Alexa delivers a customised Indian experience, including an all-new English voice with local pronunciations and intonation, support for music titles, names, and places in additional non-English languages, local knowledge, and local skills from Indian developers. Puneesh Kumar, country manager – India, Alexa Experiences and Devices, tells Sudhir Chowdhary that a voice interface will play an important role in reducing the barriers of adopting technology. Excerpts:
What does the advent of Alexa-powered products signify? Is voice the new trend?
We believe that voice will fundamentally improve the way people interact with technology. It can make the complex simple—it’s the most natural and convenient user interface. That is why we see it as the next great frontier for technology adoption. Globally, customers love Echo and Alexa —they love the convenience of being able to listen to music using only their voice, controlling their smart home devices with a simple statement like “turn on the lights”, setting timers and asking for information when their hands are busy in the kitchen, listening to the news in the morning as they get ready for work, and so much more. We are confident that users in India will also appreciate the hands-free experience and the comfort of engaging with technology using voice. I also believe that a voice interface will play an important role in reducing the barriers of adopting technology.
What are the business prospects you see in India for such voice-based speakers?
We have seen a lot of interest from Indian developers to bring their services to Alexa. We are already working with many across sectors such as travel (Ola, Goibibo, ixigo, Jet Airways), food and recipes (Faasos, Box8, Freshmenu, Zomato, Sanjeev Kapoor, Tarla Dalal), sports and entertainment (Saavn, ESPNCricinfo, Bollywood Hungama), news and education (Times of India, NDTV, ABP Live, AajTak, Byju’s) homes services and smart home (UrbanClap, Housejoy, Syska, Silvan). The Alexa voice service is not just limited to Echo devices, but is also available on a range of third-party devices. To start with, Alexa will be available on smart speakers by BPL, Onkyo, Harman, Anker, boat and RIVA.
How much time and effort went into making Alexa learn different Indian accents?
It took us almost a year to localise Alexa for India. We needed to test Alexa’s Automatic Speech Recognition with multiple Indian accents and have evolved Alexa’s natural language understanding to understand full context and intent. For example, there are many words in English that sound the same but could have different intents when used by users in India and the US. Take the word ‘Mug’; it could mean “A mug of hot chocolate” in the US vs “He mugged up all the poems for the English exam” or “He is a big mugger” in India. Another such word is ‘Marks’ (to mean grades) – in the US, the most common reference is “The accident left some serious marks on the cars” vs “His marks were poor” in India. We are also super proud of her voice and all the effort we have put in to make it appealing to our customers. Alexa speaks English with an Indian accent, but we have also taught her Hindi and regional language phonetics so she can pronounce names of important places, people, events and short phrases properly. We have also given her local intelligence, so that she is able to pronounce Indian names with greater accuracy and intonations. For example, names of people and places such as Amitabh Bachchan, Kavitha Krishnamurthy, Nagpur, Thiruvananthapuram and so on.
How will Alexa appeal to the Indian users?
Alexa didn’t just have to sound Indian and speak Indian, but also be Indian. So, we started with defining what sort of an Indian would she be—who would be her favourite authors, what movies would she watch, whether she has a favourite festival. We have added a lot of elements to give her an Indian personality. We looked at the most popular use cases of Echo devices in other markets and made sure that relevant skills and localised experiences are available to our Indian users. Customers can enjoy more than 10,000 Alexa skills on their Echo devices.
Do you see Alexa-powered speakers replacing all kinds of speakers in vogue today?
We think Amazon Echo and other Alexa-enabled devices are complimentary to the different devices one uses today, including your phone. Alexa is with you at home; enabling you to ask for information, music, news and more from across the room and get results instantly.