In an effort to beat them back, Amazon launched the third version of its Alexa Auto SDK in October, which introduced a feature called Alexa Auto Client Service that uses standard Android intent messaging to interact with in-vehicle infotainment apps like navigation and maps, phone dialers, and HVAC controls. Alexa Auto SDK 3.0 also added support for SMS and new navigation and local search features, as well as a multilingual mode that allows users to speak in two different languages.

Amazon’s Ring also recently introduced new products for the car, including the Ring Car Cam and Ring Car Alarm. Both optionally integrate with Alexa; with Car Cam, users can say, “Alexa, I’m being pulled over” to trigger the cameras and save footage to the cloud.

On the other hand, Alexa Custom Assistant furthers Amazon’s ambitions of building bespoke brand experiences that leverage its AI innovations. In February, Amazon launched Brand Voice, a fully managed service within Amazon Polly, Amazon’s cloud service that converts text into lifelike speech, that pairs customers with Amazon engineers to build AI-generated voices representing certain personas. As the company explained at the time, Brand Voice allows organizations to differentiate their brand by incorporating unique vocal identities into their products and services.

While Alexa maintains pole position in terms of global smart speaker market share, Google Assistant and voice assistants developed by Baidu, Alibaba, and Xiaomi remain close competitors. If the bet with Alexa Custom Assistant pays off and brands embrace the service with open arms, it could cement Alexa’s lead for the foreseeable future while providing a valuable new revenue stream for Amazon.


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