As theme park rides go, it was pretty tame: a four-minute trundle through the ups and downs of family life, avoiding a traffic jam and a thunderstorm, then ending at a birthday party.
Yet this week in Las Vegas, “Google Assistant — The Ride” was the talk of the town. The tech group had constructed its own miniature version of Disneyland in a car park, for one week only, just to promote its virtual assistant at the Consumer Electronics Show.
A series of custom-made animatronic characters and dioramas demonstrate how Google’s reminders, navigation tips and translation services can help buy grandma a birthday cake.
It is the sort of extravagant marketing stunt that showed just how eager Google is to show CES’s 180,000 attendees that it is serious about taking on Amazon and Apple for dominance in virtual assistants, smart speakers and the connected home.
“It’s a sledgehammer to crack a nut,” said Ben Wood, analyst at CCS Insight, of Google’s two-story “Assistant Playground”. “It’s all about closing the gap with [Amazon’s assistant] Alexa and saying to all these other companies who can integrate with them: ‘look what we can give you, we can buy the visibility for you’.”
With sales of the iPhone and other smartphones declining and more revolutionary ideas such as self-driving cars still years away from wide adoption, the retail buyers who make up the bulk of CES attendees have settled on smart speakers and virtual assistants as the most immediate way to kick-start gadget sales.
Yet as an early real-world manifestation of the potential for artificial intelligence, the stakes are much higher for the big tech platforms who have become a more visible presence at CES this year after several years away.
Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri and Google’s Assistant are all hoping to outpace Samsung’s Bixby, Microsoft’s Cortana and others to become the first name that consumers think of when they want to ask for music, information, directions or, yes, order cake.
So far, most smart speakers have entered the home through the kitchen, where they are often used as little more than expensive cooking timers.
This year at CES, Google, Amazon and Apple all made moves to move into the living room— long seen as a vital battleground for adoption of new technologies.
Television makers Samsung, LG and Vizio all said that it would build Alexa into their 2019 sets, while Google Assistant will be included in TVs from Sony, TCL and Toshiba.
Televisions are often a focal point of CES, though not always for reasons that are readily intelligible to regular TV shoppers. Faced with an onslaught of jargon such as “Quantum dot” or “8K” displays, or expensive new innovations such as LG’s roll-up screens, the concept of using Alexa or Google Assistant to replace the remote control was much more accessible to the average consumer, said Carolina Milanesi, tech analyst at Creative Strategies.
It also provides a wider showcase for the assistants’ capabilities. “If you’re asking to play a movie, there is a moment of delight because you get back what you want — that’s a bit different to asking for the weather,” Ms Milanesi says. “God forbid we actually have to move to pick up the remote.”
As they vie for leadership, each of the tech companies has tried to outdo the other with dazzling statistics: Amazon said this week it had sold more than 100m devices with Alexa inside; Siri is actively used on more than 500m iPhones and other Apple products; while Google Assistant is now “available” on almost 1bn devices, from smartphones to its Home speakers.
Those figures have not yet convinced Malcolm Paton, executive director of SGW Global, the consumer electronics manufacturer behind Deuce, a “smart speaker phone” powered by Alexa that can make calls and stream music.
“Alexa is still the market leader for voice-control devices,” Mr Paton said from his stand on the CES show floor. “They have a good team [and] they have given us resources out of their R&D centres in Seattle and California.”
Nonetheless, he is following the battle between Amazon and Google closely. “We chose to work with Amazon but that doesn’t mean we won’t work with Google,” he said. “There’s room for several I think . . . Everybody is watching this space.”
Yet with smaller device makers outsourcing their core smarts to Google or Amazon, analysts fear that many will be left with little differentiation.
“The smart home is a disaster. It’s absolute carnage,” said Mr Wood, pointing to me-too products such as internet-connected doorbells and smart locks that flooded the halls of CES. “It’s just ripe for consolidation.”
The ultimate goal of Amazon and Google is to spread their assistants not just to the kitchen or living room but all over the house and out into the car — all in the hope of gathering vital data about their customers and making it as easy as possible for them to purchase new products and services.
“It’s a land grab,” Mr Wood said. “It’s about getting consumers to move beyond thinking Alexa is a cylindrical speaker, so it becomes omnipresent.”
Google’s CES rollercoaster ride soundtrack may have sounded like it belonged in Disneyland but the scale of that ambition is clear from the lyrics: “All you need’s a little nudge from the Google Assistant on this ride of your life.”
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