Smart Device Evolution: The Rise of Voice User Interfaces (VUIs)

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11 Sep, 2023

Researchers experimenting with VUI for robotic control. Image credit: Azorin, 2013 et al.

Researchers experimenting with VUI for robotic control. Image credit: Azorin, 2013 et al.

Seamless and intuitive user experiences using speech-recognition technology are enabling us to interact with a device simply through voice commands.

In the dynamic landscape of smart devices, we have witnessed a remarkable evolution over the past decad. Smart devices have transformed from mere gadgets to indispensable companions in our daily lives. From smartphones, which have become extensions of our very selves, to smart home systems that cater to our every need, technology has woven its threads into the fabric of modern society.

In this ever-evolving market, the demand for seamless and intuitive user experiences with smart technology has grown exponentially. We no longer wish to navigate complex interfaces or juggle multiple devices; we instead seek interactions that mirror the fluidity of human conversation. Enter the era of Voice User Interfaces (VUIs), a transformative innovation that arguably holds the key to the future of smart devices. VUI is a speech-recognition technology that enables us to interact with a device simply through voice commands.

Imagine this: It’s a sunny morning, and you slowly open your eyes. But instead of reaching for your phone to switch off the alarm, you say, “Good morning, home.” And just like that, your smart home springs into action. The bedroom blinds gracefully draw open, the thermostat adjusts the temperature to your liking, and your espresso machine starts brewing your favorite coffee blend, spreading its aroma through the air.

From conversing with your smart home that is attuned to your every need to enabling seniors and individuals with disabilities to engage with technology on their own terms, the convenience and accessibility that VUIs offer are incredibly valuable. VUIs transcend the limitations of traditional user interfaces by harnessing the power of edge AI and natural language processing (NLP). They are leading the way in the journey to seamless human-machine interaction.

In this article, we delve into the evolution of smart devices and how VUIs are changing the way we interact with our devices day to day. We also shed light on the pioneering efforts of Edge Impulse, a cutting-edge platform accelerating innovation in edge AI - particularly in the development of VUIs.

The Journey of Smart Devices: The Rise of VUI

Over the past decade, smart devices have become ubiquitous, permeating every aspect of our lives. What began as simple touch-based interactions is evolving into a sophisticated ecosystem encompassing wearables, smart home systems, connected vehicles, and more. The market is witnessing an evolutionary shift as technology is becoming increasingly intertwined with our daily routines, particularly with the considerable development in user interfaces, enabling people to interact with their devices in smoother and more convenient manners.

From gesture control to acoustic event detection, all the way to enabling predictive maintenance systems in industrial applications, smart systems that leverage human interfaces are growing in popularity and redefining aspects of our daily lives and industry in ways never seen before.

And the smart device market is poised for even greater expansion. With the major growth in the Internet of Things (IoT) space and the rise of VUI technology, a more seamless interface between humans and machines is coming of age. In fact, the VUI market is growing by leaps and bounds. Valued at just over $13 billion in 2020, the VUI market is estimated to exceed $95 billion by the end of the decade, recording an impressive compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 21.5%.

Why are VUIs Becoming Increasingly Prominent?

A VUI is an extension of a chatbot-like, conversation-based interface. The user input it takes in comes in the form of voice. It then processes this input and responds with an output, which can be voice-based or shown on a screen as text or media, accompanied by the respective activity of the smart device. This simple voice activation elevates the human-machine interface beyond touch, resulting in seamless and harmonious communication.

The simplicity, convenience, and accessibility of VUIs have propelled this technology in recent years, causing it to gather positive momentum in terms of people’s perception of it. Here are some of the notable benefits of VUIs and their application in daily life or even industrial spaces:

  1. Natural and Intuitive Interaction: VUIs offer a spontaneous and intuitive way of communicating with smart devices, giving the interaction a realistic feel and a perception of a conversation with a virtual assistant.

  2. Hands-Free and Eyes-Free Operation: VUIs go beyond the traditional touch-based interface commonly used in screens. This is extremely valuable when access to screens is difficult, such as during driving, cooking, or other instances where hands and eyes are occupied. This can also be crucial where touch is undesirable, such as in cases where health-related measures are imposed, as was the case during the coronavirus pandemic recently.

  3. Enhanced Accessibility and Inclusivity: One of technology’s core objectives and attributes is accessibility. Enhancing accessibility for everyone and making technology more inclusive is what propels our society forward. VUIs are a game-changer in this aspect. People of old age and people with disabilities, such as visual impairments or limited mobility, may find navigating and controlling devices difficult with traditional user interfaces. Using VUIs, they can interact with their smart devices almost effortlessly by using voice commands.

  4. Higher Convenience and Reliable Delegation: With VUIs, people can control multiple devices in the comfort of their own setting and delegate specific tasks to their smart devices, which enables them to engage in other activities more conveniently and productively, untroubled by anything that the smart device can take care of.

  5. Reduced Learning Curve: Simplicity is crucial for the adoption of technology, especially in our everyday life. VUIs simplify device usage, saving people time and effort that would otherwise be needed to learn complex user interfaces or particular commands. This enables further inclusivity, as it provides a user-friendly interface for individuals of all ages and technological expertise.

The Baxter Robot played a key role in VUI research in industrial robots. 

What is Standing in the Way of VUIs Today?

Despite their tremendous growth, VUIs still have some challenges to tackle along the way. The enormous potential of this technology is clear, but it is essential to understand what difficulties are still necessary to overcome both in terms of development and application. Here are some of the challenges of VUIs that we have identified:

  1. Accuracy in Speech Recognition: Achieving highly accurate speech recognition remains a tough challenge, particularly in dealing with diverse linguistic and regional accents. Currently, speech commands are purposefully minimized to circumvent this issue. However, further development is needed to accommodate a wider range of voice commands, enabling VUIs to record and understand the voice inputs more accurately.

  2. Personalization and Customizability: Tailoring VUIs to individual user preferences is a primary requirement of such technologies, especially with the different priorities, needs, desires, and contexts every user may have. This can be quite challenging, particularly when factoring in the ambiguity that comes with the user's commands and contexts, rendering it hard for the device to deliver relevant and precise responses.

  3. Data Security and Privacy: At the basis of all human interface technologies lies the challenge of security and privacy. Ensuring that the data shared with these smart devices through VUIs is private and secure against any potential unauthorized access or manipulation is paramount, without which people would not have trust and confidence in VUI technology.

Edge Impulse Helping Engineers Unleash the Full Potential of VUIs

In order to harness the best out of VUIs and tackle the challenges effectively, developers need to consider a holistic approach that involves technological integration, a data-driven mode of work, and human-centered design. This is where Edge Impulse comes into play.

Edge Impulse stands at the forefront of transforming data analysis solutions for businesses and innovators, driven by embedded machine learning and edge computing technologies. With their cutting-edge platform, developers - even without a machine learning background - gain the ability to construct and integrate machine learning models into edge devices almost effortlessly.

A remarkable aspect of the Edge Impulse platform is its adaptability, allowing for the seamless implementation of VUIs in diverse settings, be it personal or industrial. The Edge Impulse platform simplifies the process of data acquisition and machine learning model development by incorporating various preprocessing methods and a wide range of tools and techniques to train, assess, and optimize ML models. It principally offers developers robust methods to collect real-world sensor, image, and voice data, build reliable ML models, and deploy them at scale.

Case Study: Turning Ordinary Devices into Smart Appliances

To enhance the convenience of home appliances, Zalmotek developed a project in which they designed and built a system that integrates basic voice control functionality in any device. They combined a dedicated IoT prototyping platform called Nordic Thingy:53[TM] from Nordic Semiconductors and an audio categorization model customized via the Edge Impulse platform.

They constructed and trained an ML model for speech recognition using Edge Impulse and capitalized on the multitude of benefits of the platform, particularly:

  • The ability to train a high-performing AI model with minimal data

  • Access to a wide array of tools for optimizing processing power and energy consumption

Such advantages enable users to build models that run efficiently on resource-restricted devices.

By integrating this ML model with the edge hardware from Nordic, the developers managed to create a solution that simplifies the user interface of any home appliance, unlocking countless possibilities to produce smart appliances with a convenient VUI.

Explore how Zalmotek designed and built this system by reading the corresponding guide: Implementing Smart Voice Control in Appliances: A Comprehensive Guide

A Peek into the Future of VUIs

It is no surprise that VUIs are an exciting technology that can transform how we interact with our smart devices. The integration of VUIs holds immense promise as we can realistically envision a world where our devices anticipate our needs, offer timely and valuable assistance, and seamlessly adapt to our preferences. Market researchers clearly see the value in this space as they estimate substantial growth for the VUI market in the next 5-10 years.

In this exciting era of VUIs, Edge Impulse emerges as a pioneering platform, fueling the evolution of smart devices through cutting-edge machine learning technology. As the demand for VUIs grows, the Edge Impulse platform will continue to be an invaluable resource for developers, streamlining the creation and deployment of VUIs by enabling and simplifying real-world sensor data collection and accurate machine-learning model development.

VUIs will no longer be a nice-to-have feature but an integral component of a cohesive and harmonious human-machine interface. Edge Impulse's unwavering commitment to empowering developers to build intelligent and accessible VUIs will undoubtedly propel this space into a more coherent and inclusive future.