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21 November 2019

SoundHound steadfast in swerving tech giant seduction

With SoundHound and its Houndify AI seemingly set for expansion into multiple sectors beyond the smartphone, it would seem to an outsider that SoundHound has put its flagship song recognition app on the backburner, particularly with Shazam’s dominance in the space and eventual acquisition by Apple.

However, SoundHound’s VP and GM, Katie McMahon, asserted this could not be further from the truth, recognizing the app to be “an essential part of the Houndify ecosystem.”

Speaking to Faultline this week, McMahon revealed that not only does SoundHound operate using Houndify, but the app is expanding into different sectors as the company does. She gave the example of Hyundai’s 2019 fleet, which aside from incorporating Houndify’s voice control technology, also included the SoundHound application itself. We’ll elaborate on SoundHound’s IVI (in-vehicle infotainment) prospects further down.

The recent news of SoundHound’s partnership with Deutsche Telekom made us ponder the direction the company was taking. With DT’s Magenta smart speaker launching just months earlier, it seemed to be a signal that SoundHound had accepted fate as a product enhancer and with this, it was likely to become an additional booster to mainstream voice assistants such as Alexa.

Yet, McMahon revealed rather unsurprisingly that the company is not willing to be thought of as a superfluous sidekick or accessory. McMahon was adamant throughout to defend the company’s independent development of Houndify’s leading voice AI capabilities.

McMahon was also adamant that SoundHound does not and will not use its services to enhance Alexa or other market leading voice assistants. She went on to paraphrase a conversation between herself and an unnamed SoundHound partner company – “while it might be alluring to be wooed by the major tech giants, this would sabotage the company’s integrity.”

As with most companies lauding AI in and around the entertainment industry, we suspected the company’s Houndify AI platform to be powered by a mix of proprietary and off-the-shelf algorithms. However, McMahon was steadfast in defending Houndify’s AI software as “uniquely proprietary” – adamant that the company “does not use third parties.” It seems hard to believe that no third-party resources are used in designing Houndify, but McMahon emphasized the “great many years” SoundHound has spent on honing its offering.

As such, McMahon was unwilling to go into much detail regarding the specific AI techniques used in its natural language processing software. Rather, she simply reminded us of Houndify’s flagship features which Faultline has previously covered, namely Speech-to-Meaning, whereby speech is quickly converted to meaning as it develops, and Deep Meaning Understanding, which allows context-considerate processing of multi-faceted requests.

Elsewhere, the automotive industry is a sector attracting most of SoundHound’s resources. The past few years have seen partnerships such as Kia, Hyundai, Honda, Mercedes and the PSA Group.

McMahon explained how these partnerships are the result of early faith from vehicle manufacturers – “the automotive industry was the first sector to fully embrace the possibilities of voice control. Looking to the future, the automotive industry can’t live without voice interfaces,” implying we can expect plenty more partnerships in this field.

McMahon was particularly proud of Houndify’s ability to process Indian-accented English, as delivered in Kia and Hyundai cars earlier this year – claiming a market first. She also noted how Houndify could adapt to the needs of the automotive industry, where some voice control could be shipped onto hardware, so key features to operate vehicles could be used when without connection to the internet.

As for other industry sectors on the SoundHound roadmap, McMahon listed robotics, health, the IoT and – perhaps more surprisingly – hospitality.

One hospitality partnership that McMahon went into detail on was SoundHound’s work with Harman Professional Solutions. Houndify has been used to enhance customer experiences in hospitality venues, giving the example of a smart voice assistants within hotel rooms.

McMahon felt that much of Houndify’s versatility was due to the service’s ability to completely immerse itself within a customer’s branding, giving the example of Houndify providing a voice assistant to the Pandora app. McMahon talked up the ease with which third parties can be incorporated into Houndify’s “highly customizable, white label solution.”

Voice assistants are currently available in English, Spanish, French, Italian, German, and Japanese, with apparently “many more” under development. No Chinese yet, although McMahon did reveal that the company has recently opened its first office in China.