Google's Cathy Pearl on 4 Unexpected Use Cases for Voice Assistants

Voice UI can empower those with physical, visual and cognitive impairments

Kindra Cooper

Voice assistants for healthcare

Let’s admit it, voice commerce has a lot in common with blockchain, virtual reality and work/life balance – it’s overhyped, underutilized and little-understood by the masses. 

Brands like Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts have partnered with Google to introduce voice ordering through the smartphone-enabled Google Assistant and smart speaker, but it’s still a fragmented experience that essentially entails the user telling “app seven” to do “command five.”

Anyone who’s ever tried shopping with Amazon’s Alexa understands the frustration of hearing the voice assistant reel off a laundry list of products and prices without any supporting visual cues. 

That being said, there are plenty of unexpected use cases where voice has excelled as a computing interface and force for social good – namely, in healthcare.

At the VOICE Summit in Newark, Cathy Pearl, head of conversation design at Google, shared four lesser-known benefits of voice for the physically, visually and cognitively impaired. 

1. Answering repetitive questions for patients with Alzheimer’s 

In certain situations, forgetfulness can be fatal, like forgetting to turn off the oven or inadvertently skipping hypertension meds. Voice assistants can be programmed to prompt those suffering from Alzheimer’s with reminders, as well as field repetitive questions.

When Pearl met with Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers – typically a partner or other family member – a recurring theme she heard was how difficult it was for the unafflicted spouse hear their sick partner ask the same questions over and over again. 

Read more: Google Hijacked the Oscars - Seizing Cultural Zeitgeist to Engage the Customer

Cathy Pearl Google“It could be something like, what day is it? And she might find it a little frustrating,” said Pearl. “But sometimes it’s, what’s the name of our grandson? And that’s like an arrow in the heart and it’s really hard to hear. Voice is happy to answer that question fifty times a day cheerfully and correctly every time.”

2. Engaging the physically impaired and chronically ill

Aside from the obvious use case of enabling the physically impaired to operate IoT-enabled lights, blinds and other gadgets without having to get up, digital health coaches serve as a crucial stopgap for sufferers of chronic illness, who don’t always have access to a healthcare provider. 

With the average doctor’s visit lasting just 13-16 minutes, patients spend scant facetime with their doctor even while undergoing long-term treatment. UCB’s PD coach app lets patients with Parkinson’s disease use voice activation to track medication and symptoms, keep a journal and access a knowledge base for FAQs related to their illness. 

Read more: Digital Health Coaches Revolutionize the Patient Experience

Another company, Triad Health AI, is using a smart speaker to help patients restore their ability to multitask – one of many motor skills eroded by the disease. A voice coach prompts users to do exercises that combine movement, voice and cognition, such as marching in place while doing simple arithmetic and swinging your arms.

Instead of just reading a script, the software grades your responses to the math questions and prompts you with, “Can you lift your knees a bit?” and “Can you speak a little louder?” in its monotonous, computerized voice. 

“One of the things I love about this is it’s something that somebody can do at home with a relatively inexpensive piece of equipment – a smart speaker,” said Pearl, who is speaking at the upcoming CCW Digital Online Summit, Trends in Customer Experience Design & Strategy

Home-based care helps patients circumvent the high costs of amplitude training, a form of physical therapy specifically for patients with Parkinson’s designed to retrain the muscles and slow the progression of hypokinesia, the shuffling movements that characterize the disease.

3. Giving voice to those who don’t have one 

It might sound counterintuitive, but voice technology has emerged as a crucial aid for the deaf and mute. Japanese radio personality Kazuya Yonezawa, 60, uses speech synthesis software called Voistar to host his monthly radio show.

He lost his voice some years ago to Lou Gehrig’s disease, which weakens the muscles and gradually deprives the body of all motor skills, including speech. Before his speech abilities disappeared altogether, Yonezawa recorded audio data of his voice while he read several hundred text samples, Pearl explained. Now he types on a keyboard and the voice avatar speaks on his behalf using the recordings of his own voice. 

Read more: Voice Assistants for Self-Service - The New User Interface

“We were a chatty couple, and we were even able to have arguments thanks to the software,” his wife, Keiko, told the Japan Times

“I love the fact that this technology has brought back this part of the couple’s relationship,” said Pearl. 

Google is currently developing speech recognition capabilities for non-standard speech patterns such as those exhibited by people with cerebral palsy, a pronounced stutter, or those who have recently suffered a stroke. 

“Unfortunately, a lot of voice assistants will not work in that case, which is just terrible because in a lot of cases these are the kinds of people who would benefit most from this technology,” said Pearl. 

Meanwhile, one software developer is teaching a computer to understand American Sign Language. Voice interfaces are popping up in smartphones, smart speakers and even household appliances, which locks out certain users. 

Read more: Why Voice Technology is the Next Frontier of the Patient Experience

Software developer Abishek Singh created a mod for Amazon’s Alexa that lets the voice assistant understand simple sign language commands, according to The Verge. The Alexa is connected to a laptop with a webcam, which decodes Singh’s gesture in text and speech using back-end machine learning software. It then transcribes Alexa’s response on the computer screen.

4. Empowering seniors to connect with family and friends

Later in her presentation, Pearl shared a study by a company called Front Porch, which installed Amazon Echos in a senior living residence in Carlsbad, CA. “Often, when we think about technology adoption we think a lot about young people [...] but a lot of seniors are adopting and embracing this technology,” said Pearl. 

In addition to listening to audiobooks and music and playing games, the seniors used the device to send and receive messages to friends and family. 

One resident wrote about her experience in a blog post, stating: 

Most fun of all was setting up Alexa-to-Alexa messaging with two friends who have also started using this magical device. Alexa’s usual bright blue signal ring…shows bright greenish-yellow, and a bell rings…and one of my friends has left me a message. Yes, we could wait ’til we saw each other in the lobby. Yes, we could use the telephone. But there’s something so personal and private AND FUN about using Alexa. I haven’t had this much fun since we were kids and string a wire between two tin cans and played ‘telephone’.”