Nuance Launches Enhancements to Nina Intelligent Assistant Platform

Nuance made several exciting announcements at the recent SpeechTek event about enhancements to their existing multi-channel customer self-service and intelligent assistant tools and platforms. In a discussion with Greg Pal, Vice President of Marketing, Strategy & Business Development of Nuance’s Enterprise Division, I was able to gain a deeper insight into these newly launched capabilities.

Nuance Experience Studio

Nuance NinaCustomers of Nuance’s Nina intelligent assistant can leverage the new Experience Studio to expand Nina’s capabilities and deploy their self-service assistant across other channels, such as mobile or social. The Experience Studio includes authoring tools for extending Nina’s knowledge repository with industry-specific or company-specific information. Nuance Experience Studio also includes learning models. Customers can construct new learning models that power their intelligent assistant with additional capabilities.

Automation Assist

Nuance has integrated human assistance into the Nina intelligent assistant platform. By selectively engaging live agents to help decipher more complex customer conversations, Automation Assist makes it possible for the self-service platform to be used more broadly with high rates of success. The role of live agents is to help close knowledge or comprehension gaps that stump the automated assistant. Over time, though, the assistant leverages learning models and expanded knowledge bases to close these gaps.

Two-Way SMS with NLU Automation

The unstoppable popularity of SMS text communications, and its expansion into the customer service domain, hasn’t slipped by Nuance unnoticed. In an exciting move, Nuance has added natural language understanding (NLU) capabilities to its real-time two-way SMS solution. Prior to the inclusion of NLU, two-way SMS communications were limited to very simple interactions that had binary “yes/no” responses. But what if a customer responds with “sure thing” or “my Dad is the one who pays the phone bill so you should call him?” NLU can make sense of these free form responses, drastically expanding the use cases where the two-way SMS communication can be applied.

I also spoke to Pal briefly about the Nuance and USAA partnership in creating the recently launched USAA Savings Coach. As I wrote in a previous post, I really like the idea behind the Savings Coach. Pal said that Nuance has been exploring how to evolve virtual assistants into virtual advisors.

I wrote briefly in a previous post about how Nuance and USAA included gamification concepts into the Savings Coach. Pal emphasized that to make a virtual advisor successful, you have to come up with creative ways to proactively engage the user and help them work towards achieving their goals. It’s all about understanding what the customer hopes to accomplish and helping them do that.

Nuance continues to be at the forefront of implementing multi-channel customer self-service technologies. All of their recently launched product additions help to increase the value of the Nina intelligent assistant platform and lower the total cost of ownership for customers.

Nuance Impresses with Domino’s Intelligent Assistant

At the recent SpeechTek 2014, I had an opportunity to sit down with Nuance’s Gregory Pal. Pal is Nuance’s Vice President, Strategy & Business Development, Enterprise Division. One thing that came across loud and clear as I spoke with Pal was the sheer size and breadth of Nuance. The intelligent assistant / virtual agent space is competitive and crowded these days, but Nuance is the undisputed 800-pound gorilla. Pal informed me that Nuance is segmented into four major divisions: Healthcare, Imaging, Mobile and Consumer, and Enterprise. The Enterprise division deals mainly with Business to Consumer solutions.

Domino's Pizza AppNuance’s influence is wide-reaching. According to Pal, 75% of all Fortune 500 companies use Nuance products. 1 in 4 adult Americans are reached at least once a year by companies using an outbound Nuance communication solution. That’s some pretty extensive influence! In the Opus Research report on Enterprise Virtual Assistants published earlier this year, Opus rated Nuance as the top vendor.

When it comes to the intelligent assistant market, which is heating up, Nuance has funneled all its powerful technology into their Nina product. Nina has all the components required to make a successful web self-service, speech-enabled user interface for consumers. These include voice biometrics, speech recognition, natural language understanding, dialog management, and speech output services. The Nina product is also backed by a large professional services organization.

While Nina is in use by many companies for many different purposes, Pal was eager to talk about the recently released Domino’s app that features a branded assistant called “Dom.” After SpeechTek, I downloaded the Android version of the app and gave it a thorough trial. It turned out to be a fun and pleasant test experience. Dom is easy to work with. He has a pleasing voice and a patient personality: positive traits in someone you’re ordering pizza from when you can’t quite make up your mind what you want!

Dom first asks if you want to place a delivery order or a pick up order. I told him I wanted to pick up my order and he immediately showed me a screen of all the closest Domino’s locations. I didn’t even have the GPS on my smartphone activated, but the assistant was accurate in the list it provided. I picked the Domino’s just down the street from me and it set that as my store.

I wasn’t sure what I wanted to order. Dom didn’t understand me when I asked what my choices were, but he understood when I asked for the menu. He showed me a very easy to read menu with photos of different food choices. I told him I wanted a pepperoni pizza and then he brought up three size choices and asked which I wanted. I like the fact that Dom’s questions are reinforced by images and text on the smartphone interface. I asked if he had any drinks and he answered enthusiastically “We’ve got some good ones!” Again, he showed a list of choices with images for reinforcement. I ordered a bottle of water and then I asked for two more. Dom added all of this to my shopping cart and it was very easy to visually confirm what was being added. The final step was to confirm the order and then go to a screen where I needed to type in my contact information.

I was very pleasantly surprised at how smoothly Dom led me through the entire ordering process. You need to keep in mind that there are no human ‘assistants’ working in the background of this Nina-driven app. It’s all pure machine technology. It’s not only impressive, but it’s practical as well. I can definitely see myself using this app, or a similar app, to order dinner.

I asked Pal if he was concerned at all about IBM Watson and if he sees Watson as a potential threat to their top spot in the intelligent assistant market. Pal believes that Watson and Nina are more complementary than directly competitive. Watson is a great tool for mining broad subject matter expertise. Nina, on the other hand, is flexible and can be configured to serve as a company’s branded representative, to carry on targeted conversations, and to integrate with useful apps like the Domino’s app.

I also asked Pal whether he was concerned about all the competition in the intelligent agent space. He recognizes the competition, but he knows that Nuance is playing with a bit of an unfair advantage. With so much technology and the ability to invest $300 million a year in research and development, it’s really tough for smaller players to keep up. The superior performance of intelligent assistants like Domino’s Dom proves that Nuance is going to be hard to displace from the top of the heap.

Nuance Wintermute and the Growing Competition in Voice Recognition

WintermuteBack in August, Parmy Olson wrote an interesting article in Forbes on some of the challenges that Nuance faces with its digital assistant Wintermute. I wrote about Wintermute in an earlier post. Olson makes the observation that Nuance rolled out its Wintermute personal assistant technology just as Google and Apple might be catching up and arguably even surpassing Nuance at its own game.

Nuance acquired Dragon Naturally Speaking software technology via a round about means from inventors James and Janet Baker. The Dragon dictation software has been a big component of Nuance’s product line.  Nuance also licensed its speech recognition technology to Apple for use in Siri. But with speech recognition becoming such a core capability for today’s smart phone apps, Google and Apple have been investing heavily in developing their own homegrown solutions.

Olson points out that Google’s voice recognition is based on deep learning technology, whereas Nuance’s approach to speech technology relies on statistical inference that analyzes syllable sounds to identify words. The jury is still out on which technical approach has the most promise, but Google’s implementation of voice recognition has been working. What’s even more threatening to competitors is the fact that Google offers its technology free to Android developers. A case in point are the recent German high school grades behind Voicesphere, which we wrote about a few weeks ago.

Apple recently established a research center in Boston where it’s been pursuing speech technology projects. Many of the team members are former employees of a speech software company that was once acquired by none other than Nuance. Observers speculate that Apple is developing its own voice recognition software that will displace the Nuance components from Siri in upcoming versions.

None of these facts proven with any certainty that Nuance is being overtaken by the competition (and current partners). Wintermute’s mission is to learn as much about your preference and habits as possible, store this knowledge in the cloud, and use that data to infer what you want and what you mean. In other words, Nuance has trained Wintermute to read your mind, which is what a really helpful digital companion needs to be able to do. So far Wintermute still seems to be more of a project than a fully fleshed out commercial offering. It’ll be interested to see how this technology pans out for Nuance as the competition in speech technology and personal digital assistants continues to heat up.

Nuance Wintermute a Glimpse of Future Digital Persona

WintermuteMark Hachman wrote an informative piece last week on Nuance’s Wintermute technology. Nuance is bringing to bear powerful tools that it already owns: state of the art speech recognition, natural language processing, and virtual agent technologies used in Dragon Mobile Assistant and Nina, to create a new kind of virtual agent. In fact, as Hachman points out, Nuance’s goal is to create a persona rather than an ‘agent.’

Is such a goal attainable? As we saw in a recent post about Spike Jonze’s movie “Her,” the idea of smart, appealing software agents that can interact on a personal level with humans is entering the mainstream. In “Her,” the smooth-talking Samantha is a disembodied artificial intelligence, but she’s so skilled at learning about her owner and playing to his interests that he’s quickly smitten.

Nuance doesn’t necessarily want you to fall in love with Wintermute, which is apparently a code name for a product that’s not yet available, but it wants you to trust Wiintermute to understand you and to remember the context of your conversations with it. The really cool feature in demos of the Wintermute technology is the smart persona’s ability to infer what you’re asking for, even when you change the platforms or channels that you use to interact with it. In one demo, for example, a Nuance rep asks Wintermute for information on the score of a basketball game. Later, when the rep turns on a TV set, he simply asks Wintermute to put on the game. Wintermute accesses information stored in the cloud about previous interactions to infer that the rep wants to watch the rest of the same game he was asking about earlier, and it sets the channel appropriately.

If Nuance’s technology pans out, we’ll one day have helpful digital assistants that can remember bits of conversations across time and devices, and that can assist us in so many ways, it’s hard to imagine them all. It still remains to be seen how many of us will become hopelessly enamored with our disembodied smart assistants!

Guess Who? – Speaker Verification Technology

Who Am IThis week there was news that Barclays Wealth & Investment Management has implemented a speaker verification solution from Nuance. Barclays is using Nuance’s FreeSpeech product to verify a customer’s identity without asking for a password or digging for answers to personal questions. How does the technology work?

A customer calls into a contact center and starts up a conversation with a human customer support agent. FreeSpeech listens in the background and biometrically analyzes the speaker’s voice pattern. It matches the voice against a stored audio file that was built for that customer during earlier calls. During these subsequent interactions with the call canter, the FreeSpeech voice recognition software can usually verify the customer’s identity within less than half a minute into the conversation. The process is completely transparent.

Detailed documentation describing the Nuance FreeSpeech product indicates that the software works regardless of language or accents. It relies strictly on the individual’s unique voice print. In a case where the system cannot verify the person with a high enough level of confidence, the human customer service agent is notified and alternative methods of identification (such as asking for answers to stored questions) can be used.

Research shows that many people would rather scrub toilets than come up with new passwords they have to remember. No kidding. If biometric technology exists that can minimize the user’s pain of authentication, then it seems like a worthwhile thing to pursue.

Perhaps it’s only a matter of time before customer-facing virtual agents are equipped with speaker verification capabilities, so that they can ensure a web or mobile customer’s identity prior to aiding them with an account transaction. Voice-based authentication might also be a helpful role for enterprise virtual agents that serve employees within a business’s own internal application environment. I’ll be on the lookout for more implementations of the technology.

If Mobile Ads Could Talk

Nuance Voice Ads Virtual Agent Question: what do you get when you cross a chatbot with mobile ad technology and a natural language processing engine? Answer: A mobile ad that you can have a meaningful conversation with. Why would you want that? Well, have you ever wished you could ask an ad a question? Maybe a mobile ad for a product or service catches your attention, but you don’t really feel like clicking through to some awful landing page. What if you could talk to the ad and have it respond in a meaningful way to your question?

A TechCrunch article on Nuance’s new Voice Ads product suggests that the technology for conversational mobile ads exists. I haven’t seen a live demo, but it appears that the Voice Ads product is basically a chatbot that responds to a pre-programmed question and answer script.

Intelligent virtual agents with an underlying chatbot (basic pattern matching) technology are increasingly popping up as an alternative customer service channel on corporate websites. Mobile personal assistants like Siri for the iPhone and Skyvi, Speaktoit and others for Android, are becoming indispensable. The Nuance Voice Ads product is the first time I’ve seen the chatbot concept used for mobile ads.

What will happen when the deep question and answer skills of cognitive computers, of which IBM Watson is a prime example, are combined with conversational chatbot style capabilities? At that point we’ll have a lot more than just engaging advertisements to talk to, I’d suspect.

Nuance’s Dragon Mobile Assistant Offers Cool New Features

Screen shot 2013-03-12 at 8.04.11 PMNuance Communications recently announced some cool new features on their Dragon mobile assistant app for Android.

The first new capability for the Dragon mobile assistant is a location sharing and friend finder feature. If you want to let a friend know where you are, you can ask Dragon to send that friend a text that links to your current location on a map. Likewise, if you’re trying to locate someone but you’re just not finding them, Dragon can show you a map with their position on it (assuming they give their permission)

The second new Dragon feature,  which really resonates with me, is the mobile assistant’s ability to diel up any telephone number that’s in a calendar appointment. So if you have a conference call scheduled for 1pm, Dragon will ask you just before the meeting if you’d like it to call the number for you. Now that’s service!

End-to-End hands=free text messaging is the last new item the press release mentions. Not only can Dragon transcribe and send text messages you dictate, but it can read aloud incoming text messages and respond to them with your dictated reply.