Amol Bhuyar, a school teacher in Warud, Maharashtra, has found a unique way to teach his students using a smart speaker. Inspired by Sophia, the first robot to get Saudi Arabia citizenship in 2017, Bhuyar invested in an Amazon Echo device and covered the device in the form of a robot to resemble a human being.

Armed with a power bank, a mannequin, an Echo smart speaker and a mobile hotspot, he introduced Alexa into the classroom. The moment Alexa started to answer questions, the students got excited and the learning process became more engaging.

Companies such as Amazon and Google, which are driving the smart speaker market in India, are looking for similar innovative usage to make it more relevant for non-urban users. “We are inspired by the story of a school teacher in rural Maharashtra who used the Echo Dot as a teaching aid in his classroom. We had hundreds of developers across ages join us for an Alexa Hackathon in Hubli, a relatively small town in Karnataka. Customers are still at an early stage of adopting smart speakers in India, and just as many other innovative categories will build over time across regions and customer segments,” says Parag Gupta, Head of Amazon Devices India.

Languages, a barrier

According to International Data Corporation’s India Monthly Smart Speaker Device Tracker, a total of 753,000 units were shipped in 2018 in India. Amazon remains the leader with a 59 per cent market share in 2018. Google is also making its mark in the Indian smart speaker market after its launch in the second quarter of 2018, and is placed second with 39 per cent unit share for the year. However, most of the sales are currently happening in metro cities and is being used for largely music applications. Analysts believe that if the smart speaker market in India has to grow beyond the initial uptake, then players like Amazon and Google will have to look at tier-II/III cities. For that voice recognition in regional languages will be a basic requirement in addition to local content.

Voice as an input will potentially revolutionise the way we interact with devices. For the online literate, the voice will be an add on... the most natural way to interact. However, the real potential will be seen when people who are not yet online due to literacy or are just plain apprehensive of using technology starting to use voice as their medium of online communication.

“While India presents an unmatched opportunity for device makers and services providers, its diversity with scores of languages and hundreds of dialects will pose questions on how to make services relevant for the huge potential user base beyond big cities,”said Navkendar Singh, Research Director, IDC India.

Google, for example, is focussing on creating a desi experience for all its Indian consumers. A Google spokesperson said, “The team has been working hard to create a localised experience for the smart speakers for Indian consumers, making it truly ‘ desi ’, we are looking at introducing ten languages in India for Google mini, like we have done for Google Assisstant.”

Amazon has a technique through which consumers can make Alexa learn different languages. Today, Alexa understands Indian English and a few mixed language utterances. For example, you can ask Alexa to play a Hindi, Tamil or a Marathi song. When you say Alexa, play Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara , this sentence has four Hindi words and two English.

“Alexa is constantly learning and you can expect it to respond to more mixed language queries in the future. To help Alexa learn any language, we even launched the Cleo skill on the Alexa India store last year. It provides customers with an opportunity to share more about their languages and culture with Alexa. Customers in India can help Alexa learn Hindi, Tamil, Marathi, Kannada, Bengali, Telugu, Gujarati and other languages, using Cleo,”said Gupta.

The writer is an intern with BusinessLine