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Image credit: paylessimages / 123RF Stock Photo

(Additional reporting by Pearl Lee)

Something strange is happening in Japan: More and more families are talking to conical-shaped devices in their homes.

“Play me a summer song, Clova.”

“Will I be rich one day, Clova?”

“What the hell are you, Clova?!”

In 2016, Line introduced the concept of an AI-powered assistant at its annual Line Developer Day. Within a year, it had collaborated with its parent company, Korean search engine giant Naver, to develop a cloud-based virtual assistant.

Or Clova, for short.

Clova Wave is a smart speaker powered by voice commands. It has two existing products to work with: Line’s messaging platform – a juggernaut app in Japan with over 200 million global users – and Naver’s search engine. Engineers from both companies came together to answer the digital generation’s call for smarter, faster voice-powered technology.

Women and children users dominate in this market

Line introduced a trial version of Clova Wave in August 2017, though shipments were delayed. The product officially hit shelves in October this year.

In the US, young and high-income adult males are the early adopters of technology, according to Pew Research Center.

It’s not unreasonable to think that the initial users of voice-controlled smart speakers like Clova Wave and its competitors, Google Home and Amazon Echo, would be men.

But interestingly, when Clova Wave was launched in Japan, women and children seemed to dominate the pickup demographic instead.

Interestingly, women and children seem to dominate the pickup demographic instead of men, who are usually the early adopters of tech.

“Mothers ask Clova to set timers if their hands are full during cooking, or use the remote control feature to turn off the television to tell their kids to get ready for bed,” says Taiichi Hashimoto, who manages the virtual assistant development team at Line.

Line’s focus on features like controlling the lights, playing music, telling time and the weather, and, and reading and sending Line messages seems to be the right strategy. To put that into perspective, the top and repeatedly used features for Amazon Echo aren’t for buying stuff, but for playing songs, controlling lights, and setting timers. It seems that manufacturers of smart speakers have found a core set of features that works.

And after Amazon Echo made its debut in Japan in November, the stakes for Line have become much higher.

The Champs with Wave. Image credit: Tech in Asia

The friendlier the better, especially in Asia

Line is doubling down on their focus on Asian users, especially because of the data they have on users in key markets, such as Taiwan, Thailand, Indonesia, and Korea.

While North America remains the largest market for smart speakers, Asia Pacific is third, just behind Western Europe, according to Strategy Analytics.

And if there’s a market where cute products sell well, that would be Japan, plus other parts of Asia.

In line with the company’s signature style, the speaker also will adopt a more colorful, friendlier body. Users familiar with the Line messaging app would know characters like Brown (the bear) and Sally (the chick). Developers will fit Clova Wave with both characters, and that will be marketed as Clova Champ.

At present, Clova Wave is only available in Japan. As such, not only was it designed to look appealing to Japanese consumers, but developers also zeroed in on solving problems for the Japanese language. This gives Line the key advantage in smart speakers since Japanese is ranked as one of the top five most difficult languages to learn.

What makes Japanese so tricky is the sheer number of homonyms and homophones, or words that sound alike but have different meanings. Developers also had to make sure Clova understood idioms and alternative expressions found beyond dictionaries.

On top of that, the developers had to teach Clova the names of artists, albums, places, landmarks, and proper nouns so it can better understand users.

The development team plans to collect large amounts of user speech for training purposes. With use, Clova has the ability to know a lot more.

“Although Clova is still nascent and has limited knowledge, the assistant can learn a lot with time,” explains Hashimoto.

Besides vocal cues in Japanese, developers are also working on helping Clova recognize familiar voices. Instead of saying, “Nice to meet you,” Clova can respond with “Nice to see you again!” when it hears voices already registered in its memory.

Both Google Home and Amazon Echo offer a voice recognition feature. But like Line, they’re working on improving “contextual information”.

“We hope to allow Clova to understand things other than speech, such as the concept of time,” says Hashimoto. “So [eventually], Clova will say, ‘Happy New Year!’ on New Year’s Day.”

An unexpected stress test

With all these challenges, some hiccups in the software wouldn’t be a surprise. But there hasn’t been “any major bug on Clova,” says Hashimoto. “We are constantly solving small issues and improving at an ongoing level.”

For instance, Hashimoto shared an anecdote about Clova’s commercial, which aired in August during the televised soccer qualifiers for next year’s World Cup. The ad featured a father who asks how the Japanese team is doing. While this struck a chord with viewers, the voices from the commercial calling out to “Clova” caused Clova Waves at homes to react.

“The engineer team pulled an all-nighter conducting stress tests and coming up with a solution,” Hashimoto shares.

A similar incident happened in the US earlier this year when Amazon Echoes across the country bought dollhouses after a news report on a child’s purchase was aired. The news anchor’s voice had activated the smart home device.

Artificial intelligence provides virtual assistance to families. Image credit: paylessimages / 123RF Stock Photo

Redefining AI

According to Hashimoto, artificial intelligence should not be understood as just machine learning.

“[It’s] a virtual assistant in our life,” he said to the audience at Line Developer Day 2017.

Clova is an AI assistant co-developed with Naver for the post-smartphone and post-touch era.

Every use and all the updates help the system evolve and grow, much like humans do. Clova’s replies grow less robotic, yet remain accurate.

Though the development of Clova and Clova Wave was no small feat, the team was able to tap into Line and Naver’s considerable expertise, making its job a lot easier.

Every use and all the updates help the system evolve and grow, much like humans do. Clova’s replies grow less robotic, yet remain accurate.

At the core of Clova’s tech is the Natural Language Processing software (NLP) – perhaps the most critical component in a voice-activated AI virtual assistant. It understands users’ requests and learns from them, while its voice is a product of speech-synthesizing tech.

The system also includes the Clova Extension Kit (CEK). Through this, users can enjoy other applications on Clova like Line (for sending and receiving messages) and Line Music.

“[It] anticipates users’ needs, much like a natural, human conversation,” says Hashimoto in an interview with Tech in Asia.

Image credit: Tech in Asia

The system works like a seasoned team of relay runners.

For example, when a user asks Clova Wave to “play some music suitable for fall,” the NLP identifies the user, receives this information via a voice recognition software, and then converts it to text in real time.

After analyzing the user’s intent – both the request for music and how it should be suitable for the fall – it activates Line Music through CEK and plays a song associated with the season.

Just like clockwork.

This is part of the coverage of Line Developer Day 2017, a technical conference held at Shibuya, Tokyo on September 28.

This post How Line trained a virtual assistant within a year appeared first on Tech in Asia.

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