SK Broadband builds TV around AI, setting a future trend?

Leading a charge against North America and Europe in the voice technology market, South Korean operator SK Broadband has launched a new IPTV service based on its artificial intelligence (AI) system Nugu, unveiled by parent company SK Telecom in 2016 after years of development – with a few clever tricks up its sleeve.

Having shipped around 10,000 of its voice-controlled smart speaker devices a month since early 2017, including a full integration with SK Telecom’s TV service BTV, the operator has taken the plunge by making Nugu an integral component of how TV is viewed. It has therefore built a new TV offering around AI, rather than the other way around – technologies which have been in the works since 2012.

The new IPTV service, called B tv x Nugu, will see Nugu tasked with more complex content discovery commands, such as pinpointing a specific movie or TV show without the user knowing the title by name. There are similar voice-activated recommendation systems which throw up results based on genres, actors and even quotes from a movie or TV show, although SK Broadband has not specified the criteria used to reach its results. A photo attached to the announcement suggests B tv x Nugu comes with a specific voice remote, but again this detail has been overlooked.

A key differentiator from its Western counterparts, such as Alexa, Siri and Cortana, is that SK Telecom allows users to address its Nugu voice assistant via four variants – either Aria, Crystal, Rebecca or Tinkerbell. This simple feature suggests SK is one step ahead of the game, setting a benchmark for other operators looking to incite radical uptake of voice-controlled remotes among TV subscriber bases, with the eventual end goal of asserting control over the smart home ecosystem amid threats from rival tech giants. In South Korea, this threat is largely spearheaded by native Samsung with its Bixby voice assistant technology, embedded in smart TVs.

Nugu translates to “who” and was chosen with the concept in mind that Nugu can become whoever a consumer wishes the smart assistant to be. This concept could eventually lead to the emergence of much more personalized voice assistants, where users can choose any name by which to address them, combined with more intelligent microphone technologies which only react to voices of registered users. Although we suspect this sort of white-label voice assistant idea will be of little interest to the current front runners in the AI voice field, losing out on the huge branding appeal associated with the likes of Alexa and Siri.

Nugu is a natural language processing engine which claimed to be the first virtual home assistant in South Korea that understands the Korean language, when it was revealed in September 2016. Although fierce rival Korea Telecom (KT) has since mounted a challenge to SK with GiGa Genie, a voice assistant with deep learning algorithms bundled with a set top, launched in November 2017.

Through a cloud-based deep learning framework, Nugu is designed to adapt and evolve as more consumers interact with the system, improving accuracy in functions such as speech recognition. SK Telecom has also talked about opening up Nugu’s APIs to promote the adoption of AI among start-up companies.

SK and KT combined will reach 3.9 million voice device shipments by 2022, rising from 1.3 million in 2018, driving a South Korean voice remote market set to surpass 6.5 million units by 2022, according to the recent voice control report from our research arm Rethink TV.

SK is aiming for 5 million active users of Nugu a month, but this includes its navigation system T Map x Nugu and its wider smart home system where Nugu is also integrated. Further applications for Nugu include weather, sports results, horoscopes, dictionaries and Wikipedia entries.

“Previously, users could search for certain words only using the voice search service, but the new service enables more complicated searches by natural language,” said Youn Seug-am, head of media at SK Broadband.