Unless you are living under a rock, you’ve heard of voice assistants such as Amazon Echo or Google Assistant, but have you thought about how to use voice assistants at events? We have to make sure as an industry we are always thinking about the purpose of the event and not just adding technology because it’s new and shiny. Could voice assistants really be a replacement for chatbots? What are the benefits of implementing voice assistants at events? Or do they have no place at all being at events? We will be covering all this and more.

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In this episode of Event Tech Podcast, Will Curran of Endless Events and Brandt Krueger of Event Technology Consulting will debate the pros and cons of using voice assistants at events. They will speak to each side of the debate and share real-life stories of their experiences with this type of technology at events. If you are curious about using voice assistants at events and want an honest opinion you are in the right place! Click to listen below.

Audio Transcription – Why Voice Assistants Need To Stay Out Of Events

Intro: Welcome to the Event Tech Podcast, where we explore the ever-evolving world of event technology every week. This show is brought to you by Endless Events. The event AV company that doesn’t suck. Now, let’s talk tech.

Will Curran: Hey, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the Event Tech Podcast. This is Will Curran from Endless Events, and I am joined by the lovely …

Brandt Krueger: Brandt Krueger, from Event Technology Consulting.

Will Curran: Welcome to the show, Brandt. I’m really excited to have you again, and for us to be doing another episode of this wonderful, amazing podcast.

Brandt Krueger: Yeah, nice to be here.

Will Curran: So today, I wanted to talk a little about, this is a little of a pet peeve of mine. I admit that I think you have a dissenting opinion about this, so I think it’s going to create a healthy debate that we’ll have going for us. It’s about why voice assistants, for example, we’re not going to say them by name, but the one made by Amazon, the one made by Google, the one made by Apple. We’re just going to call them Guillermo, I think is the name.

Brandt Krueger: Guillermo, Madam A, and what is it? Schlomo. There we go.

Will Curran: Schlomo. Well, I like Guillermo because that’s my name in Spanish. We can just toot my own horn, and we just call it Guillermo. A little deep cut on the podcast, but basically, I want to talk about why these voice assistants need to stay out of events. There’s been this trend that people feel the need to stick an echo in the middle of the hallway, and say, “Instead of asking a person ‘Where is the show floor?’ Let me instead ask this speaker.” Then we talk about all the issues they’re going to have, but I usually find that it’s going to be annoying, and it’s not going to work out quite as well. I just wanted, I think that would really cool topic to do, and I want to talk about it. It sounds like you have a little bit of a dissenting opinion.

Brandt Krueger: Well, actually as you laid it out there at the beginning. Okay. Yeah. I can kind of see where you’re starting to come from, but as with all technology, it’s how you implement it. Right? Why don’t you lay out your case for against, and then we’ll take it from there.

Will Curran: Okay. Obviously, I think for the starting point, let’s start with my pre-bias for why I always get disappointed seeing this is that when I see this being implemented in events, I know it’s being primarily implemented by a lot of large technology companies. I will protect the innocent or the guilty, I guess you’d say in this case. Those people who are producing this assistant that’s being done, I know they’re charging up the ying yang for these things. My initial pre-bias is that I want to protect my clients from overspending in areas. When I see something like this, I think to myself, “Man, this feels like a big, gigantic waste of money.” I think my big worry with this is that clients are saying, “We need something new, something flashy that is going to make us seem hip, we’re on the bleeding edge, and we’re going to hire this company to create a voice assistant for us to have to come up and ask questions.”

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Will Curran: My argument against is A) you’re spending too much money to be able to do this. If you can do it in-house, and program the assistant, and all the responses, and call and responses on your own, and you can do it in a weekend, and it’s going to cost you very little money, I think great. Cool. It’s a neat gag. It’s really exciting, but I had a client who flew in a company, that was not local, to set up these assistants. Therefore, because these new assistants were here, and it was a new piece of technology, had to incorporate that into the opening keynote to explain why people should use this, which then led us as a production company have to build it in as a gag as part of this presentation. What most people don’t realize is that these things are 100% reliable. When they went up there to do it, they thought it was going to be as simple as we’ll stick one up on stage, and maybe we might get up, or something like that. Then boom, you’ll be able to talk to it. It doesn’t work in that way when you have a loud stage. All these things. Also, we aren’t prepared for it to not work. We want it to work perfectly.

Will Curran: What ended up having to happen, and this is a little magic behind the trick that we did, is that we basically set up the Echo. We hooked up into our sound system. Then what we did is behind, the day before, we pre-recorded all of our responses because it was all scripted. He knew what he was going to say, the questions he was going to ask. We knew the questions he was going to ask. Every single question he asked, we basically did not only just ask the question to it, we had to do Simon Says. So if you ever say to Guillermo, “Guillermo, Simon Says …” and then say something, it will repeat what you say. For us to get the response we wanted in the script-

Brandt Krueger: Like in the Amazon, right? So the Amazon, I don’t think Guillermo will do that, just so we’re clear.

Will Curran: Okay. Guillermo is Google. Okay.

Brandt Krueger: Madam A, Amazon.

Will Curran: I’m going to say Lady A for Amazon because obviously, my friend calls it Lady A.

Brandt Krueger: Why don’t we just say Amazon for now?

Will Curran: So Lady A, basically … Yeah, or Amazon. Amazon, which I think that is a hot keyword though for some people, so I’m sorry if we’re firing off your assistant. “Lady A, Simon Says” and for example, we basically trained it to say the things we wanted it to say, so then when he would get up on stage, and he said, “Oh, hello, Lady A.” We basically had a prerecorded clip of audio that said, “Hello, David.” Everyone’s like, “Oh my gosh, it’s talking.” What we did is, to even help it, make it look like, we were really all in on this to help them make their vision happen. We even put the Echo on stage, but I had to make it so it wouldn’t actually talk because if it talked, it would be talking on stage something than what the prerecorded would say. Someone realized, “Oh my God. This is all prerecorded.” Blah, blah, blah.

Will Curran: What we did was we hacked the Echo, so that way it couldn’t make a sound, but the ring still lit up every time you talked to it. So it looked like it was responding the whole entire time. It was absolutely wild. It was so much work, and so much cost in order to basically create an assistant to answer 50 different questions that, to be honest, is anyone going to actually ask it? Can they look it up on the app? Can they just go walk up and find a staff member that works at the event, and get the answer faster? So, that’s my case.

Brandt Krueger: I see now because you’re coming at it from a production standpoint, and that’s why you’re definitely had a negative experience with it. It is also why the six most dangerous words in the English language are “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if”.

Will Curran: Totally.

Brandt Krueger: Because you know that’s how this started, right. Like, “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if we had one of these digital assistants on the show floor, or whatever, and then we’ll have Frank come out, and he’ll talk about it, and all this kind of stuff.” You’ve just got this snowball, that all came from those six magic words of “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if”. Now, I’m starting to see where you’re particular flavor of angst is coming in.

Will Curran: Totally. My second piece of angst just comes as an attendee. I attended an event, I was actually technically speaking at it, but I guess that’s as close as you’ll get to Will attending an event these days, that they had this thing set up, basically. What ended up happening is that I just watched, and I was like, “You know what? I’m going to sit here for an hour. I’m going to see if anyone actually uses this thing.”

Will Curran: First of all, I think in finally like the ninth hour, someone finally went up to it, and talked to it. Looked at it, asked it a question. Obviously didn’t give the response, and went, “Meh. Obviously this isn’t going to work,” and left. It’s one of those things that as an attendee, when’s the last time that you went to an event that had one of these? Did you actually go up and use it? This is probably a question for the comment section down below. Leave it in the comments. We want to hear from you. Have you ever seen this before? Did you actually use it? Then I think if you haven’t, if you had the choice, would you choose a human over a voice assistant? I know everyone’s going to say human. 100%.

Brandt Krueger: Here’s what’s funny. You hear the same arguments being made in the chatbot discussion. As you were talking there, I suddenly had the idea of, for the amount of money that you have to pay an Amazon, because I think Amazon is the only one that’s doing this kind of customization levels. I haven’t heard of anybody doing it with Google, or really just Google at this point-

Will Curran: I think you’re right.

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Brandt Krueger: Because (inaudible) basically disappeared. Maybe Siri, you’ve got the home pods, but you don’t really have anything more standalone than that. Anyway. That’s not the point that I was trying to make. The point that I was trying to make is for the amount of money that you would pay an Amazon to create the custom skills, to input the information, all that kind of stuff, you could literally work with a chatbot company, and pay someone to sit and listen to a speaker all day. Just have a dumb mic mounted in a kiosk, and come up with a fairly recognizable hot word, and pay someone to sit in a booth somewhere, and listen for the hot word. Then quick, text the chatbot out, and then come back on in robot voice, and then just say the answer.

Will Curran: That sounds very complicated.

Brandt Krueger: If you think about it though, it actually wouldn’t be that complicated. You just have a hot mic that you could put on a button, press. You could actually have a lot of fun with that. That would actually, that would be hilarious. To have a fake digital assistant where the person is just running it from the background.

Will Curran: Wow. That actually would be an interesting gag to do. Just set up a little microphone, a little speaker, and say, “Ask our voice assistant.” Then you basically paying someone to sit in a booth and wait for people to talk to it all day long. It’s kind of like the old carnival, or game shops that you would go to … This is really going to show how young I am. The arcades that had the magician that you could go up and ask it any question. But then, people always wondered, is there someone actually inside that box doing it? Sometimes you could do the gag where it answers. That would be really cool.

Will Curran: Again, we’re going back to this is a gag. This is-

Brandt Krueger: Right. It’s a gimmick.

Will Curran: I think the larger pivot, and I’m not sure if I’m doing this too early in the episode is sometimes I think we get so obsessed with technology for technology’s sake that sometimes technology isn’t making things better. It’s making things more complicated, and less easy to use. It’s just technology for technology’s sake.

Brandt Krueger: Absolutely. That’s something that I know we’re both passionate about. While we love our technology, I’ve seen your apartment. I know you’re into tech. You’re into the gadgets. When you start throwing it in just for the sake of it being new, that’s when things start going down a dangerous road. That’s “Wouldn’t it be cool if” is what it really boils down to. You’re not thinking about what actual benefits is it going to provide your attendee? What actual benefits is it going to provide you as the planner?

Brandt Krueger: That being said, if we start going down this road of the digital assistants for chatbots, and things like that, I’ve enjoyed the rise of chatbots. It’s easy to use, and it’s something that you get your answers right away without having to dig through an app. If you extrapolate that out, what if you have someone who’s really not comfortable using text? Or WhatsApp? Or a messaging, something like that? There are still a few people out there that aren’t fully invested into the smartphone ecosystem. Giving them something that they can walk up to and talk to, might be a way to open them up to that.

Will Curran: Oh, neat. I see where you’re coming from. Let’s get people, I do agree with this movement in general. Let’s get people off their apps and things like that. I think that if we can figure out a way to … Maybe the question doesn’t become “Why do they need to stay out of events?” Maybe “Why do they need to stay out of events for now?” Until the technology’s gotten so good because I think the … I can see that the future of this is that yes, we don’t need to have people. Robots can answer all the questions for us. Totally. I see that maybe in 10 years, whatever it is. Futurist Will puts his hat on and tries to guess at when things are going to happen, right. I think the interesting thing could be, yeah, how could we get to improve this technology?

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Will Curran: I think for example, one of the biggest leaps that we have to get over is the idea that a lot of times these are placed in the middle of a hallway, right outside a trade show floor and boom. It’s so loud, the assistant freaks out, and can’t really help you at times. That’s something that I think would need to be a huge jump ahead. I think also, it needs to be smarter than just a call and response because all it takes, and as we see this is the same problem with chatbots as we talked about is that you have to know exactly what to say. If you somehow use a weird word, for example, let’s say because I’m recording this is in Germany right now if someone comes up and says, “Where’s the toilet?” And it’s not programmed to say toilet. It just wants to know bathroom, and it says, “I don’t understand you.” It’s just going to frustrate because they don’t know to use the word bathroom because that’s the keyword that you put in to program it. I think that we need to get beyond also just call and response, call and response. It has to be truly smart enough to compare across the English dictionary, and know, “Oh, toilet equals bathroom. They programmed bathroom, but they actually mean this. Let me give them the answer they want.”

Brandt Krueger: Yeah, I think if you ask the technology companies though, they’re thinking about that. If you talk to a Sciensio or something like that, they’re looking into that. As soon as they see something that doesn’t fit into it, they add it right away. If “Oh, yeah. We forgot that particular euphemism for bathroom,” I think they would add it in right away. That’s some of the advantages of these types of systems-

Will Curran:  True.

Brandt Krueger: Is being able to get it cooking, get up and running quickly, but then make changes on the fly. That is a disadvantage of if you do use one of these voice assistants is not having that ability. So yeah.

Will Curran: That’s very true.

Brandt Krueger: If the way you got it programmed through Amazon only covers X, Y, and Z, you’re not going to be able to go in through the backend, and say “Now add this.” At least as far as I know. I don’t think they’ve gotten it to that point. I think you’re still paying them to kind of set it up, here’s the information, here’s the things we want to be able to ask it, and I doubt you’d be able to say, “Hey, Amazon. It’s Tuesday of our three-day event, and we need to add something today.” I don’t know.

Will Curran: I think an app company’s developing the app, so they might be able to be a little bit flexible, but I don’t see it being as flexible … We’ve obviously sat down with Chuck from Sciensio, and he’s shown us the dashboard of how he can see the responses coming in that are … What does he call them? Confused, or whatever it is. He’s able to make those changes on the fly, for sure.

Will Curran: I think one of the big things, and this is where I think I’ll give props to chatbots over voice assistants is that unless a voice assistant can do what we currently do, and obviously a lot of these are installed, connected to the internet, so technically you could do this if, for example, Google opened it up on your phone, or Siri opened up on their phone, or Amazon opened it up in the Amazon app on your phone, but the thing I think I like about chatbots is that you can get the answers wherever you are. You can be in your room, whatever it is. With a lot of these assistants, I’ve only seen it where there’s maybe one every little bit. They’re not putting them everywhere. I think that if you need an answer, it’s similar to the problem that you have right now, which is where can I find someone? And what ends up happening I think is that the Echo is usually right next door to the info booth, so I’m going to lean towards the info booth immediately. Right?

Brandt Krueger: Right.

Will Curran: That’s obviously the easy thing. Me as like, “I don’t like assistants.”

Will Curran: I think that if we can get to the point where, for example, you can ask on your phone and boom, it’s available all the time. I think that ecosystem makes it better, whereas, chatbot. Boom. You can do it on your phone. You have right then and there. You get the answer you need immediately. You can be sitting also in the middle of the general session texting the answer for when’s lunch coming up, what you’re thinking about-

Brandt Krueger: Right.

Will Curran: Versus set outside, get an answer, “Oh, I missed the whole session.” Blah, blah, blah.

Brandt Krueger: Now, that is one of the things that I like about having the voice assistant on my phone is that I do have the ability to engage it, and then flip over to keyboard mode. I can still add reminders and all that kind of stuff on the Google assistant. Maybe the thing that we’re more against is the idea of the standalone device that’s sitting in the middle of the show floor, that kind of thing, as opposed to the concept in general?

Will Curran: Yeah, I’ll agree with that.

Brandt Krueger: Also, I want to throw out, if I’m wrong, by the way in my understanding of the implementation of these assistants, let me know on Twitter @BrandtKrueger, or send us an email. If you’ve implemented one of these things, and you think we’re flat wrong, it was the most amazing thing since sliced bread, let us know so that we can find out more about it, and enlighten ourselves. If you have implemented one of these-

Will Curran: I agree.

Brandt Krueger: And had a great experience, let us know. You had a terrible experience, let us know so that Will can gloat and tell us all that he was right.

Will Curran: You know that’s what I’m going to love to do, but I also love hearing that I’m wrong. I love realizing that something was wrong. I’m not going to lie. This definitely was supposed to be one of those things where I want to create a little bit of a polarizing opinion because I want to start a conversation. Sometimes if you just come down the middle, and you say, “Yeah, they’re okay. Yeah, they’re not bad. They’re not good.” No one really cares. If you take a side, we’re going to start a conversation.

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Brandt Krueger: As always, we come back to the same thing that we talk about so often, is that just having the goals in mind. Having the goals of the event. We talked about my fictitious person that doesn’t have a smartphone that might be more comfortable talking to a smart speaker of some kind. You said you sat there and watched, and you know hardly anybody showed up. Well, granted, my little example is probably a fraction of a percent of your total attendees. You have to decide as the planner, “How much money, and time, and effort do I want to put in to benefit this 1% of my attendees?”

Will Curran: Totally. I say this all too without as much as I know that probably this is costing people a lot of money to be able to do it, to have a company implement it, I also have not seen the official quotes. I don’t know how much the dollar spend is on this. If it is one of those things where it’s extremely, significantly high, just outweigh your options too. I think, don’t get latched onto this idea, “Oh, it would be cool if,” then lockdown that. I think that’s one of the biggest things I’m learning a lot as I talk to people too is that don’t get locked into one single idea. “This is the only way it’s going to happen. This is the only way my event’s going to be a success.” You know, what it is. Always be willing to say, “Okay. We’ll go down this idea of doing this, but what’s the alternative for it?” A) Is there another thing that’s similar to this? B) There’s also the option of not doing it at all. Maybe you’ll be fine without it. Is this really an improving experience?

Will Curran: I think one thing to keep in mind too is that I’ve learned this actually as soon as the last 24 hours is that there was a software that I was so passionate about. I thought it was the coolest thing, and I thought they were the only ones doing i  think when it comes to these crazy ideas that everyone has, be always open to the alternatives, and additional ideas as well. Always keep in mind, yes it’s great to be the leading, bleeding edge, but let’s just say we can all show many examples throughout the entire history of the world where having the latest, greatest technology doesn’t mean that your event, not even that, your life is even going to become better. Right?

Brandt Krueger: Right.

Will Curran: Let’s talk about Beta. Beta versus VCH. VHS. Oh my God, I’m losing my mind. It’s really late here right now.

Brandt Krueger: That’s all right. Exactly. Yeah, it’s one of those things. Do your due diligence, and keep the goals of the event in mind.

Will Curran: I think you’re 100% right, Brandt. All right. I think that we should wrap this up. I think we’ve definitely beaten this one with a digital … Oh my gosh. I can’t talk right. We’ve definitely beat this one up with a virtual assistant, a smart speaker, to death, for sure. Thank you, guys, all for tuning in. If you liked this conversation, we’d love for you to give us a review in your favorite podcasting app. Again, as Brandt said, if you have an opinion and thoughts, or you use this, we want to hear from you. We want to turn this into a conversation. Feel free to leave a comment down below, and let us know how you have seen digital assistants and virtual assistants used for your events.

Will Curran: Again, also leave us a review. We love to hear that as well and know that we’re doing pretty well. We’ve been enjoying this so far a ton. I’m definitely rambling right now. This has been Will Curran from Endless Events, and I’m joined by the lovely, lovely Brandt Krueger from Event Technology Consulting. I think this is going to end episode three.

Brandt Krueger: We’ve been rearranging things, so yeah. We’ll go with three.

Will Curran: I love it. Awesome. Thank you, guys, so much for tuning in. We’ll see you next time on Event Tech Podcast.

Outro:  Thanks again for listening to the Event Tech Podcast. Be sure to rate and review us on your favorite podcasting app. Also, be sure to head to EventTechPodcast.com and leave us a comment about this week’s episode. We’ll see you next week on the Event Tech Podcast.

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Brandt Krueger

Author Brandt Krueger

With over 20 years experience in the meetings and events industry, Brandt has spoken at industry events and seminars all over the world, been published in numerous magazines and websites, and teaches public and private classes on meeting and event technology and production. He provides freelance technical production services, and is the owner of Event Technology Consulting.

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