Beginners Guide to Voice Services In the Age of Digital Assistants

Leveraging your voice to initiate a command, start a service or even change the channel has been around for years. I remember in my grade school days hearing the voice of my parents or grandparents to fetch them something from the other room, change the channel on the television or even just to be quiet. These days, kids have a lot of distractions, from tablets to noise canceling headphones, rendering those ‘old school’ personal assistants no longer available.

All jokes aside, digital assistants and voice driven interactions are becoming commonplace as voice services increasingly improve. BlueFletch has been fortunate enough to work with clients across an array of industry verticals to explore how voice services will impact their organizations. We’ve helped our clients leverage voice services for more impactful engagement with their customers, allowing them to engage customers in new ways and capturing metadata that would be lost during a normal human interaction. Other clients are increasing the efficiency of their workforce by adding voice services in order to allow a worker to be hands free, keeping attention on critical actions and creating a safer work environment.

A (Recent) History of Voice Services

In recent years, we are yelling less at kids and more at Alexa, Bixby, Cortana, Google and Siri. Every major tech company is working on its own digital assistant that is powered by a set of voice services.

      • Apple released Siri in 2011 and now Siri is apart of most of Apple’s operating systems (i.e. iOS, watchOS, macOS and tvOS)
      • Amazon Alexa was made popular by the Amazon Echo and the Amazon Echo Dot. Fun fact, the name Alexa was chosen due to the fact that it has a hard consonant with the X and therefore could be recognized with higher precision.
      • Microsoft lifted its character from the Halo video game franchise to launch their intelligent personal assistant Cortana.
      • Google Assistant was unveiled just last year. Different from Google Now, the Google Assistant can engage in two-way conversations.

This year has been the year of the voice for BlueFletch. We have been a part of many workshops and brainstorming sessions where voice is the centerpiece of the User’s experience. For those new to the space, I wanted to talk about the three technologies that are key to bringing these voice experiences to life.

Three Parts of Voice Interaction, An Explanation

voice recognition

Voice/Speech Processing

The first part of recognition is to efficiently and cleanly capture one’s voice. Overcoming barriers like speaking style, background noise and tones. Advancements in sound processing, thanks to more powerful devices, has allowed for tremendous improvements in sound processing. Most modern devices today have at least two microphones which allows for real time signal processing and noise canceling.

It is important to first capture a clean audio sample so that it can be processed with a higher degree of accuracy. Also, with the advancement of network speed voice processing can happen in real time. Meaning that as you record, you are sending your voice data directly to the server, which translates into faster interactions with systems.

speech recognitionVoice/Speech Recognition

Speech recognition has been around for quite some time. When we speak our voices produce sound waves. These sound waves are made up from the tones and sounds that are a part of the language we are speaking. The inflections in our voices, e.g. the way you use your bottom lip and tongue to pronounce the word ‘flip’ have patterns that are used to understand what you are saying.

Deep learning has finally made speech recognition accurate enough to be useful in broad everyday scenarios. Combining these speech patterns with patterns in dialect and grammar rules feed algorithms that continue to learn and improve the accuracy of transcriptions. In short, our voices or speech are converted into text/words.  

natural language processing

Natural Language Services

Natural Language Processing or NLP is a way for computers to analyze, understand, and derive meaning from human language in a smart and useful way. The words that are captured as part of the transcription service need to be understood by the application.  To do that, the words are broken down into two parts; intents and entities.

        • Intents are mean to define the purpose of the phase.
        • Entities provide context. If intents are the ‘what’ of the phrase the entities are the ‘who’ and some times ‘where’.

A simple command such as, “Tell me about today’s weather” is separated into intents and entities. The intent is weather. The entities are today and current location. With this information the application understands to provide today’s weather information at a specific location.

This seems easy but there are a lot of power algorithms that are able to quickly process this information. These algorithms and the data that is available are the differentiators between the available platforms.  When you combine the processing/capture, recognition and natural language of one’s voice things can start to happen.

Hopefully without being too technical I was able to explain what is happening behind the scenes when you are yelling at your favorite voice assistant.

Finally received my Amazon Echo (echo, echo, echo)

In my previous article 2015 IOT Purchases So Far , I shared my 2015 IOT purchases (Amazon Echo, Lockitron Bolt, LUNA). My Amazon Echo is finally here after spending 6 months on Amazon’s self-imposed wait list.Screenshot 2015-06-22 11.01.35

Background on Amazon Echo

The Amazon Echo is a connected speaker that acts as a personal assistant. You wake up the Echo by calling it’s name  – Amazon or Alexa; and then call out a command or ask a question. The Echo is connected to Amazon’s cloud and my prime account so it is very easy to order previous items or play music from Prime Music. And Amazon is consistently rolling out new features and integrations.

Initial Thoughts

The device is a lot smaller in person than I thought it would be. Setup was very easy and quick. I clicked through a few setup screens with the AmazonEcho App and Alexa was ready. Honestly, I am having a lot of fun just being silly with the Echo.

Integration with connected home devices, such as the WeMo lights in my backyard, was super simple. I pressed the discovery button and, after 15 seconds, Alexa said she found 2 WeMo lights. I can now ask her to turn on/off the backyard lights.

Another feature that plays nicely with how I work is the ability to play news, information and music. Alexa will shuffle playlists from Prime Music and play news from sources including local radio stations, NPR, ESPN and TuneIn. I love having background noise when I am working so I find myself using headphones a lot less around the house. The speaker is ‘Bose’ like, the sound fills the room and the quality is nice. I almost wish I could stream Tidal hi-fi to see if the Echo’s speaker system could keep up.

I have not used Alexa to add items to my to-do list or create reminders, but I have made a few impulse purchases from Amazon Prime. The ability to shout a quick command and confirm when Alexa ask me if I am ready to purchase is addictive.

For a lower barrier of access, Amazon would have to read my thoughts or just assume I need more coconut water, which is probably coming in in a few months. Or as part of prime membership, perhaps someone will come out to my house every week, make a grocery run and restock my house while I am at work.

What’s Next

Amazon has an Alexa AppKit and I have applied to participate in the limited beta. I am hoping to develop some custom hooks and create more scenarios that are not publicly available yet. (e.g. ‘Alexa, it’s time to go to bed’ locks back door, turns alarm on, lights off, trigger’s Nest thermostat, etc.)
I am enjoying the device and I am excited to see how Amazon continues to develop it. I may be over stepping a bit but I think, at least for me, this device could mute potential gains Apple’s HomeKit would have in my house.

First Month with the Apple Watch

Following up on my ‘What Time is It!?!’ blog post, I am finally ready to write about my Apple Watch. I’ve had it for about a month – long enough to share my early thoughts.

RMwatchI purchased the 42mm Stainless Steel case with the Black Sport Band, which will set you back $599.00. I really wanted the black stainless steel version but it was only available with the Steel Link Bracelet, which added another $500 to the already high price. The only difference in the Sport version and the Watch is that the Watch has a different metal for the case and the glass is sapphire instead of glass.

The setup process is very easy and Apple-like. Out of the box you will receive notifications, phone calls and, if you elect to install 3rd party applications, you will get notifications from them as well.



Notifications are a major reason why someone would want the Apple Watch in the first place. Notifications appear much like they do on an iPhone with the ability to be managed individually.

fitnessOne of the things that I loved about my Fitbit was it’s ability to accurately track my Fitness. The Apple Watch does a great job of tracking different fitness activities while also capturing heart rate too. Personally, I really like getting credit and awards for meeting my fitness goals. Knowing that at some point I can show off how constant I am adds fuel to my motivation. However, one thing that is starting to get old is having my watch tell me that I have been sitting too long and need to stand up for a few minutes. I guess I am not ready for machines/computers to start telling what to do just yet.

heartCommunication also plays a significant role in the user experience of the Apple Watch. Receiving my notifications for text and phone calls when I am away from my phone means that I can properly screen my calls without having to sprint across the room. But the fact that if someone important is trying to reach me I can speak Dick Tracy-style on a phone call or have Siri dictate a message for me is pretty handy.

One thing Apple wanted to do was add another level of simple but useful communication (probably as a differentiator). I can tap my watch and that will send a tap to someone else’s watch, send animated emojis, send my own heartbeat and even send simple drawings. I did not think I would like the new communication types, but I find that my wife and I use them quite a bit.

One of the less talked about features is that the Apple Watch has 2gigs of storage for music and can be paired to a BlueTooth headset. Keeping with the spirit of an iPod, it is ideal for working out, walking or jogging.


  • Stylish
  • Precise (Touch Interface and Haptic Feedback)
  • Easy Integration


  • Expensive. I bought the stainless steel 42mm version and could have easily bought a new iPad Air 2.
  • Battery life is not ideal. One solid day of normal use

Screenshot 2015-05-27 09.05.04

My Verdict:

I like it and I am pleasantly surprised. I was honestly prepared to have wasted my money on a first version Apple product. I know in true Apple fashion there will be a slightly better one next year and I will convince myself that being first was cooler than having the latest version. However, I am already over one negative in the fact that I have already purchased the device and if a 3rd party band can extend the life of the battery then I would not see any negative for purchase.

TV Subscription Services


For many, the term “cutting the cord” has become synonymous with “sticking it” to the Cable TV overlords. For some, cutting the cord is the fulfillment of a new year’s resolution to watch less TV. For these rare people in the world, cutting the cord helps them feel more intelligent. For others, by reminding everyone that, “I have not seen that television show,” you are implying that cable TV is beneath you.

Cutting the cord during the last few years did not leave you with great options if you still wanted to be entertained with new content on a nightly basis.

cord2The previous options for cord cutters revolved around physical devices and streaming services. You needed a physical device such as a Smart TV, Apple TV, Chromecast, Roku, etc. In addition to the device, you needed access to a service to watch content such as Netflix, Hulu, Plex, Youtube, etc.

A digital antennae is also a must for local news and live broadcast television. Without a set of digital rabbit ears, how could you watch the local news in the event of a snow day or witness the zombie apocalypse as it unfolds?

After watching Iron Man 3 for the 42nd time you start to realize that these streaming services are not “really” designed to replace regular television.

I have been asked the following questions about the practical usability of streaming services:

  • What if I want to flip through channels and mindlessly surf TV until I catch a cramp in my thumb?
  • What if Netflix had an automatic shuffle feature so that I could just watch 6 hours of sitcoms based on my viewing habits?
  • What happens if there is a power outage and I lose internet? I lose the ability to stream, right?

All of these are valid concerns and some apps have tried to address the inherit challenges of using services like Netflix as a primary source of entertainment, e.g. Netflix Roulette.
streamtvThat being said—this is the year (or at least should be) consumers will have TV subscription services that are true cable tv replacements. If you follow tech news, then you know that Apple has been negotiating for years with cable companies to bring a better TV experience to the masses (with little to no luck). There have been small apps like HBOGO and FoxNOW, but not an offering that could be a true replacement.

Apple is currently working on releasing new Apple TV hardware, but they are also preparing a service that will be available later this year. If you are a fan of HBO, they recently rolled out a standalone service called HBO NOW. I am really excited about what the folks at Dish Network have released—their Sling TV service.

slinggSling TV, a $20-a-month service for cord-cutters has made a welcomed debut earlier this year. There are a number of additional packages that you can add, ranging from $5—$15 per month. In Sling TV’s basic package there are familiar channels such as ESPN, HGTV, CNN, TBS, A&E, TNT, Food Network, History Channel and others.

Although, I am excited for subscription services to finally be available, I suspect there will be a race to the bottom—all of the big names in cable TV, i.e. Comcast, Time Warner, etc. will probably offer similar services at a slightly lower price point. Companies will continue to offer lower prices to gain or retain market share as prices continue to “race to the bottom.”

What Time is It!?!

It finally happened…the wearable watch is the “new thing”—not just for early adopters.
This year will either make or break public perception of wearables as a watch. With the Apple Watch soon to hit stores, there are viable options for almost every consumer (some people will never be satisfied).
I have been ahead of the trend for about 2 years now, sporting a Samsung Gear 2, which proved difficult because my primary device is an iPhone. Let’s face it, I’m an Apple junkie and will never depart from my iPhone; however, I did have a Galaxy S5 to pair with the watch just to test out the compatibility.
My Fitbit Force was great for counting my steps, tracking my sleep and playing to my competitive nature by providing a leaderboard of active friends that I could always monitor. As part of our fitness challenge at BlueFletch almost two years ago, most of the company purchased a Fitbit.  I always made my target goal but my team was ultimately crushed by our competition.
So, being a self-professed tech snob, I’m ready for a fresh device to play with and share my thoughts with anyone that will listen.
Now that the Apple Watch has arrived, all of the big players in the mobile space will have a watch wearable offering. Here are a few of the heavy hitters.
Google released the Android Wear Operating System (OS) last year. There are a number of companies that have released Android Wear devices, including Motorola, Samsung, LG, ASUS, etc. At the time, I did not want another Android-specific wearable, but with Google hinting at supporting iOS devices I could be persuaded.
Microsoft Band was released last year as well. The biggest feature that caught my eye the band’s ability to support the big three mobile OSs’ (Android, iOS, Microsoft). I had a chance to get a live demo from a Microsoft employee and I was surprised by all the functionality they were able to pack into the device’s form factor.
The next watch wearable I sport will be the Apple Watch. It seems like a natural progression from the FibFit Force and Samsung Gear 2. There are a plenty of built-in applications to be excited about, including: Apple Pay, Wifi & Bluetooth Support, Messages, Phone, Navigation, Activity Tracker, etc.
But I am most excited about the Third Party applications that will be available. Although the BMW and Telsa Apple Watch apps look cool and want to replace your key fob. I would need more than 18 hours of battery life if I am going to leave the house without my key.

2015 IOT Purchases So Far


Last year, I made my first official Internet of Things purchase when I bought a couple of Nest thermostats, which do a great job of keeping my energy bills low in an 85-year-old house. I also purchased a few WeMo light switches from Belkin and I love the new flexibility I have for my outdoor lights. I am looking to add to my IOT stable in 2015. Unfortunately, I will have to wait until some undetermined time to get (via pre-order) everything that I want to have today.


Amazon Echo

This is probably one of the more nonessential items on my list but it seems like it has a ton of potential. The Amazon Echo is essentially a physical device that is always on and is controlled by your voice. Ask it questions, play music, add items to a to-do list, etc. Since the device is powered by Amazon’s cloud service, the Echo is always getting smarter as Amazon adds new functionality.


Lockitron Bolt

To keep things simple, this bolt it is a smart door lock. I can unlock my door from anywhere and I can create temporary keys for house guests. I am not sure how much of an impact a smart lock will have in my life but the convenience factor is enough for me to spend $99.



This purchase is the one I am actually the most excited about. (Probably because it’s February in Georgia and it will be 30 degrees tonight.) The LUNA smart mattress is billed as “the world’s first mattress cover that intelligently warms your bed, tracks sleep, and makes your bed smart.”


I was sold at automatic bed warming and Nest integration.

Why is Microsoft investing in Android?!?

Over the past several weeks I been stunned by some of the news about Microsoft. For all the flack that Microsoft takes about its OS, Mobile OS or devices, the company knows how to make a dollar.

Microsoft makes much more money from Android than its own Window Mobile platform. For every Android smartphone or tablet, Microsoft is receiving $5-$15 from the sell of that individual device. They likely generate at least $2 billion per year from Android.

So the following stories had me scratching my head.

January 29, 2015Microsoft is investing in Android Startup Cyanogen
February 9, 2015: Microsoft, Samsung settle contract dispute over Android patent payments
February 13, 2015Samsung is preloading the Galaxy S6 with Microsoft Apps

My initial thoughts after reading each article:
  • Microsoft is trying to body snatch Android away from Google.
  • If I was Samsung, I would be tired of paying Microsoft’s ransom too.
  • Ohhh, that is why Microsoft settled. I wonder if Satya Nadella is playing chess somewhere with Android vs. Microsoft themed chess pieces.

Microsoft is definitely big enough and has enough talent to make some serious noise in the Android world, but why not just focus on Windows Phone?What are your thoughts? Reach me on twitter @MakeOne. #WinDroid

CES 2015—And what it means for my Friends & Family

I am currently the de facto CTO, CIO and Geek Squad for my friends and family. If the Internet is out, call Rick. If someone has spilled water on a laptop, “let’s call Rick first.” Lately, I have been trying to share new concepts and product categories in the hopes of reducing tech support phone calls. My goal is to have them call me and teach me about something new or how this new gadget they read about has made their lives better.

Since the International Consumer Electronic Show (CES) is happening this week, now is a perfect time for me to cut through the noise and point out products that I think will impact my friends and family in 2015. For those unfamiliar with CES, just Google “CES 2015.” CES is the world’s largest consumer technology trade show; it takes place every year in Las Vegas.

There are a ton of cool innovative technologies on display but three segments have grabbed my interest.
The Connected Car
The concept of the connected car has been around for a while. Cars that can talk to infrastructure; cars talking to cars; cars having access to my calendar, Facebook and Twitter. Car companies such as Tesla, Mercedes Benz, Audi and GM have slowly been rolling out advance (safety) features in their cars. There is a good chance if you buy a car in 2015 your car will be capable of:

– autonomous driving
– automatic braking for collision or pedestrian detection
– internet access
– lock/unlock & drive with just a phone (no key necessary)
– access to the internet, streaming entertainment and access to calendar, text, email and social
The Connected Home
Much like the connected car, the home is being connected as well. Companies like Belkin, Sonometer, Apple, Samsung and Google are all trying to invade our refrigerators, televisions and washing machines.
For the last (almost) two years wearables have been becoming more and more common place. Fitbit, Pebble and Samsung were early pioneers that led the charge for everyone to have some sort of wearable device with them. As time moves on and computers continue to shrink and battery technology continues to improve, wearables will become more powerful, useful and integrated into our daily lives.

In 2015 we will see a deeper integration of wearables with the things around us:

Audi & LG have a teamed up to create a watch that actually drives a car. While that will not be available in 2015 what could be available is replacing my key fob with my smart watch. Receiving notifications from appliances around the home that the cookies are done or it’s time to put my clothes in the dryer. Jewelry that I can give to an old member of my family to track their activity level and vitals.