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Let’s talk travel: Understanding voice interfaces

“I need a flight from DFW to New York on March 5th”

“What’s my gate number?”

“What time does the hotel pool close?”

These interactions are quite common between people, but the emerging trend of voice interfaces is focused on enabling these same conversations between people and their devices.

The idea is simple enough: speak to a computer and have it speak back to you. In science fiction, it goes by names like “R.U.D.I” in the Jetsons or simply “Computer” in Star Trek. In the real world, these conversational and natural interfaces have been researched and explored since the 1950s. In the time since, we have only recently seen the technological advancements that have allowed this sci-fi concept to be folded into everyday life. Today, over half of teenagers are using voice for internet searches on a daily basis. This emerging behavior is poised to impact travel and a quick exploration of the best use cases and technologies involved can help in understanding that impact.

Examples of use

At its core, a voice interface strives for ease, simplicity, and efficiency. Short spoken commands like “Hey Siri, call mom” or questions like “Ok Google, what’s the weather like today?” are in the sweet spot for these interfaces. It may not seem like much, but these brief voice interactions can eliminate up to seven “taps” that would be required to do the same on a mobile device. In more complex scenarios, it can completely replace workflow related tasks. “Alexa, reorder 9 volt batteries” covers product search, selection, and payment in just five words.

In other use cases, these voice interactions can be accompanied by a visual display to create an interaction that combines the best of both sound and sight. “Hey Siri, what does next week look like?” gives both a voice-based response (“You have 25 events for the next week. That’s a lot.”) and a visual calendar listing of those events. This is a great improvement over a voice-only response that may include some summary (“You have 25 events”) but would then need to read off each event, one by one, which is neither simple nor efficient. In fact, this area of Natural Language Generation is an emerging sub-trend within voice interfaces.

The future of voice

While we have come a long way in our understanding and use of voice interfaces, we may still just be at the early stages of its journey. Companies like Apple, Amazon, Google, and Microsoft continue to invest heavily in their voice technologies and platforms. Amazon recently announced a $100 million investment fund to fuel voice technology. Recent advancements in noise cancellation, microphone quality, and battery efficiency have allowed more mobile phones and platforms to offer viable voice interface platforms. Multi-language support is also on the rise with Google’s voice assistant supporting over 50 languages (At the present time, Apple’s Siri supports 18 languages and Window’s Cortana supports 7.)

What does this mean for travel?

Despite the adoption of voice interfaces for common uses cases like weather, sports, and calls, there are only a few examples of travel-specific voice applications. For travelers looking to shop via voice, Google voice search provides travel specific responses for some flight related searches, but falls back to standard search results on requests for hotels or other related content. In 2014, Starwood developed an app (in beta) that allows voice searching and booking for Google Glass. That same year, Sabre Labs leveraged Sabre Dev Studio’s APIs to bring flight searching capabilities to Google Glass.

The more impactful applications of voice in travel may be in an operational context for hotel managers, travel agents, and flight operations managers who are always looking for ways to increase productivity and efficiencies. “The obvious business and industrial implementations of voice reside with applications where it’s not feasible to touch a computer, or even look at a screen. But as people become more comfortable speaking to their devices, you’ll see them choose voice even when they have access to a screen,” said Philip Likens, Senior Principal of Emerging Technology Research for Sabre Labs.

At a recent Expedia Hackathon, Sabre Labs worked within a set of hotel operation-centric Expedia APIs to build a voice application for the Amazon Echo. The prototype allows hotel managers to quickly get information about their inventory and the performance of their property, all with just their voice.

“Voice enables a huge shift in the way we interact with computers. In the past decade, we’ve gone from a graphical interface computer with a mouse and keyboard to touch screen computers and voice is the next progression,” said Mark McSpadden, Director of Sabre Labs, “we’re excited to see how voice will impact the travel industry in the next few years.”