Will this pandemic be the catalyst for a hands-free technology revolution?

A Female Craftsman In a Carpentry Workshop Using a Digital Tablet And Smart Speaker

Hands-free technology was popular long before the coronavirus pandemic. But now at a time when we don’t leave the house without covering our faces with masks, wearing rubber gloves, and wiping down every surface before touching it, voice technology is becoming more of a necessity than a luxury for both individuals and businesses. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends avoiding high-touch surfaces in public places, like door handles, countertops, handrails, and elevator buttons. How can we achieve this, especially in a business environment? Voice assistants like Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, Apple Siri, and Microsoft Cortana, can play a role. But how?

How hands-free technology will grow in business

Modern elevator glass cabins in a contemporary business center

Companies may leverage voice technology to prevent employees from touching common surfaces in the office. Lights, for example, could be connected to smart plugs so employees can turn them on and off using their phones instead of touching switches on the wall. Fully automated offices will extend that so voice commands can also trigger a security system, queue up the breakroom TV, and even select a desired floor on the elevator.

It’s also a critical time to evaluate virtual trade shows and online video meetings: can they effectively reduce the amount of employee travel, saving companies both time and money?

In this “new normal,” businesses may have no choice but to get comfortable with flexible work schedules and work-from-home options, too, further resulting in more usage of remote voice technologies. 

Overall, we’re likely to see more autonomous workplaces with what was once considered “luxury” solutions now viewed as essential requirements in the interests of public health. 

What hands-free means for digital transformation

As we continue to re-evaluate our relationship with touch and voice control, and more smart devices are enabled to work with voice commands, the mobile device, and, more importantly, the mobile network, will play a critical role as a hub for control. Whether someone is tapping a screen to get answers to a question or asking for them by voice, they’re using data just the same.

More voice control means premium devices with ample processing power, ultra-fast and reliable connectivity, and superior audio will become necessary for businesses of all kinds. 

Shared computers and company-supplied tablets and smartphones might be replaced by more open-minded Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policies to prevent the spread of germs. This will open the door for more flexibility in the types of mobile devices and plans employees choose to use.  

Employees who work from home at least part of the time will require the bandwidth and reliable connectivity to attend virtual trade shows and Zoom meetings. And they will rely on their mobile devices more to stay connected to the office and clients. Businesses may increasingly look to set employees up with robust and secure connectivity in the home and/or on-the-go to better enable them to work from anywhere. 

There are also unique commerce opportunities. If customers are visiting physical stores less often, they will seek out engaging experiences beyond clicking a link to buy something. For example, Nike gave fans the opportunity to purchase a hot new pair of shoes while watching a basketball game using Google Assistant; it sold out in under six minutes. BlackRock, which manages retirement assets, uses voice and conversational AI from RAIN Agency for search, retirement planning tools, and briefings about weekly news, giving clients more reasons to use mobile devices and engage with the brand when they otherwise might not have done so as frequently.

More voice control means premium devices with ample processing power, ultra-fast and reliable connectivity, and superior audio will become necessary.

Businesses can also offer virtual and real-time coupons or rebates, delivered by voice to Bluetooth-connected headphones when a customer comes in proximity to a store. In working with RAIN Agency, Starbucks re-architected its product APIs to better support conversational experiences. Since 73 percent of customers order the same thing every visit, they allowed customers to simply say “order my regular” to have their desired coffee order sent to the local café. RAIN says customers who bought via voice had a 16 percent higher monthly order than customers who didn’t. 

Addressing employee and customer needs through improved services

The fact that voice technology is already so prevalent is a good thing in our efforts to help reduce the spread of germs, especially as businesses slowly begin to re-open around the world and re-examine steps they can take to protect workers. 

Internet usage has skyrocketed since the pandemic was declared. By the end of March, Internet use had shot up anywhere from 50 to 70 percent, with streaming, in particular, up by at least 12 percent.  Instead of going to concerts, museums, and bars, people are live streaming performances and virtual concerts, touring gardens and art galleries remotely, and watching more TV and movies than ever before. And in place of business travel and face-to-face meetings are virtual Zoom meetings, trade shows, and walk-throughs.

To address these needs and the changing landscape, device manufacturers would benefit from placing greater emphasis on not only offering premium devices that will support the increased Internet usage, but also devices with sufficient speakers, mics, and processing power to allow for favorable voice control experiences. 

Future-thinking telcos, meanwhile,  will need to shift focus to offer better data plans and invest in educating customers on why hands-free technology isn’t just a luxury but also a necessity.  Ensuring the reliability and strength of network connectivity both indoors and out will also be a telco priority in the wake of such a massive increase in Internet use. 

Going forward, more people will be using their mobile devices to listen to music, tune into virtual meetings, attend virtual trade shows, hear about local deals, get product information, answer phones, navigate a building, and more, as they do whatever necessary to avoid touching public surfaces.  It’s the new normal, for now at least. As hands-free technology proves a useful way to help prevent the spread of germs and viruses like COVID-19, companies may begin to realize that it has many other business advantages, too.

About Futurithmic

It is our mission to explore the implications of emerging technologies, seeking answers to next-level questions about how they will affect society, business, politics and the environment of tomorrow.

We aim to inform and inspire through thoughtful research, responsible reporting, and clear, unbiased writing, and to create a platform for a diverse group of innovators to bring multiple perspectives.

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