Whether it’s playing a favourite song, ordering groceries or finding out the best travel route, UK families are becoming increasingly au fait with voice technology.
Recent headlines have been dominated by home automation security fears, but so-called “smart speakers” like Amazon Alexa and Google Home still come near the top of people’s gift wish lists.
OC&C Strategy Consultants estimates that 10% of UK households and 13% of US households had a smart speaker as of December 2017. Around six million homeowners ordered products through their smart speaker devices last year, accounting for a huge $6 billion (£4.5 billion) in retail sales.
It is expected that the rapid adoption of smart speakers will be the next major disruptive force to impact retail, representing 3% of all online spend in the UK by 2022, according to OC&C.
Voice tech at home has become commonplace, yet so far very little has been written about its potential impact on the way people buy property. Could voice tech be the next major disruptor in the real estate industry too? I spoke to several industry experts to find out.
Voice tech is already being used in some innovative ways throughout the property world.
Lettings agency Vesper Homes, for example, has developed an Alexa Skill that aims to improve communication with landlords and tenants.
Landlords get a free Echo Dot which provides instant spoken replies to questions about their rental property, such as whether rent has been paid and when the contract ends.
“We found that the majority of phone calls we were receiving, besides enquiries about new properties, were landlords asking basic questions about the tenancy,” said James Cameron, director at Vesper Homes. “These calls were taking up a lot of our time, so we thought we’d develop something that could answer these questions. We noted the rise of voice tech and decided to bring on board a developer to tap into the Alexa market.”
Vesper Homes has expanded the service to tenants, enabling them to report property management issues. Cameron said the company plans to develop this from a purely reactive service to a diagnostic one later this year. If a tenant reports that their toilet isn’t flushing, Alexa will ask: “Have you checked it isn’t blocked?”
“I can see the service progressing more on the tenant side,” said Cameron. “There has been a higher take-up among tenants because they tend to be younger and more tech savvy than landlords.”
On the other side of the Atlantic, Coldwell Banker Real Estate, a real estate broker, has introduced an Alexa Skill which provides users with a one-minute description of a featured property listing. They can also be connected to their local Coldwell Banker office.
Over in Australia, meanwhile, digital advertising business REA Group has introduced a property news report for Amazon Alexa. It provides a flash briefing of daily property news, curated from more than 1,200 articles on realestate.com.au.
Numerous residential developers around the world are including Amazon Alexa as a standard feature of new build properties as a way of enticing buyers. They include Trivselhus’ new homes in Milton Keynes and Lennar’s houses in Royal Palm Beach, Florida.
How could voice tech in the property industry be developed further? Could we one day see Alexa being used by investors seeking investment opportunities, by buyers searching for properties for sale in their area, or even facilitating entire house purchase transactions?
Nigel Dalton, chief inventor at REA Group, thinks the potential for voice tech in property is huge.
“Real estate is a natural sector for voice technology,” he said. “For 25 years it has been a search business – whether that’s finding a property or an estate agent. Anything you can search for is very open to a voice channel.”
Dalton said he is particularly interested in voice tech for “intelligent” questions, such as “who is the best agent to sell my Victorian house in Richmond?” and “Are there any great investment properties for me in Middle Park?”
If the technology knows key information about the user, such as how much money they have, the conversation could become as natural as using a search bar, Dalton claimed.
He suggested rich media, i.e. pictures and videos of the properties, would then be an add-on to the voice tech experience. “We’ll use machine learning algorithms to analyse photos and provide a verbal description for buyers – this would help people on the move as well as the disabled,” he added.
When it comes to actually buying property, however, there is very little support for voice tech.
Dalton pointed out that there is a huge amount of money at stake in what is a very complex process, so the consequences of technology mishearing the user and making a mistake are vast.
“Humans are going to be in charge of the property buying and selling process for a long time to come,” he stated. “Estate agents have more power in their brains than any artificial intelligence (AI) I know.”
Although renting a home is a complicated process, voice tech could improve its efficiency, Dalton said. A user could make an offer for a rental property via voice tech and the consequences of the technology getting it wrong would not be quite so drastic.
Aside from property transactions, there are also concerns about the potential use of Google Duplex technology. Users can ask Google Duplex to book, say, a hairdresser and an AI robot will call the hairdresser and interact with them. Trials have shown the person on the other end of the phone can’t even tell they are speaking to a robot.
“When this becomes available in the property industry there would be a massive temptation to use the technology as a weaponised agent to phone everyone on the agent’s database. It could even result in two AIs talking to each other and I worry about the loss of humanity, which wouldn’t help the industry,” Dalton said.
Will Hayllar, partner at OC&C, suggested voice tech is most suited to repetitive situations. He said it fits property maintenance, such as residents in managed real estate blocks reporting problems to the concierge; gathering diagnostic information about a property, for example meter readings; and the development of smart homes.
In the development space, it could also be used by builders on site who need to order materials.
“In situations where bigger decisions are involved and more information is required, a visual interface is still better than voice,” Hayllar argued. “For a user seeking information about the highest-rated estate agents or the best offers from financing providers, they can take in more information a lot more quickly when it is presented visually. Information provided by voice is quite slow to go through.”
He suggested voice tech could be used to assist the consumer service aspect of transactions, for example giving sellers information about what time property viewings are.
There are several hurdles to overcome before voice tech can be used more widely in the property market.
According to Vesper Homes’ James Cameron, lots of developers aren’t using voice tech, or are reluctant to commit to deals, because technology moves so fast it could be out of date in a year’s time. In addition, he pointed out that on the lettings side, lots of landlords are based overseas so voice tech is needed for people who speak languages like Mandarin.
“These types of hurdles will take a long time to get over,” Cameron said.
James Dearsley, founder of the Digital Marketing Bureau, said issues around the issue of voice search are far more complex than first meets the eye:
“Traditionally, the general public, whether they are searching as a consumer or in a business capacity, are used to a plethora of options. They feel in control of the options they choose. They can still filter the millions of search options that are presented to them.
“Voice is different. It gives you one response. It does the filtering for you. It is far more human. Ask your friend which restaurant to go to and they will generally recommend you one; the one they like, their favourite. In this way, Amazon is more human in response.
“Alexa will give you one recommendation: which agent to use, which deal to take. In this way it is intrinsically biased as its algorithm finds its way. It could be said that Alexa is fundamentally biased in so much that Google search was in the early days as the clever search engine optimisers found a way to game the system.”
Dearsley claimed that voice, in its current iteration, is useful for playing music, but not for anything more useful and detailed.
“Having said that, voice search will play a significant part of strategic development moving forward,” he added. “Businesses would be stupid to ignore the momentum behind a gateway drug. They just need to make sense of how to monetise it.”
Another major hurdle to overcome is concerns about security. It was recently reported that Amazon Echo recorded a family’s conversation and sent it to a random person on their contact list. If these conversations were to involve subjects like moving home or financial transactions, it could lead to sensitive information being shared with strangers and an increase in fraud.
Hayllar, however, thinks concerns about privacy and security will be dealt with and overcome in time as people become more familiar with voice tech.
“Our consumer research shows that people use voice tech more and more as they get used to it,” he added.
Without a crystal ball it’s impossible to predict whether voice tech will truly be the next disruptor in the property industry. But the initiatives launched so far suggest it is already starting to play an important role – from making dealings with landlords and tenants more efficient, to creating smart homes and providing property news updates.
It’s not a huge leap to imagine a day when voice is used to provide information about properties for sale, investments opportunities and estate agent rankings. What is clear, however, is that when it comes to certain aspects of property buying and selling, there’s no substitute for human oversight.