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[The Future is Now] Parents find unexpected ally in smart speakers

Oct 16,2018
Mr. Kim, a full-time office worker living in Seoul, reads books to his eight-year-old son almost every morning and night.

Is he a diligent super-dad? Not exactly.

“I ask for help from my smart speaker,” Kim said. “All I have to do is call out ‘Hey Kakao’ and order it to read books to my son.”

Smart speakers may still have a long way to go to before they catch up with Hollywood, but parents are increasingly leaning on smart speakers for their children’s education and entertainment as the speakers never complain of being too tired after work and have plenty of resources to keep children interested.

Kim’s Kakao Mini smart speaker currently offers 100 interactive audiobooks made by affiliated content provider PixelHub. The content uses the pre-registered names of children to invite them into the story. For instance, the speaker could say “James, this is a book about a princess who did not know the importance of keeping a promise,” before reading the famous fairytale “The Frog Prince” - of course, instead of James the speaker will say the registered name of the child.

Kakao also sources audiobooks and kids’ music contents from Melon, Kakao’s music streaming app with a large database of content.

Kakao’s device is not the only one that knows how to read and engage with children.

KT partnered with Korean education company Daekyo in April to offer voice-activated books. When parents read a book from Daekyo to their child, the speaker recognizes the story and adds sound effects that match the scene. This way, parents can also have fun reading the books to their children. The company offers audiobooks as well. Speakers do all the reading for those books. By the end of this year, the mobile carrier plans to offer 600 audiobooks.

Just last month, KT also released GiGA Genie Saypen. The pen, developed in partnership with local education company Saypen, can recognize words on books and read them out loud once users scan them using the pen.

“Autumn is the season for reading and we hope the service can make reading fun for children and their parents,” said Kim Chae-hee, head of the AI business division at KT.

Portal giant Naver’s smart speaker sources content from its children’s portal, dubbed Junior Naver. The children’s portal was established in 1999 and has accumulated roughly 5,700 different pieces of content including children’s songs and fairytales.

Teaching English is another popular feature of smart speakers.

A TV advertisement from LG U+ for its smart speaker co-developed with Naver shows why parents are interested in using the devices for kids. In the ad, a daughter asks her mother in Korean what “the more the better” is in English. A look of fear flashes across the mother’s face as she hurries away from her daughter, mumbling that she needs to go and check on the laundry. The smart speaker, however, immediately gives the translation from Korean to English as well as Chinese and Japanese.

Although smart speakers are generally still limited to pre-programmed responses and data pulled from the internet, they are very effective at services that rely on rapid online searches, such as direct translation.

Naver’s Clova speakers are quite good at translations to English as they use data from Naver’s well-known translation app Papago. To strengthen its English service and give audio tutorials for English conversation, the portal company inked a partnership with education company NE Neungyule, which operates online English teaching platform Tomatalk, in March.

KT brought SmartStudy’s global hit character Pinkfong and educational songs including “Baby Shark” for children’s English phonics to GiGA Genie linked with KT’s internet TV. After playing a song and chant about a specific topic, Pinkfong appears on the TV and asks children to pronounce the words shown on the screen. If the pronunciation is good, Pinkfong says “excellent.” If not, the fox character tells you to try again.

For English conversation lectures, KT partnered with fast-growing English conversation training company Yanadoo and English academy chain Pagoda.

SK Telecom is working on developing Yoon’s Speak-A-Book for smart speakers after inking a partnership with English education company Yoons English School in September. The English audiobook will target seven to nine year olds to enhance their listening and speaking. Last week, the carrier also partnered with Hancom to add Genie Talk, a translation app developed by Hancom and the Electronics and Telecommunications Research Institute used for the 2018 PyeongChang Olympic Games, to its smart speaker Nugu.

Even the English speaking Google Home smart speaker, which entered the Korean market just last month, teamed up with English conversation teaching company Siwonschool to provide free and paid audio tutorial content as well as English audiobooks for children and their parents.

“I think there will be a time when both children and adults are homeschooled using TVs and AI,” said Alex Kim, CEO of Saypen, at the release of the GiGA Genie Saypen last month. “That will greatly reduce private education expenses.”

On the back of these services and expanded partnerships with third parties, more and more households are adopting smart speakers at home. Tech market tracker Canalys said in its report in July that there will be 100 million smart speakers by the end of this year, increasing 2.5 times. Industry insiders predict there will be 3 million smart speakers in Korean households by the end of this year. That means around 15 percent of Korea’s roughly 20 million households will be using smart speakers.


BY KIM JEE-HEE [kim.jeehee@joongang.co.kr]


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