Virtual assistants like Alexa, Google Assistant, Cortana and others have been a helpful aide in the lives of many consumers. These assistants help users buy goods, schedule activities and turn appliances on and off.
Now, these intelligent assistants are becoming our coworkers as Amazon and Microsoft along with hardware partners take steps to bring Alexa and Cortana into the conference room and our workstations.
In recent years, these artificially intelligent assistants have become part of the workplace. Amazon launched Alexa for Business in 2018 and Cortana is now becoming a larger part of the Microsoft 365 and Teams experience. Now, enter COVID-19, and there’s an even greater demand for these assistants to help streamline virtual meetings and allow for contactless interaction with conference room infrastructure.
Virtual assistants are part the new normal
In July, Microsoft announced that it would be bringing its virtual assistant Cortana to the Teams mobile app to help users make calls. The company is also releasing Teams-dedicated displays through Lenovo and Yealink with Cortana built in for hybrid work environments.
And, Cortana will also be enabled for Microsoft Teams Room devices to in-room participants can ask Cortana to join and leave a meeting, add a participant from the address book to a meeting, and more.
In an email, a Microsoft spokesperson said Cortana can help users perform tasks like making a call, joining a meeting, sending chat messages, sharing files and more. Microsoft wants Cortana to help workers get things done throughout the course of the day rather than simply answering questons or setting timers.
“A place where we see people really needing that extra assistance is with their work, their email, their meetings and those mundane tasks like scheduling, setting reminders, managing email and other tedious tasks that can take a lot of time out of your day and shouldn’t,” the spokesperson said. “When it comes to a meeting room specifically, we want an assistant to help with joining calls, dictating meetings and action items, sending messages, sharing files and so much more. We have started to get some of these functionalities off the ground and are continuing to explore and innovate to add even more.”
Virtual assistants could especially be helpful at home while workers juggle work and their personal lives, according to Microsoft.
“This hands-free and natural language assistance, to us, is even more important while we work remotely and manage the rest of their lives during these challenging times,” the spokesperson said. “We want to continue creating an assistant that can help you get things done faster, easier so you can focus on all the other important things you have going on in your life.”
Going forward, end users could expect to see more natural language tools and functionalities around email, calendar and meeting management for both remote work and in-office use.
“An area that is fascinating to us is how we can take it further when it comes to dictation, tracking action items spoken aloud in meetings and how can integrate that into email, chat and document sharing,” the spokesperson said.
Making use of what’s already there
In January 2019, Gartner Research published a study that found the use of virtual assistants in the workplace is growing.
The research organization predicted that 25% of digital workers will use a virtual employee assistant on a daily basis by 2021. That’s up from less than 2% in 2019.
“We expect VEAs to be used by an increasing number of organizations over the next three years,” said Annette Jump, senior director at Gartner. “Industries such as insurance and financial services are showing strong interest in piloting VEAs internally. We’ve also witnessed VAs being used in IT, customer service and information queries.”
Examples include Amazon’s Alexa for Business helping employees delegate tasks such as scheduling meetings and logistics operations, and Nokia’s MIKA helping engineers find answers as they perform complex tasks or diagnose problems. “Ultimately, VAs used in the workplace and VEAs will increase employee productivity and foster constructive engagement,” added Ms. Jump.
What Gartner didn’t take into consideration, however, was the demand for contactless technology coupled with the demand for videoconferencing and unified communications and collaboration amid a globa pandemic.
Prior to Logitech’s integration with Alexa, videoconferencing provider Lifesize brought what it says was the industry’s first native integration with Alexa for Business.
That included a wide range ofproductivity-boosting voice-acticated controls for existing Lifesize meeting room systems without requiring additional hardware.
That was similar to the Logitech integration, but also included the possibility to control other appliances like lighting and power shades.
Logitech and Amazon also partnered on an integration hat helps enterprise customers prepare for hybrid work environments in Logitech Zoom Rooms. The integration incorporates Amazon Web Services’ intelligent assistant into the meeting room for use with several Logitech solutions, including the Logitech Tap controller, Mini PC and Zoom-certified Logitech Rally or MeetUp conferencecam.
Geno Zahari, the director of appliances and GTM at Logitech, said in an interview that COVID-19 has presented a use case for the concept that was once considered to be primarily complimentary in nature.
Within the Logitech Zoom Rooms solution, Alexa for Business lets users schedule and reserve meeting rooms, start meetings, end meetings and more.
However, Logitech and AWS were developed the integration well before COVID-19 hit. The integration was originally intended to help organizations with a large suite of conference rooms help manage that real estate.
“It feeds right into that,” Zahari says.
Rather than needing another Alexa device, microphones on Logitech Zoom Room devices can detect Alexa voice commands.
“It’s kind of a nice story of centralizing and leveraging what’s already there,” Zahari says.