April 3, 2019

The power of sound: A deep dive into my top trend from SXSW19


Natalie Khoo at SXSW19

Every year, professionals working in tech, film and music from all over the globe flock to Austin for the world’s biggest gathering of creative minds – South by Southwest (SXSW).

This year marked my first visit. What I learned in 26 sessions over a period of 5 days was epic. And while you might have guessed the topic on everyone’s lips was voice technology, I discovered that what’s in store for us in the age of ‘sound’ is even more exciting. In saying that, there will be many new considerations that content producers and marketers need to think about, which I’ll explain here. 


Those passionate about voice technology will already know that by 2020, it’s predicted that 50% of tasks will be carried out by voice. Furthermore, 30% of these interactions won’t involve a screen.

The big deal about sound is that we can consume it all of the time. Audio and voice recognition technology empowers us to multitask. Unlike a VR headset that demands our full attention, sound fits into our daily lives – whether we are cooking, driving, or walking down the street. For this reason, it will have a bigger impact than we think.

We’re also innately connected to sound. From a psychological perspective, audio evokes a primal response. We first experience sound in the womb, and it continues to affect us on a subconscious level throughout life. For example, the sound of waves crashing on the shore has the ability to calm us down, and jingles from old adverts bring us back to our childhood.


1. Machine listening

“Hey Alexa. Did you know that in a few years, I won’t need to talk to you anymore? You’ll just hear my movements and know exactly what I need. I won’t have to ask you to turn on the lights – as a smart speaker, you’ll be able to tell when I walk in the front door or down the stairs. As soon as you detect my footsteps on the floorboards, you’ll then turn the lights on for me before I have to ask.”

The above scenario shows how technology will progress beyond conversation. This is an exciting prospect I uncovered in a presentation by Cochlear.Ai.

A snapshot of what machine listening can do, taken from the Cochlear.AI website.

Currently, Alexa can detect the size of the room you’re in from the echo of your voice. If we take this technology to the next level, we can automate tasks based on context – we call this machine listening.

The everyday application of machine listening already exists – we see it in apps like Shazam that can listen and identify music for us. But outside the home and office, there is incredible potential, particularly in surveillance. Imagine if councils were able to monitor sounds at a bus stop in real time. It could immensely improve safety within communities.

2. Bose Frames

Bose Frames: Smart glasses that people will actually want to wear – and can afford.

When Google Glass was first released in 2013, it was ahead of its time. So much so, that nobody wanted to wear it. Now, in 2019, Bose has taken that concept and developed wearable glasses that are actually cool: Bose Frames.

Pairing functionality with fashion, these classic frames feature Bluetooth technology and a speaker so seamlessly integrated they’re virtually undetectable. Better yet, the speaker is cleverly engineered so that nobody can hear its output – only the person who’s wearing it.

This sounds odd, right? A headphones manufacturer making glasses? A company known for noise-cancelling headphones developing a device for everyday sound? Whatever you think, I’m excited to see what impact Bose Frames will have. At only $199USD, Bose Frames are accessible, and I think great potential lies ahead for augmented reality to leapfrog from novelty to norm (see more below in ‘Connection’).

3. Bone conduction headphones

AlterEgo is your ‘second self’ – a device that basically reads your mind through sub-aural interaction.

Task completion using voice technology is great – until you’re in a public space. Social etiquette and city noise prevent us from having a conversation with Siri on the train. But with the release of new technology from MIT, this could change.

Imagine having a conversation with your smart device, without saying a word. Last year MIT released ‘AlterEgo: A Personalised Wearable Silent Speech Interface’, high-tech headphones that allow you to interact with technology by detecting muscular movements in your jaw then delivering aural output into an earpiece.

Although it still requires a lot more work, the AlterEgo gives us a glimpse of what life could be like completing tasks on the go through wearable technology instead of a screen.

4. Applications for people with disabilities

Alexa is not just about turning on the lights – it can change lives. In ‘The Democratization of Voice’, Cathy Pearl (Head of Conversation Design Outreach at Google) explained, “Voice technology can do so much more than just be convenient and frictionless.”

The control of robotics through voice recognition empowers people with accessibility needs to accomplish small tasks that are typically perceived as a hassle, such as scratch their face or adjust the curtains. In Robbie’s case (see the video below), he now has the opportunity to manage living away from home.

The benefits of technology also cascade down to others, such as Robbie’s mum. She’s now able to gain some respite, rather than be on call 24 hours a day.

Robbie – who has Muscular Dystrophy – can now control a range of tasks independently using Google Home.

Another revolutionary Google product is Live Transcribe. Through voice recognition, it transcribes words onto a screen in real time, enabling people with hearing impairments to read and participate in conversations as they happen.

It’s interesting to note that these conversations are only processed in a local environment – not stored in a cloud. This provides a sigh of relief for users concerned about privacy.

Live Transcribe gives deaf people the ability to understand and take part in conversations in real time.


1. Empathy

Machine listening can do more than detect the sound of you opening your front door. When combined with AI programming, machine listening can also detect your tone of voice and emotional distress.

This application has great potential for call centres. According to Walker research, “By 2020, customer care is predicted to overtake product and price as the number one way for a business to differentiate itself.” Through thoughtful application of machine listening and AI, we can now generate appropriate responses with a customer’s emotional state in mind, or triage queries to service representatives better equipped at handling difficult situations.

To see how it works, check out IBM Watson’s Tone Analyser or Empath from Japan.

2. Connection

In a world where people go about their day talking to Siri and wearing Bose Frames, one thing is clear: there’s a lack of face-to-face interaction. While sound technology enables us to become more independent than ever before, this comes at a social cost.

What futurists are trying to figure out is how we use these technologies to bring people together (i.e. create immersive audio experiences through augmented reality such as Elvis in Memphis that are better shared with friends). With the move towards ‘less screen, more sound’, I believe we’ll see more opportunities to interact with each other (and brands) using technology as a springboard, rather than a hindrance.

3. Attitude

A topic that came up again and again at SXSW19 was the impact that voice technology has on children. How does barking orders at Alexa at home translate in the playground? Will human beings lose the ability to talk to each other with respect?

Although software developers are rolling out updates that require children to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, the ethical debate about whether the responsibility lies with a tech company or a parent continues to be unresolved. How this behaviour will influence the power dynamic between consumers and brands is yet to be realised as future generations grow.


1. Websites will become redundant

We no longer search Google for ‘weather Melbourne’; we just ask Siri to tell us the forecast. We’re now expecting to have a richer, more human-like relationship with technology. As Alex Spinelli from Live Person said in his presentation ‘RIP Websites, The End Is Nigh’, “Voice is about recreating the human interaction model.”

As marketers, we need to consider all the touchpoints a customer may have with our brand via different devices available to us in the future. I’m not saying people should throw their websites away. We just need to iteratively take steps towards conversational design. And the great thing about effective conversational design is that it enables us to communicate with customers in the same place, over time.

If you’re a new player in the market, you may wish to be audacious and think voice first, website never. BuddyBank is an Italian startup that launched in January this year. Offering a 24/7 virtual concierge, they’ve rewritten all the rules when it comes to the finance sector; take a look at this prototype for inspo below (FYI there’s no accompanying audio).

BuddyBank’s ‘conversational design’ first approach delivers what Millennials crave. Source: Ramotion Dribble page.

Now is the time to invest in copywriters and content specialists with niche expertise in conversation design. Alongside marketing, UX and CX teams, they will help you analyse ‘intent’ and ‘response’, curating effective scripts suited to voice recognition technology.

2. Social media videos will become a waste of time

When was the last time you clicked ‘sound on’ in your Facebook feed? If you’re unsure, well, so is everyone else. No one is listening to video anymore – we rely on visual cues and subtitles to tell the story. So what should marketers do? There are a few options.

The first strategy is pretty straightforward. If you intend to produce video for social media feeds, make sure you create content that people will actually want to listen to. At SXSW19, Tom Chirico from Twitter’s Brand Strategy team shared two great examples – a recent Lynx advert and the ‘Yanni versus Laurel’ debate. Lynx carefully scripted sound-based entertainment to engage consumers. Meanwhile, the reason why Yanni versus Laurel was such a hit was because sound was an inherent part of the experience that people couldn’t get if they didn’t turn it on.

See how Lynx features sound in its video.

Listen to ‘Yanni versus Laurel’ and participate in the debate.

The second strategy is not as straightforward but makes sense. Take a step back and analyse what opportunities there are outside social media. Don’t abandon Instagram immediately, but look at other channels, media types and devices we will be using in the future that are sound-first. Would you consider partnering with a podcast publisher, or an AR/VR designer in anticipation Bose Frames penetrating the market? If you can get your message across in ‘sound on’ environments, your brand is more likely to be heard.

3. We’ll all be developing a ‘sonic strategy’

Although thinking ‘voice first’ is gold, thinking ‘voice only’ is a trap. In the context of branding, sound is incredibly powerful. Consumers immediately recognise the sound of Netflix loading, or if there’s an Apple Mac starting up in the room. Likewise, if I turn to an Australian and ask out loud, “Which bank?” they will reply “Commbank”. Does your brand have an equivalent sound that evokes a response?

Sounds are not limited to 4-second audio devices or jingles. Just like a suite of icons associated with a brand, sound can take different forms. There are so many opportunities to be explored. Devising a sonic strategy that aligns with your content strategy will put you ahead of the pack, and ensure audio becomes a priority in your creative process rather than an afterthought.

So, what exactly is a sonic strategy? It’s a blueprint of sounds associated with your brand, and how they’re applied in different ways. Just as design guidelines dictate how a logo and colour palette should be used, a sonic strategy dictates how a spectrum of carefully curated sounds (including words and key phrases) should be used. Following these guidelines give you the best chance of embedding sonic branding into a consumers’ subconscious mind.

Your sonic strategy should also sit alongside tone of voice guidelines. The way you speak to audiences – whether on screen or via a virtual assistant – should be consistent. Just as we do when designing chatbot personalities, consider diversity, accent, tone and gender when prescribing voices to your brand.

4. ‘Call to actions’ will change

If your brand wishes to take people on a journey, what can you do to make the experience seamless? I’m talking about audio-to-audio here, not phone-to-shop-to-website. Upon listening to a podcast or interacting with immersive audio, imagine how you’d feel if a voice prompted you to visit a website or fill in an online form using a keyboard, mouse and screen. Let’s rethink the typical call to action, and ask ourselves why we’re not prompting consumers to tell Alexa what they need instead? As marketers, this is a great opportunity to keep the conversation going, rather than sending customers off to another media type. 

At Avion Communications, we are passionate about emerging technology. Using our skills as copywriters, content strategists and conversation designers, we’re excited to help brands apply sound and voice recognition technology. If you work in customer experience and would like to chat further, we welcome you to (ask Siri to) call our team today.

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