By 80 DAYS | July 13th, 2017
VUI (Voice User Interfaces) – a technology of the future? Many would argue they’re the present. Indeed, Google reported in 2014 that 41% of adults were already using voice search, that number growing to 55% among teens. Using our voices to interact with devices and technologies such as Alexa, Siri, Cortana, Google Home and Apple’s new HomePod is transforming the way we interact with brands and search engines.
Dazzle, a spin-off business from software company Lola Tech, are leading the way with VUI technology in hotel rooms, offering voice-activated concierge services delivered via Amazon’s Echo Dot device. According to their own words, “Dazzle sits in the hotel bedroom and uses a hybrid of Artificial Intelligence and human brain to deliver seemingly impossible levels of guest service.”
Fresh from trialling their service in the London Marriott County Hall hotel as part of Marriott’s TestBed programme at the start of 2017, we caught up with Lola Tech Founder, Luke McNeice and Co-Founder of Dazzle Technology, Charles Cadbury, to discuss how voice user interfaces could help transform the guest experience.
First of all, can you give us a brief background on Lola Tech and Dazzle please?
Luke: Sure, Lola is an 8 year old company now. It was a one-man band until about 6 and a 1/4 years ago when I walked into a big contractors as an enterprise architect. It was an airline in America where my old buddy had become CIO and they were completely reorganising their entire organisation, rewriting everything. A build, not buy, company, great for software engineers and the back-end web services weren’t going to be ready for a year so their CIO said ‘why don’t you put your own team together, the A team’? So I did! I hired all the friends I liked working with and we hired their friends, and their friends, and here we are today… 72 people. We do about 80% from one big customer, with a dozen projects for their organisation and we’ve created a couple of spin-offs, of which Dazzle was the first.
It’s been quite a year for Dazzle, well it’s not even been a year has it?
Charles: This time last year there was no idea about Dazzle.
Luke: This time last year, we were working on a prototype for our launch party. The first part was using Alexa (Amazon’s intelligent personal assistant) to walk through our biggest customers booking path, booking a plane ticket. Then Charlie and Cheyne are sitting in a pub and they hear about Marriott TestBED and from a cocktail napkin idea, they applied, somehow won it and 70 days later we were running it in a Marriott Hotel.
So how was the Marriott TestBED experience overall?
Charles: Without that third party endorsement it’s really hard to get traction, especially as a young business. Even with the might of Lola Tech behind us, Dazzle is still a young business, so TestBED really, really, helped. It helped with proof of concept, but getting our technology in a hotel gave us valuable live data too.
Did the Marriott County Hall trial unearth anything you didn’t expect? Any surprises?
Luke: It worked much better than I thought it would. We only had one request for a sexual favour, which shocked me! What about you Charlie?
Charles: We saw that people humanised the technology. But also, the reason it’s called Dazzle is because it’s delivering you more than you get at home. And this is one of the problems that hotels speak of a lot; you used to get loads more in a hotel than you get at home and that’s why going to a hotel was such a special experience. But now, because people bring technology with them, or there’s big TVs and free WiFi as standard, technology has outmoded all that. You can phone up for super-fast food delivery at home that’s often quicker than room service, you’ve got the best sound systems and the biggest TVs in your living room. Being able to hook up Dazzle so that it delivers you things in real time, taking the friction out of that in-room experience, just works a lot better. People responded really well to that and once they started using it, they used it more and more.
Did you find any challenges with guests nationality and language affecting uptake?
Charles: So Alexa devices work really well across accents. But even before we put it into rooms we did a lot of research and interviews with the staff in the hotel and they’re from everywhere. They were surprised, and we were surprised, at how well it coped. It’s English, German and Chinese at the moment, but that will change as Amazon delivers more languages.
And how did guests react to the new technology?
Charles: I was doing some guest research in the executive lounge at the Marriott County Hall with my friend Harry, who’s helping us build this. We were chatting with Simone Papa, Marriott’s Director of Guest Experience and Mobility Operations about Dazzle. Then this American guy, completely unknown to us, came over and said “Hi, I’m a Marriott Platinum Member, are you talking about these Alexa devices in the hotel?” and we were like “Yep, we’re Dazzle, we’ve got this product…” and he slapped the table and said “Amazing, I want them in every Marriott room that I’m ever staying at, here’s my Platinum number”. Turning to Simone, he continued “Are you the Marriott guy? You’ve got to make this happen”. He left and Simone was laughing; “is he a plant?!”. So in terms of guest experience, the people who understand the potential can see the benefits really clearly. The rest will learn over time.
We’ve been talking about VUI for quite some time and the talk I always give centres around the fact that science fiction has taught us that this exists. When you were young, you maybe watched Knight Rider, you saw Kit and thought ‘that’s really cool, a car that talks and can help you do anything, maybe that can or can’t happen’. Suddenly, this is happening and we all know what the future is because we can see it happening, unlike say iPhones. You didn’t necessarily know how you were going to use an iPhone and there was an initial barrier to that mass adoption. It’s very clear how this will work.
Luke: Ultimately, people get a little bit embarrassed asking humans a lot of questions. But they’ll quite happily annoy a robot!
How have staff reacted? Any resistance to being ordered around by a bot?
Charles: They have particular pain points that they know only too well. They know they get a load of requests in at 10am when loads of people try to check out and a load of calls between 9 and 11 in the evening when people go back to their rooms and start ordering stuff. They know that those times will be busy on the phone. The clearest problem is the synchronous and asynchronous delivery of requests. So when phoning down and saying ‘can you send me a bathrobe?’ or ‘can you book me a late checkout?’, you just want to know that the hotel has received that request, you don’t necessarily want to say ‘oh good evening, yes I’ve had a great day, thank you very much, can you please send me a bathrobe to my room?’. You just want to lodge a simple request with the hotel and actually it’s far more efficient for the hotel to just receive those requests from a room, without the overhead of short phone calls, conversations and pleasantries that can clog up the system. So ideally we move to a world where hotels are getting all those requests on a dashboard, rather than blocking up the phone lines at those peak times.
And of course there’s the data aspect, where you can really drill down into who’s asking for what and when. The people in the hotels could really see the benefit, only one of them pointed out that it may make the concierge slightly more redundant, however they did concede the fact that was happening anyway with people moving to Google, TripAdvisor and OpenTable etc. to get their local information.
So it’s more about freeing up time for staff?
Charles: Well exactly, we’re trying to empower people, allow them to have another communication channel with guests. It’s not always automated responses, it’s designed with a principle called human-in-the-loop. So it’s not just you talking to a computer. It’s you talking to a computer that if fails loops into a human and the human can see the conversation history. Computers aren’t going to be the answer, it’s only a hybrid approach that is going to help the system learn faster and deliver a dazzling experience!
Interestingly Suzie Thompson, Vice President of Marketing, Distribution and Revenue Management for Red Carnation Hotels had a similar opinion in a recent interview with 80 DAYS;
“We know guests can often be unpredictable in their queries so there needs to be an element of machine learning applied and I think we are likely to see a hybrid of AI/human responses for the foreseeable future.”
From a delivery perspective, your service is available via Amazon’s Alexa service and as a chatbot through Facebook Messenger. Are there any plans to diversify delivery through other platforms?
Charles: It’s not on WhatsApp yet as the development environment isn’t open yet, but the minute that opens up then we can do that. The lowest common denominator for everyone is SMS, so we can build a SMS version of this. This is all on the roadmap, it’s just about prioritising.
You need to make sure that you’re building an architecture that is cross-platform. The way that we’re building this is so we can be platform agnostic so that if someone decides to buy Google Homes for their hotel or, in December when Apple launch their Apple HomePod, we can still work with them. The intelligent bit that we do is to build the corpus per hotel, the brain that sits and answers all the questions will be different for every hotel and we’ve got a very smart way to make sure that grows organically and automatically over time. Our kind of special sauce around the way we build things is by automating a lot of this. It can be a very manual process to make that core piece of information grow so that it can answer every question. When we begin we’ll be able to answer some questions, after a little time we’ll be able to answer most questions then after an extended period of time we can answer every question.
So the strategy is to be on the platforms where the customers already are?
Charles: Yes, building apps that people have to download is the wrong strategy. Go to where there’s an existing 800 million user base on Facebook Messenger, start there and work out where the rest of the audience is. Everyone else is on SMS.
Being such a new technology, have you had any challenges conveying the message of what Dazzle is and the value?
Charles: The challenge is getting in front of the right people really. You know, I never have to go to a meeting on my own anymore, because I can bring Alexa and Dazzle with me. And the minute you bring this robotic voice into a meeting it’s a load more powerful, you don’t have to run through a deck and show people the benefits.
Luke: I think a lot of people are concerned that it’s (Echo Dot) sitting their recording all the time and they seem to be much more reassured when I tell them that it’s only listening for one word (Alexa) and when it hears that word it starts pumping data to the cloud to be translated – it’s not a record-all-the-time device.
So, Gartner predicts that by 2020, 30% of web browsing will be done without a screen, while ComScore is predicting 50% of searches will be voice searches. What can hotels be doing now to prepare themselves for this growing shift in user behaviour?
Charles: That’s my favourite question of today. The answer is build a conversational interface, whether that’s provisioned through telepathy in your mind (!), Facebook Messenger, or Alexa… it doesn’t really matter what the interface is, the important bit is the corpus, the brain that is able to understand questions and give you the right or relevant response. That corpus is relatively hard to build up; it’s like teaching a toddler how to speak, but in a much smaller time frame.
I would agree with that quote and I’d urge people to start the learning journey of how to build that robust corpus early, because no matter when you start there will be an on-ramp of teaching, not just teaching but gathering together all the corpus of information that will represent the hive mind of every person who has ever worked at that property. It knows all the ins and outs, all the really weird and wonderful information about the hotel. This then becomes that hive mind that can answer any question about that property or the surrounding environment.
In closing, Charles commented on how he believed this new technology would quickly become the norm;
Charles: Before Christmas last year, Echo Dots were Amazon’s most popular Christmas present; they sold out of all the stock they could make. This is a very early technology, so as people start to learn how to use it more and they become familiar with it, this will become as ubiquitous in hotel rooms as the TV now is. You know, there was a time where forward-thinking hotels would put TVs in their rooms and there will become a time where it is frowned upon if your room doesn’t come with WiFi and a virtual assistant as standard.