We can’t seem to get enough of artificial intelligence (AI) assistants like Siri and Alexa. Given the popularity of these and other speaking devices, it makes sense that companies are beginning to use these spoken interface platforms to deliver exciting new customer experiences. That was certainly the idea behind a new BBC initiative: an audio drama that allows listeners to join in, and have their own two-way conversation with characters via their smart speaker.
How the BBC is using Big Data in practice
This BBC initiative is called Talking with Machines, and its aim is to “explore the possibilities of these devices and platforms in terms of content, interaction design, and software development patterns.” The idea was to develop a device-independent BBC platform that would support spoken interfaces and interact well with Alexa, Siri or whomever joins the market next, but also to develop and nurture expertise around spoken interface technology within the BBC itself.
As part of this project, the BBC research and development team collaborated with other internal teams working on related projects, like developing a BBC engine for natural language processing. What makes Talking with Machines different is that it focuses on spoken interfaces, instead of the text-focused projects elsewhere in the organisation.
One outcome of the Talking with Machines work is an original, interactive audio drama, created especially for smart speakers Amazon Echo and Google Home. (The BBC team expects to expand to other voice-activated devices going forward.) Working with audio production specialists Rosina Sound, the BBC released the first programme, a comedy/science fiction story called The Inspection Chamber, in November 2017.
How is the programme interactive? Based on the BBC’s underlying “story engine”, listeners get to be part of the story as it prompts them to answer questions and insert their own lines into the story. According to the BBC’s Research and Development blog, “you’re actively playing a part in the story, using your own voice – we wanted to make it feel like you’re having a genuine, direct interaction with the other characters in the piece.”
This may sound reminiscent of those choose-your-own-adventure tales, or computer games like Papa Sangre and The Stanley Parable, but The Inspection Chamber ended up evolving into its own, completely unique experience.
Without giving too much of the plot away, the story starts with a female voice that says, “Hello, my name is Dave. I hope life has been comfortable in the containment room.” The story progresses and the listener is subjected to a scientific examination, answering a number of questions along the way. The overall narrative of the 20-minute story doesn’t change, but the ending will vary depending on how the listener has answered the questions.
The technical details
As well as the usual plot and storyline challenges inherent in creating an original drama, the BBC team had to contend with technical challenges, such as the fact that Alexa needs people to talk every 90 seconds. That meant the story had to allow for natural ways for the reader to respond frequently, without it seeming forced.
On top of that, voice-activated devices can only comprehend a predefined set of words, so the storyline had to operate within this lexicon. A scientific exam, with narrow this-or-that types of questions, where the options for answers are words that the devices already understand, was the natural solution. The BBC experimented with a number of other prototype stories before it was happy with the storyline and tech of The Inspection Chamber.
Ideas and insights you can steal
With this exciting initiative, the BBC became the first to expand the use of voice-activated devices like Alexa beyond asking for weather reports, headlines or a favourite song. As voice-activated devices have quickly become a firm fixture in our homes, it will be interesting to see how others follow the BBC’s lead and attempt to entertain, inspire and engage us through this technology.
Bernard Marr is a world-renowned futurist, influencer and thought leader in the field of business and technology. He is the author of 18 best-selling books, writes a regular column for Forbes and advises and coaches many of the world’s best-known organisations. He has 2 million social media followers and was ranked by LinkedIn as one of the top 5 business influencers in the world and the No 1 influencer in the UK.