Indian consumers will make the voice internet

Voice interaction seems to be an idea, whose time has finally come.

A Space Odyssey, voice recognition has been the holy grail for computer geeks. Speech and language are the first communication technologies, and the main driver of human evolution. But the idea of a voice-activated machine, for information, advice, transactions and, maybe, even friendship, has been a mirage, not a reality, given that speech recognition has been a major challenge.

But voice interaction seems to be an idea, whose time has finally come. Why now? AI advances, using deep neural networks and supporting graphics processing unit (GPU) hardware, have made it possible to train speech engines to reach high accuracy levels, using large amounts of audio data.

And, nowhere is this more relevant than in India. From as long back as the Mahabharata, India has been an oral society, without the West’s history of “type to search” using PCs, which powered the online revolution. Illiteracy, numerous languages, lack of familiarity with multilingual keyboards, mean that other ways of interacting with the digital world are necessary. Affordable smartphones and very cheap data, make India, mobile first. And mobiles are perfect for using voice as a UI!

Last year, 30% of Google search in India was voice driven. Hindi search grew 400% in a single year—a testament to the voracious appetite for online tools and content in local languages. Now, if you are not in vernacular, you are not in India!

Recognising the incredible potential for speech technologies in India, Interspeech, the world’s foremost speech research conference, took place in September in India for the first time. It’s theme: Speech research in multilingual societies in emerging markets! Global leaders in speech discussed the huge potential for voice in India. Hundreds of researchers presented how their flavour of deep neural networks, activation functions and model hyper-parameters, progressed speech research. India’s numerous dialects, accents and languages are a researcher’s utopia—challenges to push the boundaries of speech recognition. Priyanka Chopra advertises hair oil on TV, speaking Hindi and English in a single sentence, or code switching, as its known, in technical parlance. For Indians, it makes perfect sense, but impossible for the mono-lingual British or Americans to understand!

All the global technology behemoths at Interspeech, from Baidu to Google to Facebook and Microsoft, acknowledged the importance of local language speech recognition to reach the next 300 million Indians. E-commerce giants, such as Amazon and Walmart/Flipkart, already know that to realise the Indian market’s potential, targeting the top 10% of English-speaking Indians is not enough.

The local-language Indian audience is the real market! And the race to reach multilingual India has started. Last month, Flipkart acquired Liv.ai, a speech tech start-up, to compete with Amazon’s Alexa, which is five years in the making. Amazon released a Hindi website last week. Google and Microsoft are rolling out their own initiatives in Indian languages.

In supporting Indian users, there is another opportunity—the potential for India to build global speech giants, fuelled by its many languages, dialects and noisy environments. China built its tech giants behind the Great Firewall to exclude American competitors.

India has been open to global technology companies. But with voice, India’s unique challenges (barriers for the faint hearted), could be the “opportunity” for fostering home-grown giants. India has the talent. Indians in India, and globally, are some of the world’s finest speech researchers, and Indian tech entrepreneurs are among the world’s best. Panini, the Sanskrit linguist (approximately 500 BCE), was arguably the world’s first computational linguist.

Indian product companies recognise the opportunity. Some, such as Slang.ai, are making speech tech usable for developers. Others, such as Liv.ai (FlipKart) and Voxta, are building their own recognition engines. Even large Indian corporates are throwing capital at the opportunity and hiring experienced individuals, hoping to short-circuit the learning curve for building speech products.

Either way, the Indian consumer will be the winner! Once, western online users helped fuel the development of internet giants, which became household names. Now India, with its incredible diversity of users—languages, dialects, accents—could be the hothouse for researchers, entrepreneurs, and the capital will come together to build global speech tech giants and a voice internet!

[“source=cnbc”]

How PUBG has redefined the Indian gaming ecosystem forever

Indians are well and truly addicted to PUBG thanks to affordable broadband access all over the country. The success of this online multiplayer game is clearly an inflection point for the Indian gaming industry. Will desi titles finally succeed?  

PUBG screenshot

Earlier this month, I went to my home town in Rajasthan and played PUBG in the overnight bus from Jaipur to Bikaner. I thought I would play one game while the bus was still in Jaipur as the game requires high speed data to play with 100 players synchronously. To my surprise, I ended up playing for four straight hours through the night while the bus travelled through rural Rajasthan – and the game worked throughout!

It was just one example of how India is now truly connected and how things that we thought were unimaginable not so long ago are a reality today. When Jio rolled out its nationwide network and slashed wireless broadband prices, it unleashed – among other things – the tailwind needed for the development of the Indian mobile gaming ecosystem. Global games with a massive following in other markets have been waiting on the sidelines for a long time.

PUBG, from Tencent,  has not only taken the lead in gaining the Indian gaming mindshare but is leading the way for the creation of amazing games for India over the next decade.

When I was moving back to India two years ago, one thing was clear to me – India’s masses have a lot of free time. Whenever I spent time at my cousin’s shop in a Tier 3 town, or in my village in Rajasthan, I could see that people had at least 3-4 hours to kill during their work day. This is excluding the 5-6 hours they have after work when there is little to do in these small towns. This insight made me a firm believer that if a company could provide a credible way for people to kill time on their phones, adoption would be massive. Again, from global experience, I felt that video consumption and mobile gaming would get maximum traction.

We have seen the early signs of growth for the mobile gaming ecosystem in India for the last two years. Game downloads have increased 8-10x, with the active mobile gaming population growing to approximately 200 million. [Source: ET Bureau and App Annie]. This number is expected to grow to 450 million by 2021. Even though the numbers seem large, these are still early days of gaming in India.

Gaming in India: big on downloads, low on revenue

India has become the fifth-largest country by game downloads but remains far behind on gaming revenue. The most widely adopted games in India have, at best, been sub-100MB, single-player or turn-based games. Here’s the thing: games are much more exciting when you play them with others, compete with them and gain recognition among friends and other gamers.

Most of India has not experienced this sort of multi-player gaming as yet; people who have played Age of Empires (AOE) or Counter Strike or Quake during their undergrad days are a small subset and would relate to this format.

I remember getting addicted to AOE during my IIT days and playing it over LAN with seven other players in teams of up to four (there are three modes – solo, duo and squad). The experience of playing it with other friends just made the game so much more interesting that we would play 14-16 hours a day at times and also watch the recordings of the game to improve our game. I remember reading about how (Flipkart Co-founder) Sachin Bansal was a pro Quake player and played competitively during his IIT days.

And that’s how it was – pockets of players. In parallel, most mobile game developers I have spoken to have been very wary of developing multi-player and graphics-heavy games for India. Their scepticism was based on their experiences from the last decade when India was truly crunched for data and, until recently, for phone space. This was the state until PUBG hit our screens.

[“source=forbes]