For the past decade and a half that he's been working in voice, Sonnar CEO Jarek Beksa has been bringing new voice technologies to an ever-growing audience and has no plans to slow down. After an auspicious start with an acclaimed interactive children's classic, Jarek and his team have set their sights on new and ambitious projects for underserved markets. Keeping up with new platforms like Bixby is all part of the plan, and he was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to make the jump.
Meet the team at Sonnar Interactive: Juliane Lehman, Arun Cherian, Jeong Su Jeon, Jarek Beksa, Sara Chin.
Jarek spent his early days at Polish telecommunications firm Telekomunikacja Polska S.A. (currently Orange), building applications for speech recognition and synthesis for landline and mobile use. About five years ago, he decided to experiment with interactive stories. Would it be possible to give the old choose-your-own-adventure genre a refreshing makeover in a new medium, complete with high-quality voice recordings, vivid sound effects, and compelling music?
"We were curious about the potential limitations and advantages Bixby would provide."
It turned out the answer was yes. Jarek's company, Sonnar, published Red Riding Hood, an interactive story that allows listeners to take control of the classic narrative and explore a multitude of different endings or even play from the point of view of the wolf. Released first in the form of a mobile app, Red Riding Hood made its way to Alexa and Google Home, where it became popular with kids.
When Bixby appeared, Jarek was immediately interested in seeing how it compared to its competitors. "It's a new platform, and we always like to see new platforms," he recalls. "We were curious about the potential limitations and advantages Bixby would provide." His team discovered it wasn't difficult at all to publish a capsule, and there were definitely some things that were painful on other platforms that didn't exist in Bixby—audio length limitation, for instance.
"I was positively surprised how easy and smooth the capsule certification process was."
Porting their work to Bixby was similarly pain-free for the Sonnar team. In the course of developing for other platforms, all of their assets had already been prepared: the story flow was designed, visuals had been created, audio files recorded and organized. Of course, building in Bixby presented some changes from the environments they were already used to, Jarek notes, but the differences were clear, well-documented, and overall "pretty developer-friendly." Even the certification process was an improvement: "I was positively surprised how easy and smooth the capsule certification process was."
Jarek is also glad to be a part of the Bixby Premier Developer Program. "If we couldn't quite figure out how to implement something, we could always ask the Bixby team a question and count on a quick reply. They were very responsive and helpful. Our lead developer didn't know anything about Bixby, and he was able to implement our interactive audio story in about two weeks."
"If we couldn't quite figure out how to implement something, we could always ask the Bixby team a question and count on a quick reply..."
The prospect of Bixby coming to other devices is an exciting one for Jarek and the Sonnar team. The Blind Foundation of New Zealand (where Sonnar is based) came to them with a request to create an audiobook distribution platform for people who are unable to read. Their idea involved the creation of an application capable of finding and playing over 30,000 titles, which meant building a voice-based UI, tutorial, and custom search engine for the blind. The initial usability study rolled out to 40 people, who loved it. The foundation purchased 600 additional devices for its members and has plans to buy 4000 more. Jarek sees the future of voice blossoming in a standalone smart speaker that costs a fraction of a smartphone. "If a blind person gets a smart speaker, they'll use it not only for audiobooks, but many other capsules; it's a great entry point for acquiring initial users. You could get someone used to Bixby and then tell them it's in their TV, their phone, and the smart speaker in their bedroom. The book they're listening to could follow them wherever they go."
"When we started three years ago we had one or two clients; now we have to turn people away!"
Jarek sees the growth of voice platforms as an inevitability. "When I present to people, I use this analogy: twenty years ago if someone came to you saying you needed a website, you'd probably have said no. Ten years ago, if someone said you needed a mobile app, you'd probably have said no. Now look where we are. Today, I'm saying you're going to want a voice app. People sometimes have trouble believing me, but then I show them the voice adoption numbers in the US alone." Jarek has seen a definite jump in the pipeline of potential clients asking what it costs to build a voice application, how to build one, or other voice-related training. "When we started three years ago we had one or two clients; now we have to turn people away!" His explanation for the explosive growth of interest in voice applications is simple: "It's very easy to talk." At the same time, the vagaries of the tech economy have left New Zealand slightly behind other markets, Jarek notes. "New Zealand is kind of omitted by other players; smart speakers aren't advertised here yet. We get most of our clients from Australia." Even so, he can see what's coming from where he's sitting. Given the number of devices Bixby will be on eventually and the ease of porting to the platform, there's a clear opportunity to be ahead of the curve when it does appear in more locales.
Sonnar's focus on building voice experiences for its clients has been admirable, but Jarek wants to make sure they're able to build their own solutions, too. He's especially keen to see Sonnar Library, the global audiobook platform for the reading-disabled, come to life: "We want to commit to it fully and leverage technology to improve people's access to reading material." Even after almost 15 years in the business, Jarek is still bringing new voice technologies to new populations, and he's confident Bixby can help him get it done.