News

POV: Aloha Facebook

Background:

The Internet lit up with speculation this week as long time TechCrunch tipster Jane Manchun Wong revealed that code inside the Facebook and Messenger Android apps suggests that Facebook is developing its own speech recognition feature under the name ‘Aloha’ for both the Facebook and Messenger apps, as well as external hardware.

Details and Implications:
We already have Siri, Cortana, Google Assistant and of course Alexa, but Facebook has long been suspected of being in the market to create a voice assistant. Whilst what Wong uncovered in the code does not by any stretch of the imagination equate to a new Alexa, it does suggest that Facebook is readying a fully-fledged suite of voice activated services in the not too distant future.

The code reveals an ‘Aloha voice testing’ service which, when a user speaks whilst inside a Messenger thread, sees ‘a horizontal blue bar expand and contract to visualise the volume of speech while recognising and transcribing into text’ reports TechCrunch.

Wong goes on to reveal a screenshot that says, “Your mobile device is now connected to Portal”, seemingly confirming the name of Facebook’s smart speaker hardware. That smart speaker – Portal - was reportedly due for release earlier this year before Facebook delayed the launch, allegedly due to the pressure it was under following the Cambridge Analytica revelations.

The Aloha story, eagerly covered by the tech news community – TechCrunch, The Verge and Engadget to name just a few (see links below) – is a potentially exciting one because Facebook has been slow to enter the voice arena despite its huge reach.

This small peek at Aloha, which is a speech-to-text recognition service, could enable communication across mediums; maybe between communities - Wong also found code inside Instagram’s Android App that reveals the development of a voice clip messaging feature like that launched for Messenger in 2013; enable voice navigation of Facebook’s services and of course, provide the backbone of interaction for Portal.

Facebook has long been interested in natural language voice capability, but up until now it has been rather limited in use – being used for the automatic captioning of Pages’ videos; dabbling with voice clip status updates and testing voice search.

Summary:

Facebook declined to comment on the speculation but the fact that everyone is so excited about the potential, without even really knowing what is being developed, suggests that voice could be a game changer for Facebook.

Smart speakers would give Facebook a greater presence in the home; a software voice assistant could be embedded in places beyond the core Facebook service, cars for example; voice enabled services would encourage greater usage (in that car, on the move, anywhere) and the possibility of interconnecting Facebook’s platforms to keep more people in the ecosystem would be very attractive for users, advertisers and Facebook alike.

Further Reading:

Aloha Test Video / TechCrunch / The Verge / Engadget