Why a Toy Maker and a Coffee Company are Pushing Virtual Assistants

By Danny Vena Markets Fool.com

By now we have all seen demonstrations of the practicality of the virtual personal assistant. The biggest tech companies have made daily requests like directions, internet searches, and local restaurants commonplace, but companies like Microsoft(NASDAQ: MSFT) aren't the only ones playing in the virtual assistant space -- plenty of other smaller players are incorporating the tech into their existing offerings to keep with the times and avoid being left behind.

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Virtual assistants at a tipping point. Image source: Pixabay.

Aristotle virtual assistant for children. Image source: Mattel.

Virtual babysitter?

Not to be outdone by big tech, Mattel (NASDAQ: MAT) is creating a device-based virtual assistant for an entirely different demographic -- your kids. Its entry, Aristotle, is a multi-function smart speaker designed to grow with children. It works as a baby monitor in their early years, with live streaming encrypted video to your phone. It can also be programmed to soothe a crying baby with soft lighting or music, help parents monitor feedings and diaper changes, and remind users to order diapers when they get low. The distinguishing feature of Aristotle is the use of voice recognition, which gives it the ability to understand children's voices from the age of a toddler. It will read stories, answer child-like questions, and be a digital friend. It is designed not to be static, but to grow with kids, like helping older children with homework. Aristotle incorporates Bing search and Cortana technology courtesy of Microsoft. It also boasts 256-bit encryption in all communications, with a focus on protecting the privacy of its users.

Traditional toy makers have been battling a powerful trend as children gravitate to more digital forms of play. They have been trying to remake themselves in an attempt to remain relevant going forward amid the changing landscape. Mattel's entry into the virtual assistant category is a brilliant move in trying to capture the hearts and minds of children as they grow.

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Virtual photo editor

Image source: Pixabay.

Adobe (NASDAQ: ADBE) is another company you may not expect in the category. It is considering the introduction of a virtual assistant that can handle simple photo editing. In a concept video released on YouTube, it demonstrates a man using voice commands to crop a photo, flip the aspect, reverse it, and finally post it on Facebook. The caption to the video reads, "Our Adobe Research team is exploring what an intelligent digital assistant photo editing might look like. With Adobe Sensei we combined the emerging science of voice interaction with a deep understanding of both creative workflows and the creative aspirations of our customers." While it appears to still be in the concept or potentially development stage, it provides insight into potential future uses.

Image source: Starbucks.

Virtual barista

During its investor day in December, Starbucks (NASDAQ: SBUX) revealed that it too will introduce a virtual assistant, My Starbucks Barista, to its mobile app later this year. Users will be able to place orders by talking into their cellphone. It will recognize complicated drink orders and confirm orders via text message. This isn't the first time Starbucks has used emerging artificial intelligence (AI) technology to better connect with its customers. Its gold-standard rewards program uses AI to personalize over 400,000 different rewards per week. These rewards are tailored to each user based on order history.

The takeaway

Smartphone virtual personal assistants are becoming commonplace, but the technology is still in its infancy. The ways in which companies can cater this to better serve current and potential customers are limited only by the imagination.

For investors, it's hard to know exactly what fruit these initiatives might bear, but the fact that these companies are dedicated resources to virtual assistant technology proves the trend is here to stay.

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Danny Vena owns shares of Starbucks. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Starbucks. The Motley Fool recommends Adobe Systems. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.