Voice Assistants Can Be Hacked With Ultrasonic Waves

Voice Assistants Can Be Hacked With Ultrasonic Waves

US and Chinese researchers have successfully hacked voice assistants on smart phones under certain circumstances. In the published paper, the researchers described testing of 17 popular smartphones, including Samsung, Huawei, Apple and Google. Most devices were successfully susceptible to “…ultrasonic guided waves to elicit a reaction from the voice assistants.”

Such SurfingAttacks were inaudible to bystanders.

In the study, the researchers placed piezoelectric disks capable of transmitting ultrasonic waves under tables made from a variety of materials. They were able to seize control of voice assistants on phones placed atop the tables. Successful hacks involved fooling the voice assistants to send our fraudulent text messages and phone calls.

In related research, other experiments showed success perpetrating attacks through over-the-air transmission to hack into voice assistants. The new methodology relies on a longer, more direct contact which can compensate for voice assistants’ built-in confirmation requirements or protective protocols. The security firm ESET has released a warning about these specific kinds of attacks.

The take home lesson is that consumers, in accepting the convenience of interconnectedness, have unknowingly exposed themselves to risk of harm, including identity theft. It is yet one more reason why the platforms and their manufacturing partners need to invest more resources in hardening these ubiquitous tools. For more information on how to protect yourself in the interim, please start with Bob Villa’s The Ten Biggest Security Threats in Today’s Smart Home.

Posted in Uncategorized

Is Shopping With Voice A Bust?

Is Shopping With Voice A Bust?

Amazon shareholders got a bit of bad news from a recent eMarketer report. US consumers have embraced the smart speaker trend, snapping up millions of devices. However, they tend to use their new Voice based tools for simple commands rather than for  Voice-base shopping as analysts projected. Only 21.6 million people are expected to have made a purchase using a smart speaker by the end of 2020, a drop of nearly two million over the previous estimate.

Security is a chief reason for the hesitancy, again according to eMarketer. User are uncertain whether the platforms or the devices can be trusted. Users would feel more confident if they could inspect the shopping cart and confirm the totals before making the purchase. As a result, some platforms have rolled out Voice assistants with screens, but they are competing with consumers sunk investments in Alexa and Google Home.

In this case, Google Assistant has a distinct advantage, being primarily available via smartphones with built in screens. We at TsaTsaTzu all see these types of studies are more evidence suggesting convergent evolution — where Voice and Visual interfaces are thoroughly embeded  — is inevitable.

There is also the question whether current voice recognition is equal to the task, a point on which the report is silent.

We’ve also heard from a well known Alexa Champion that the platforms ” … have undermined their own credibility by seeking to populate their markets with lowest common denominator applications.” Another conference attendee stresses the need to focus on quantity rather than quality. And we’ve wondered many times when will market forces are produce incentives that would bolster the former.

Learn more at TechCrunch “Shopping With Smart Speakers Is Not Taking Off, Says Report”

Posted in Alexa, Google Assistant, IT Solutions, Management Consulting, Uncategorized, Voice Assistant

Forbes Touts Voice For Workplace Productivity

Forbes Touts Voice For Workplace Productivity

Forbes Magazine is running an article “12 Ways Voice Assistants Could Boost Business Productivity” that tracks with much of what we’ve been saying about the potential Voice solutions within the workplace. We’ve talked at various conferences throughout Europe about Voice’s potential for improving the flow of information as well as for its potential to improve the capacity of knowledge workers.

Here are a few highlights:

  • time management (task lists, reminders)
  • communication
    • (a secondary hands-free communications channel)
    • (synchronous or asynchronous)
  • bridging technology (Voice front end to existing technologies)
  • brain training (audio learning differs from visual learning)

You can review some of our talks at the Voice Conference Berlin.

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Voice Conference Berlin 2019

Voice Conference Berlin 2019

We’ve just landed in Berlin to join Voice Conference 2019.

It is so great to see so many familiar faces. Though we are completely jet-lagged, we are also so excited to be here in this beautiful city.

We’ve checked into the conference hotel. We’ve syncing up our Voice devices. We’re rearranging our speakers notes and refamiliarizing ourselves with the conference halls.

You are welcome to catch our two talks.


You can also find our previous talks online. Designing for Voice

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Scientists Hack Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant

Scientists Hack Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant

Researchers at the University of Michigan and Japan’s University of Electro-Communication managed to hack into voice assistants like Amazon Alexa, Apple’s Siri and Google Assistant. Using lasers with direct line-of-sight, the researchers shone invisible light to send commands to smart devices from hundreds of feet away. In this way they could access all the functionality that users have enabled on their devices, from smart home controls to security protocols to financial transactions.

For example, a so-called “bad actor” willing to invest in a few hundred dollars worth of equipment could change a home’s temperature controls, open locks or place orders with Amazon. The device owners would be unaware of the breach unless they were home or had enabled notificaitons.

It is just one more reason why the platforms (and their manufacturing partners) need to invest resources in hardening these ubiquitous tools. For more information on how to protect yourself in the interim, please start with Bob Villa’s The Ten Biggest Security Threats in Today’s Smart Home

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Google Pixel 4: Speech to Text

Google is publicizing the new Pixel 4 and Pixel 4Xl by emphasizing a “breakthrough new feature,” that is, a recorder app that can transcribe spoken audio in real-time with impressive accuracy. The tool is being touted for its applications for recording lectures, interviews, important events, etc. But imagine what a genuinely disruptive technology could do for Voice services.

Google Assistant has long claimed better  Voice dictation error rates (5%) than we could document. Looking across platforms, we have consistently reported dictation error rates of 10%, a figure that effectively limits Voice’s viability as a dictation service. Of course, many factors impact speech-to-text accuracy, including: microphone quality, vocabulary standards, speech standards, algorithm accuracy, Voice training, etc. Some of these factors are beyond the platform’s control, especially users use of slang or unusual pronunciations.

In the past we’ve complained about the limits of Voice to handle dictation-type activities, and we’ve commiserated with all the programmers/entrepreneurs whose applications have struggled with such error rates). (Check out our YouTube Channel). So we’re naturally cautious to change our recommendations.

However, we have explored the tool on our Pixels (2, 2L & 3) which is available for download. (According to Gizmodo, the app could be “… sideloaded via an APK on other Android phones, but the real-time voice transcription won’t work—this is one of those features (like Motion Sense) that Google is hoping will get you to buy one of its new flagship phones.”)  We were impressed by the app’s ability to take accurate dictation, particularly in light of the phones’ microphones, which are typically of lower quality that is found in a standalone Voice device.

The question is whether Google’s latest speech-to-text is an actually a disruptive innovation. If yes, then when will it be applied to Google Assistant? If it is already a part of Google Assistant, why haven’t we seen an improvement in error rates? And as with any “breakthrough” technology, what will the real world impact be?

Posted in Google, IT Solutions, Management Consulting, Voice Assistant

Is Voice for Hard-core Gamers?

Is Voice for Hard-core Gamers?

As developer’s we’re always questioning what sort of applications are worth the time investment. Our first aim is to maximize user engagement which corresponds with high levels of usage and monetization. At a recent game designer’s talk in Europe, we had a colleague who defined three levels of gaming scenarios:

  1. Casual games were games that users played between things to kill time and had a main play loop of about 30 seconds.
  2. Mid-core games were ones with about a 20 minute game loop, and that players fit into their schedules.
  3. Hard-core games had 1-2 hour play loops, and the players fit their schedules around their game playing.

We thought the third scenario was most likely to achieve our first aim, and so we created the most engaging game we could muster – 6 Swords. This game is, basically, a D&D campaign delivered via voice. There are hundreds of monsters, nearly a hundred items, several infinite dimensions of procedurally-generated landscape, and three dimensions of curated landscapes. (For the last, we laid two of the landscapes over real world geographies which then became accessible to users intent on exploration.) There were winding dungeons to delve, sprawling cities to shop in, ruined temples to cleanse, gods to curry favor with, quests to go on, and so on and so forth.

Six Swords is the richest and broadest voice application available on any platform today. And it attracted some very dedicated users. The stats we collected delighted us. One user played it eight hours a day. Eight hours! After a few months we had over 40 users who passed the twenty minute a month mark, and a dozen who had played it over a hundred hours.

This was great! We had what we wanted. An app that was compelling enough to make someone sit and talk to a computer for hours at a time was the breakthrough to justify this as a gaming platform. Sure, not everyone will rise to this level, but even if only 2% of those who tried it played it for ten hours, that was enough to monetize and make a return to put up against the development effort.

But the user base still remained very low. Very dedicated. But very low.

We had a forum for the game, and we participated in threads about it on other gaming forums. We were able to contact and talk with a number of our super dedicated players and we discovered one common fact. They were all members of the visually-impaired community. All of them. Every single one of our extremely dedicated players fell into this category. Without any exception.

They loved what we were doing! No one else was create a substantive gaming experience that they could participate in on an equal footing with sighted players. It was fun and engaging and challenging like any good game should be. But it was also accessible. Something they could play.

And, yes, this was heart warming. The fact that people were spending hundreds of hours with our content and that we were giving joy to people who had previously only really be able to hear others talk about things and not participate felt very fulfilling. But it also taught us a very important lesson.

Visually-impaired gamers loved these games because they had no other choice. Sighted gamers had all of the industries games to choose form. And, given the choice, they didn’t choose ours. Why spend your game time talking to a computer would you could be also mesmerized but stunning visuals. How could radio ever compete with television?

Working Hypothesis: Voice is not a Hard Core Gaming Solution

Posted in Alexa, Amazon, Analytics, Echo, Google, Google Assistant, Google Home, IT Solutions, Management Consulting

Why Develop Voice Games?

Why Develop Voice Games?

Everybody loves games, right? Is it any wonder why games are a popular development option for any platform, including voice? But there are other reasons for people to focus on developing games for Voice.  Game development is an engaging purpose:

  • to invest time to build development skills,
  • to capture interest in portfolio pieces aimed at colleagues or friends,
  • to improve ROI since the emerging user base itself wants diversions, and
  • to explore the opportunities of a new platform, as gaming innovation is a tested approach towards popularizing specific technologies,

We at TsaTsaTzu subscribe to some of these reasons, but we were also driven to explore Voice as a new platform with very different limits.

You might not have realized, but audio apps have been around – in one form or another – since the first automated telephone response system. Voice prompting has a long (and mostly vilified) history where user experience is concerned. Trying to create a compelling Voice experience or just working out what could and could not be done has been a challenge.

Put another way, we’ve succeeded by delivering desperately-needed innovations.

People want to play games. So, by wrapping up our experiments in design and audio development in the form of a game, we gain easy access to experimental opportunities. By releasing new code disguised as games, we can see what works and what does not work. We gain valuable insight to use in our consultancy business and in the development of our own gaming properties.

So let’s amend the list above to include one more bullet point:

  • to test code written for mundane purposes as people will happily pound on code wrapped up in a game.
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Voice Conference Berlin 2019

VOICE Conference Berlin 2019

TsaTsaTzu’s own Joseph Jaquinta and Stacy Colella have been invited to speak again at the fantastic VOICE Conference 2019 in Berlin at the Expo center on December 9-11. They will be following up last year’s well-received Designing for Voice with two new brand new scheduled talks:

What We Wish We’d Known About Audio Games and

Tackling the Discoverability Problem in Voice Apps.

If you are planning to attend the VOICE conference, please join the conversation at these sessions. Or you are welcome to stop by during the open networking sessions. In the meantime, please stay tuned for sneak peaks as we get closer to the conference date.

Posted in Alexa, Amazon, Analytics, Echo, Google, Google Assistant, Google Home, IT Solutions, Management Consulting

Anyone Can Do Simple Voice Games

Anyone Can Do Simple Voice Games

We have always preferred to focus on building intensive gaming experience that are … hard to pull off. We have always bucked the industry trends in this regard.

For example, we have a very well-regarded Voice colleague who created a voice app (not a game) that did stunningly well. He implemented a simple idea that exploited a gap in what Amazon and Google *should have* included as intrinsic features. Besides being a simple application, he didn’t need to invest much effort in writing code, which meant that, once his success became clear, he had a flurry of copycat applications nipping at his heels.

We’ve noticed that casual and mid-core games have certain advantages over hard core games. They are simpler to implement. They definitely require less investment in terms of system architecture and strategic planning. Because of the learning and discovery curves, we have noted that minimalist apps are the easiest for users to engage with. But unfortunately, minimalist apps are not hard to backward engineer. Simple games are easier to copy.

Besides contending with copycats, developers who focus on simple games are limiting their options for building user engagement. Shorter play cycles mean fewer opportunities to deliver compelling content. And user retention seems to require intense engagement.

(Further complicating the situation, we would argue that developers have fewer bells and whistles to add to make applications unique. Voice is a sufficiently low fidelity medium at this point in time that distinctiveness requires real ingenuity.)

We’ve learned a few tricks over time to add complexity and interest to Voice games. Putting in leader boards gives players incentives to compete, and they add a notch that many copycats find hard to emulate. Trying to hook a user with a subscription model or premium content gives them an incentive to come back to your app. (But it also gives them an incentive to use a non-charging app that is almost as good as yours.)

Is it any wonder why we developed the motto: Do Hard Things?

Posted in Alexa, Amazon, Analytics, Echo, Google, Google Assistant, Google Home, IT Solutions, Management Consulting