Easier said than done: Building for the voice-first audience

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In fact, it was instrumental to his shift from the US to India to start Slang Labs with co-founders Giridhar Murthy and Satish Gupta. “I was really unimpressed by Alexa initially. Then one day I found myself trying to switch off the lights in my house by telling the voice assistant to do it. That’s when I realized that voice could be the future of interfacing,” he says.

A high-quality application

Slang Labs, which offers a voice-recognition application that, simply put, makes apps responsive to voice commands, isn’t Rangarajan’s first venture. In 2012, his Little Eye Labs became the first Indian company to be acquired by Facebook.

At Little Eye Labs, Rangarajan and his team had figured out how to optimize an app’s performance on Google’s mobile operating system, Android. “At the time we were building this, engineers in India weren’t even looking at testing their apps for performance. They thought it would be too cumbersome to test it across platforms. They only relied on analytics to judge their app’s performance,” says Rangarajan. Little Eye Labs broke that culture amongst developers.

With Little Eye Labs, Rangarajan correctly predicted in 2012 that most online activity would move onto mobile interfaces, away from PCs and desktops. “At that time, Flipkart was just launching its website, and Ola and Uber had not entered the market yet,” he says. Facebook’s subsequent acquisition of Little Eye Labs vindicated Rangarajan’s vision, thus putting an early stamp of approval on his ability to read headwinds.

Little Eye Labs reduced the inefficiencies within apps. With Slang Labs, his newest venture, Rangarajan wants to go a step further—he wants to make them listen and talk. This isn’t some punt in the dark. The opportunity is clear as day.

Efforts made for the digital conversion

Despite all its promises of turning digital, India ranks a lowly 47 out of 86 countries when it comes to internet inclusivity, according to a report by The Economist. Not a good sign for the majority of India’s 1.1 billion-plus population.

According to experts, a major reason for this is the lack of multilingual support for internet interfaces, products, and services. By 2021, Indian language users will amount to 536 million people—close to four times the size of India’s English-speaking internet user market.

According to a KPMG report, some of the Indian language internet users are already transacting and surfing the web in their own languages.

It estimates that the Indian language user base in digital payments and e-tailing will grow at a CAGR of 26% to 33% over the next five years, pulling in a new 120 million language users over the next five years. Something needs to be done to open the internet up to them. Text translation has proven clunky and clumsy. Voice, Rangarajan believes, is the key to unlocking the internet experience for vernacular users.

Many companies involved

He isn’t alone in this. There seems to be a wave of companies, both big and small, looking to realize the voice opportunity. Liv.ai, an AI-led speech recognition platform, was acquired by Flipkart this week for an undisclosed amount.

Flipkart hopes the acquisition will fast-track its plans to create an end-to-end voice-driven shopping experience. Earlier this month, Amazon’s Alexa launched Cleo, a new skill that enables the voice assistant to accept and respond to queries in Hindi. Amazon says that Cleo will gradually make a debut in Gujarati, Tamil, Marathi, Kannada, and Telugu, as its regional user base grows and adds to Cleo’s vocabulary.

But is the nascent voice ecosystem ready for these 120 million users? Or the 100 million after them? It’s a daunting proposition.