Beyond Siri, Google Now and Cortana: What is the future of virtual assistants?

Dr Chris Brauer is a Senior Lecturer and Director of the MSc Management of Innovation programme and the Centre for Creative and Social Technologies (CAST) in the Institute of Management Studies (IMS) at Goldsmiths, University of London.

Our inner voice, or the internal dialog we have with ourselves, may one day have company.  For our unspoken thoughts that prompt us to make everyday decisions may be joined by a new, artificially intelligent voice in our heads – the virtual assistant.

The virtual assistant (VA), a digital servant/master designed to serve/define our every need, is barely starting out on its journey from the realms of science fiction (think KITT in Knight Rider or HAL in 2001 Space Odyssey) to mainstream reality.

IBM is already investing heavily in the area; the company has revealed that it is pouring resources into the development of A.I. and cognitive computing. Microsoft’s Cortana has recently launched, and it will reportedly run on the desktop with Windows 10. Soon, it will be everywhere – and nowhere – in your life. Moving beyond screens, social, and search, the VA will be the new gateway to the Internet and all the people and things connected to it.

Cortana 520x231 Beyond Siri, Google Now and Cortana: What is the future of virtual assistants?


Already we can start to see its trajectory from mobile and wearable, to ‘hearable’ and perhaps one day ‘implantable’. Project Virtual Assistant is a research collaboration between the Institute of Management Studies (IMS) at Goldsmiths, University of London and global media agency Mindshare. We set out to explore and understand the opportunities and challenges of bringing the virtual assistant of the future to life for users, regulators and service suppliers.

We worked intensely with 12 consumers in a focus group for six weeks, running workshops and experiments in ethnographic service design with the latest technologies for face and emotional recognition, beacon technologies like those in the revamped Regent Street, wearables, hearables, trackables, and even scent.

We interviewed subject matter experts including Rashik Parmar, president IBM Academy of Technology and Sally Annereau, data protection analyst at law firm Taylor Wessing. And we surveyed the British public for their views and opinions on VAs.

The virtual assistants of the future

Over the course of our research, it became apparent that the VA is likely to start off life on the mobile (where Google Now, Siri and Cortana currently live) with research finding that initially 40 percent of interactions would take place on the phone.

As smart watches bring access to digital information and connectivity closer to the user, the next step will be to strip back the physical hardware as far as possible, with the intelligence of the VA existing in the cloud, getting pulled in, and pushing its way into our lives on multiple devices on our bodies and in our offices, homes, and vehicles. 81 percent of those surveyed wanted the VA to be voice controlled, demonstrating the urge for the hardware to be a secondary concern.

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Joaquin Phoenix falls for his VA in the movie Her

Your VA will be continually prompting you with suggestions and taking instructions, and will know more about you than perhaps you do yourself. The inevitable trajectory is towards a kind of ‘post-human’ condition where users and their VA technology are not separate and distinct but are instead embodied and unified as one.

To begin with, this will be a device that can be taken in or out, already 2 percent of interactions are predicted to take place via earpiece, but if people value and become increasingly dependent on their VA we can expect this device to be implanted and permanent.

Just as a desire for ease and convenience has moved contraception from the wearing of physical devices to implants, so we will see the same thing with virtual assistants. We will initially want to decide when and where we synch our physiology, decision-making and emotions with our VA. Then real-time synchronisation will just be easier and more efficient.

Listening to your inner voice will take on a whole new meaning.

Don’t miss: Artificial Intelligence could kill us all. Meet the man who takes that risk seriously

Read more: Beyond Siri, Google Now and Cortana: What is the future of virtual assistants?

Amazon launches ‘Pass My Parcel’ for same-day in-store order collection in the UK

In a bid to further expand its retail operations, Amazon has today announced that customers in the UK can use a new ‘Pass My Parcel’ same-day collection service for the first time following a deal with newspaper distributor Smiths News.

Amazon Prime members will be able to use the new same day collection option free of charge (“for a limited time”), while non-Prime subscribers will be able to use it for £4.99 per delivery. In order to qualify for same-day collection, orders need to be placed before 11.45am and can be collected any time after 4pm – customers will receive a notification telling them it has arrived in store and will then need to pick it up before midnight (depending on the closing time of the store).

Alongside the same-day collection service, customers can also opt for an Express Morning Collection service, with orders placed up to 7.45am being available for collection from the next morning. These orders will arrive in store no later than 9am.

Amazon said that once a collection point is chosen and the order is placed, all you need to do is present a code to collect the item.

The new option is available at more than 500 newsagents and convenience stores, Amazon said, all of which will carry the ‘Pass My Parcel’ branding to promote the service. In addition to Pass My Parcel, Amazon also operates Collect+ stores and Amazon Lockers to distribute physical goods to customers who would rather collect items than wait for a delivery. introduces first same-day pick-up service – order in the morning and pick up later thant day – free to prime customers

Image credit: Alexander Supertramp /

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Cozy Makes Its Rental Management Service Free

Cozy rental software

Cozy, a service that makes the rental process easier for landlords and tenants, has made its current feature set available to all clients for free. In a blog post, Cozy CEO Gino Zahnd says that making these features free will bring in a wider audience for products set for launch in Q4 2014.

Cozy lets landlords and renters handle payments online without dealing with complex scheduling interfaces. It also smooths the rental application and approval processes with profiles that carry from rental to rental and make credit reports readily available when it’s time to handle the background check.

Rental management services aren’t usually my thing, but earlier this month a few experiences piqued my interest in the subject.

I spent Labor Day weekend in New York, where one friend (followed by several more) explained to me that she still pays for her rent with a physical check she sends to her landlord. When I got back, a letter in the mail from my apartment complex said I’d have to pay with a check because their decade-old software package died and they were figuring out what to do.

Having managed to thus far avoid writing a check in the relatively brief period of my life where that means anything, I was kind of shocked at the prevalence of dependency on this outdated method of payment. Checks don’t make life easier for either side of a transaction nowadays!

How is this not something that is just automatically set up when a person decides to become a landlord? Willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars (or a lot more than that) to be responsible for the place people live, including upkeep and even maybe services, and at no point a person involved though to Google for “free rental software?”


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Elliptic Secures $2M From Octopus For Its Insured Bitcoin Storage Service

In the first UK institutional investment into Bitcoin storage, Octopus Investments has invested $2m into Elliptic. It’s first product, Elliptic Vault, claims to be the world’s first ever insured Bitcoin storage service, which launched six months ago.

Elliptic aims to offer suite of enterprise services that try to bridge the gap between traditional finance and digital assets. Their first such product, Elliptic Vault, was the world’s first insured Bitcoin storage service. Targeted at businesses and financial institutions, physical and cryptographic security are combined to provide the highest level of protection for clients’ digital assets.

The company originally came through the Seedcamp programme in which Octopus is an investor.

Read the original here: Elliptic Secures $2M From Octopus For Its Insured Bitcoin Storage Service

Amazon’s Master Of Commerce Move Into The Phone Game

Editor’s note: Alistair Goodman is the CEO of Placecast, where he leads a team of mobile, technology and marketing experts who have created the most scalable, proven, location-based marketing system currently available. 

Mobile is so 2010. So why would Amazon throw its hat into the game of phones?

That’s the thing — it didn’t. The company is headed into battle in two other markets full of potential: real-world commerce and digital advertising.

Amazon has focused its business almost solely on e-commerce since its launch in 1994. Twenty years later, the vast majority of commerce still takes place in the physical world; a 2014 Q1 US Census report shows that digital sales account for just 6 percent of total sales.

So, if 94 percent of sales still happens in the real world, how does Amazon conquer this territory? It introduces a phone.

The Fire Phone can recognize a physical object, scan a bar code, and quickly provide you with Amazon’s prices, taking showrooming to a whole new level. And then, the company is able to unlock that other 94 percent of commerce spend that it previously couldn’t touch.

Should retailers be shaking in their proverbial boots? Probably.

With an active user base of 244 million, Amazon has become a trusted provider of goods. Now, those who trust the company already can buy an Amazon phone that makes it even easier to find what they want and order it with a couple of clicks. Even if just 10 percent of active users buy a Fire, that’s still 24 million people who will have access to Amazon’s low prices, vast inventory, and shipping.

But real-world commerce isn’t the only new frontier for Amazon; the Fire Phone unlocks mobile advertising opportunities for the company, making it the third viable player in the thriving space, along with Google and Facebook.

In 2014, mobile advertising in the U.S. will total $17.73 billion and reach over $35 billion by 2017, eclipsing online advertising spend, according to analysis from eMarketer. Google and Facebook combined took home over two-thirds of mobile ad spending last year. Now, Amazon could give these two companies stiff competition due to its customer relationships and new features on its phone that aren’t available on Apple or Android devices. Amazon becomes the third major player with a mobile device tied to an immense database of browsing and past purchase data.

With this phone, Amazon is able to do exactly the same thing as Google and Facebook: utilize customer identities and interest to bring targeted mobile ads to them on their phones. But Amazon has a distinct advantage: Its users have already bought something from them! As a result, the company is even better-equipped than other companies to use past purchase data to send highly tailored mobile ads to consumers. Amazon will be able to guarantee brands a pre-qualified, “in-market” audience. Who else can do that?

In his demo of the Fire, Bezos made the real-world connections for the phone absolutely apparent, talking about how easy it is to walk down the street and use Firefly to recognize signs, goods, etc. This feature opens up so many doors: the ability to recognize places in the real world, to search for things you want based on what Amazon knows you are interested in, and the ability for Amazon to harness that data for more relevant recommendations.

In effect, the Fire could provide an understanding of the physical world and merchant locations and, when combined with everything else Amazon knows about a user, actually deliver on the promise of “Marketing that consumers find really valuable, not intrusive.” Now imagine that they start pushing you the occasional recommendation when you’re near a physical store. Imagine you can get a reminder for something you have scanned when you’re near a place to buy it, with Amazon taking its cut for driving that real-world transaction. That massively changes the game of mobile marketing.

Rebecca Lieb, an analyst with the Altimeter Group, discussed the real impact of the Fire Phone with the New York Times: “Scan a product or listen to music, and you’re delivered straight to the page on Amazon on which you can purchase it. Impulse shopping just went to a new level.”

Amazon is not in the mobile business, the phone business or the Internet of things business. And while analysts appear divided on the short- and long-term impact of the Fire for Amazon’s overall business model, they should agree on one point: Bezos and Co. are the masters of the commerce business, and the Fire Phone is just one tool that can be used to help it gain its slice of the immense cash flow happening not online, but on Main Street.

I would even go so far as to say that the Fire Phone will be key to the Amazon growth strategy for the next 50 years. Congratulations, Mr. Bezos. Well played. The only thing I am wondering is, Why isn’t the phone free?

Read more: Amazon’s Master Of Commerce Move Into The Phone Game

Will The Last BlackBerry User Turn Off The Flashing LED Light

Today I switched from a BlackBerry Q10 to an iPhone 5s. After almost singlehandedly trying to save the physical QWERTY, I feel compelled to explain why.

It isn’t because of the ribbing I get from my TC colleagues every time BlackBerry issues more bad news. It isn’t because the only people I know who still use a BlackBerry are either VCs or angel investors. And I’ve yet to make the blogger-to-VC career move (here’s hoping).

It isn’t even because the keyboard on my Q10 has developed a hardware fault whereby occasionally it mistakes one key press for two, which makes keying in my lock-screen password a whole lot of fun. That’s right, folks. Even BlackBerry can’t seem to make a reliable hardware keyboard.

And it definitely isn’t because I’ve suddenly mastered typing on glass, despite having a physical disability that makes certain touchscreen interfaces and on-screen keyboards more challenging (see my email to Steve Jobs on the subject).

No, the reason I’ve finally given up on the BlackBerry — and with it my trusted physical QWERTY – is likely the reason every other BlackBerry user abandoned ship. Apps. Glorious apps.

In the end, I’ve decided to make a tradeoff. I’m willing to sacrifice typing speed and a little dexterity, in return for having access to a much wider range and higher quality of apps. Blame it on the day job.

What’s interesting is BlackBerry 10 does support Android apps — kind of.

The trouble is the Q10′s screen size makes many of those apps run poorly or not at all, with UI elements being squashed or cropped. It was enough to get by for a little while (and a technically impressive feat), but it only got me so far. The tipping point came this week while trying out a Wi-Fi-enabled lightbulb for a smarthome post I’m researching. I was able to dim the lights using the startup’s Android app running on my BlackBerry but couldn’t turn them back up again, leaving me stuck in the dark for a few hours.

Then I saw the light.

I ordered my iPhone 5s just a few hours ago, and it wasn’t without a heavy heart.

I’ll definitely miss BlackBerry 10′s gestures and the majority of its UI (I once had the privilege of chewing the fat with one of the ex-founders of TAT, the team behind much of that work — sorry guys).

I’ll also undoubtedly miss BlackBerry 10′s ‘openess’ in terms of side loading apps and full access over Wi-Fi to the phone’s storage. I definitely don’t relish being back in Apple’s closed ecosystem.

At the same time I’m grateful the iPhone in its current form factor exists. At one point in time, as the physical QWERTY was getting sidelined, the market was flooded with iPhone copycats. In some ways it still is. But, actually, as phones have gotten bigger, it’s Apple’s device that feels, well, traditional. Steadfast was Jobs’ assertion that the iPhone needed to remain narrow for one-handed operation.

It’s the size factor — and that iOS still tends to get first preference from newly launched startups — that largely ruled out Android for me. The closest to getting my hard-earned cash was something like the HTC One Mini, but even that is too wide. In a sea of “phablets,” a “mini” Android smartphone invariably comes in larger than the iPhone 5s, or with lower specs and build quality.

The iPhone 5s also feels remarkably light.

What I’ve come to realise is, although I get on better with a physical QWERTY and the non-touch screen area it affords when gripping the phone, equal to this is the right width, height and weight. In that sense, like BlackBerry before, it’s now Apple who looks like the holdout.

Unless, of course, the rumours of a much larger iPhone are true.

Link: Will The Last BlackBerry User Turn Off The Flashing LED Light

MakeSpace, The Dropbox For Physical Storage, Packs Up $8 Million Led By Upfront Ventures

NY-based MakeSpace, the Dropbox for physical objects, has today closed an $8 million Series A funding round led by Upfront Ventures, with participation from Founders Fund, OATV, and follow-ons from existing investors Lowercase Capital, High Peaks Venture Partners and Collaborative Fund.

This round brings the company’s total funding to $10.1 million.

MakeSpace started out last year with the goal to bring the same organization and convenience of cloud storage services, like Dropbox and Google Drive, to the physical objects in your home. In big cities like San Francisco and New York, dealing with storage issues is a fact of life, and usually a painful one.

Not only can the prices be painful, but the customer experience is difficult, at best. In most cases you’re responsible for taking your stuff to and from the facility, and if you’re not compulsively organized, finding something in your storage unit can be a nightmare. MakeSpace aims to change all that.

Users pay $25/month to get four bins worth of storage. But the key here is that users have on-demand delivery and drop-off of all those items, not unlike a download or upload to a cloud storage service. You can keep track of your stuff on a bin-by-bin basis, through pictures and lists within the app, and request a single bin delivered or your entire stash.

Mark Suster, an investor in the service, describes it as the reverse of Amazon.

While Amazon blew away existing physical distribution channels to deliver products to you, we are blowing away existing physical infrastructure to help you store the things you want to keep – just not at your home. We have been offering van pick-ups in our storage vans at your apartment in NYC for just under a year and already have an enormous client base – demand has exceeded our supply as we’ve had to onboard more pickup vans & drivers to add pick-up capacity.

To check out MakeSpace for yourself, head over here.

See the article here: MakeSpace, The Dropbox For Physical Storage, Packs Up $8 Million Led By Upfront Ventures