Virtual assistants like Amazon Alexa, Microsoft Cortana, Google Assistant, and Apple Siri employ conversational experiences and language-understanding technologies to help users accomplish a range of tasks, from reminder creation to home automation. Voice is the primary means of engagement, and voice-activated assistants are growing in popularity; estimates as of June 2017 put the number of monthly active users of voice-based assistant devices in the U.S. at 36 million.a Many are "headless" devices that lack displays. Smart speakers (such as Amazon Echo and Google Home) are among the most popular devices in this category. Speakers are tethered to one location, but there are other settings where voice-activated assistants can be helpful, including automobiles (such as for suggesting convenient locations to help with pending tasks5) and personal audio (such as for providing private notifications and suggestions18).
Virtual assistant capabilities are commonly called "skills." Skill functionality ranges from basic (such as timers, jokes, and reminders) to more advanced (such as music playback, calendar management, and home automation). Assistant skillsets include both first-party skills and third-party skills. First-party skills comprise the aforementioned basic skill functionality found in many assistants, as well as skills that leverage assistant providers' strengths in such areas as electronic commerce (Amazon Alexa), productivity (Microsoft Cortana), and search (Google Assistant). All major assistants also provide development kits that empower third-party developers to create their own skills for inclusion. Skills can be invoked independently, linked together within a single voice command to invoke a preprogrammed routine, or in a sequence of related skills arranged as required for complex task completion. Despite the significant value virtual assistants can offer, discovery of their capabilities remains a challenge.
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