Three questions with Erin Egan, Amazon’s lead for the Voice Interoperability Initiative

Staff Writer Jun 22, 2022
Voice Interoperability Initiative

Erin Egan is Amazon’s lead for the Voice Interoperability Initiative, or VII, which is a consortium that brings together leading companies who are committed to providing customers choice and flexibility to interact with multiple voice services on one device.

Since its founding in 2019, members of VII have developed new and innovative multi-simultaneous wake word experiences to engage customers. To give just one example, in 2022, KT added Alexa to GiGA Genie speakers in South Korea. With this capability, customers in Korea can speak to GiGA Genie in Korean or Alexa in English, allowing them to choose either voice service based on their language preference. 

VII was founded on the idea that users should be able to use their preferred voice AI for any task. VII’s vision is to help inform best practices that shape a world of ambient intelligence, in which different voice services can intuitively respond to requests simultaneously without customers having to think about it. 

“At Amazon, one of our guiding principles is customer obsession, and we believe that increasing the availability of voice services to be used simultaneously aligns perfectly with our relentless focus on customers.”

Egan had been with Amazon for two years when she was offered the role of building VII in 2019. 

“I love to work in ‘greenfield’ spaces where there’s no template, there’s no road map, and nobody’s ever done it before,” she says. “You have the freedom to envision the future as you think it should be. To me, that’s really exciting.” 

Egan played a leading role in drafting the original framework for VII, outlining details for the four pillars that make this ambitious vision a reality: customer choice, privacy and security, technology solutions, and research and development. 

“All of the members of the consortium had to cooperate at multiple levels to get this off the ground,” says Egan. “This was important because we were in totally uncharted territory, and there was no industry template to follow.”

In addition to serving as Amazon’s lead for the Voice Interoperability Initiative, Egan is also the the lead negotiator for the Amazon partnership with Disney: she played a crucial role in enabling the upcoming release of Hey Disney!, one of the first Alexa Custom Assistants, which is coming soon both at Disney Resorts and in the homes of customers.  

In this conversation, Egan talks about the VII, what surprised her thus far, and her vision for the future of the consortium. 

How did the idea for VII come about?

Jeff Bezos, the founder and former CEO of Amazon, challenged us to lean in and identify a way to give customers access to more voice services. At Amazon, we always work backwards from the customer, and we were convinced that activating multiple simultaneous wake words on the same device would provide the best option for voice requests, whether in the home, at the workplace, or on the go. 

Our team’s first task was to determine what the most optimal customer and partner experience should look like. For customers, ease of use, as well as privacy and security, are paramount. For device makers, we focused on releasing solutions and tools that made it easy for brands to develop features that integrate multiple voice services on the same devices. 

The next step was to provide technical documentation for partners to reference. To this end, we created the Multi-Agent Design Guide and released the MAX Toolkit in GitHub. I have been encouraged by how partners have utilized our resources and the feedback we’ve received on how helpful they’ve been. 

What has surprised you about the consortium so far?

It’s been great to see just how positively the industry at large has responded to the launch of VII. When we launched, 35 companies had agreed to participate in the consortium. As of March 2022, that number had grown to over 90 members. This has been a real indicator of our initial instinct that there is industry-wide interest in giving customers choice when it comes to voice services, and that our initial hunch was spot on.

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What are you excited about when it comes to the future of VII?

When it comes to the future, I’d like to point to the Multi-Agent Design Guide. The guide focuses on behavior and interaction design challenges that occur when multiple voice services exist on a single device. We are going to be making some upgrades to the guide that will enhance customer choice and flexibility to a whole new level. 

Overall, as we enter a world powered by ambient experiences, I believe we will see an increase in the number of brands engaging customers with intelligent voice AIs. It has been incredible to see VII’s vision come to life, through the collaborative innovation of so many leading companies. I look forward to a world where customers can more commonly expect to activate the voice services of their choice simultaneously. 

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