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Sony’s confusing rat king of an AI assistant strategy

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This summer at consumer tech conference IFA in Berlin, Sony released its LF-S50G smart speaker, the first device from the company with Google Assistant inside. With its release, Sony continued to send unclear messages about its AI assistant strategy, or if it even has one.

For instance, last year Sony began selling Xperia Ear, a Bluetooth headset with Sony’s proprietary assistant inside. Known simply as Assistant, it can do many of the essential things Siri and Google Assistant can do, like check the weather, share your calendar events, search Wikipedia, play music, or give you directions.

In July, Sony announced that its 4K TVs will work with Alexa. A month later came the smart speaker with Google Assistant, as well as the final meeting between Sony Futures Lab and a small testing community working on an experimental set of headphones that uses yet another proprietary AI assistant from Sony named Nigel.

That’s four different assistants in less than a year.

Making plans for Nigel

For the better part of the past year, Sony Future Labs has designed iterations of Prototype N. The headphones-like device, which fits around your neck rather than over your ears, comes with an array of four microphones and a voice-activated camera.

Like Sony’s other proprietary assistant, Nigel can deliver news updates and send text messages, but it can also play games and a variety of other skills added during trials in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Throughout the testing period, Sony engineers added things like WeRun, a social running experience with Nigel, and the ability for Nigel to act as a guide to local events.

The Xperia Open Ear Concept is the second generation of Xperia Ear, and unlike the first, it will not use Sony’s AI Assistant, but rather will connect with Siri or Google Assistant like any other pair of headphones hooked up to a smartphone.

Lessons learned during the creation of Prototype N will be folded into Xperia Ear Open Style Concept, Makoto Murata of Sony R&D told test users this summer. The second generation of Xperia Ear could be released later this year or in 2018, Murata told VentureBeat.

J.P. Torres, a senior audio trainer at Sony, said the mixed signals are the result of departments at Sony siloed or isolated from one another.

“We’ve done quite a bit of work to bring us together, more than we ever have been in terms of groups and divisions in general, but there are still some divisions in terms of developing technology, developing products, developing features,” he said.

Looking for proper push protocol

While in development, fans of Nigel asked Sony to make the assistant available to consumers, according to USA Today, but both Prototype N and Nigel may never be made available to consumers, Sony senior manager of experiential marketing Brad Thorson told VentureBeat in an interview at a final meeting between Sony Future Labs and device testers in August.

Both the Open Ear Concept and Prototype N allow ambient noise in while you listen to music or speak with an assistant. The goal with Nigel and the devices that allow ambient noise in has always been to explore how to send non-intrusive but proactive voice push notifications, Thorson said.

In recent weeks, both Alexa and Google Assistant have begun to deliver voice push notifications.

“A big piece of what we’re trying to figure out is it’s easy to respond to users’ requests. Wait for them to say ‘OK Google’ or ‘Hey Siri.’ That’s easy. What we’re trying to figure out is when do users want information pushed to them and how do we make that feel natural? And to make that to be a process that’s a part of their natural, that’s a dialogue,” Thorson said. “By putting devices like this in the hands of people and seeing how they interact with it, we can start to fine-tune that push as opposed to that on-demand pull.”

There are currently no plans to make Nigel a part of Xperia Ear, but the AI assistant could be part of other Sony products in the future. Like any other prototype, Thorson said, “If it was successful, then we would see proliferation to devices that don’t rely on a screen.”

Seeing too many assistants already

The prospect of Nigel or other assistants from Sony coming to market doesn’t seem likely anytime soon, Torres said.

“I don’t see any of that becoming mainstream in the home for Sony in the short term because we have such great relationship with Google; we’ve already announced our lifestyle assistant with Google Assistant built-in,” Torres said. “If we were to bring in Nigel all of a sudden this year or next year, now you’re talking about an even more crowded space because now you’ve got Apple, you’ve got Google, you’ve got Amazon, and you’ve got Samsung developing their own units, and now we jump in with Sony. However great our system would be, it’s hard to overcome giants that are already established like Google and Amazon, and you’ve got companies like Apple who have a huge, devoted following.”

So what’s Sony’s AI assistant strategy? Will Nigel be the reboot of a Sony AI assistant and compete with Bixby, Alexa, Siri, and Google Assistant?

Could Sony strike some interconnectivity deal with Google like the kind Alexa and Cortana agreed to this summer? After cooperating with Google Assistant and Alexa, can any company, even Sony, go back to their own proprietary assistant? Time will tell, Torres said, though he doesn’t sound like Don Quixote ready to storm the windmills of well-positioned tech giants in the AI assistant space.

“Both Amazon and Google are huge powerhouse companies, and I don’t see them going anywhere anytime soon. Sony as a company, we’re just trying to leverage our existing partnerships that we have and our inherent know-how of product development to go along for the ride and make products that customers want to use in their home,” Torres said.

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