[The Cutting Edge] GiGA Genie: Voice, app hotel room controller is fun, but not yet perfect

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[The Cutting Edge] GiGA Genie: Voice, app hotel room controller is fun, but not yet perfect


A reporter from the Korea JoongAng Daily, right, tests GiGA Genie hotel version with 10.8-inch display at Novotel Ambassador Hotel & Residence in Dongdaemun, central Seoul on Sept.19. [JO EUN-NAM]

KT’s smart speaker GiGA Genie for hotels is capable of many things, if you have the patience to call its name several times.

A version of GiGA Genie, designed specifically for use at hotels, is the first English-speaking digital assistant introduced by a local company, according to KT. Its design is also different from cylindrical models currently common at homes; it has a 10.8-inch touch screen for visitors not yet familiar with using voice assistants.

The hotel version assistant is trained with all details regarding hotel facilities and can control basic room settings like lighting and room temperature. It can also order things directly from the front desk.

To test how well this artificial intelligence-based device can cater to non-Korean speaking visitors to a hotel, this reporter spent a night at a suite room in Novotel Ambassador Hotel & Residence in Dongdaemun, central Seoul, last month. The hotel, which opened in July, was the first to hire KT’s assistants for about 300 of its premium hotel rooms.


KT’s Genie Phone showing lighting control service. [JO EUN-NAM]

Great with room controls

People who enjoyed the Harry Potter series will probably remember the spell “lumos” used to light up dark places. For GiGA Genie, the spell is “Genie-ya, turn on the lights.”

This reporter enjoyed mimicking the movie and turning on and off lights via simple voice commands. The device understood orders quite well and performed the task in about two seconds after hearing a voice command, perfectly satisfactory even for a Korean. It could control the bathroom and bedroom lights individually, but not other room lights.

Why use a voice command when light switches can do its job faster?

Imagine you are already in bed, cozy, but notice you forgot to turn off bathroom lights. How terrible is it to get out of the blankets to just turn of the lights? Using Genie was especially convenient when napping on the sofa inside the room. With no need to walk towards the switches by the bedside, the reporter could turn on all lights in the room in an instant.

GiGA Genie was also smart with TVs. You can just shout “Genie-ya, go to CNN” and the TV will switch to that channel. The reporter liked the feature because there was no need to find a remote control that frequently goes missing out of sight and also because it’s not necessary to know which number is assigned to each channel.

The only difficult part was when GiGA Genie didn’t wake up after the first call. When you end up calling out “Genie-ya” more than twice, you suddenly start missing remote controls.

GiGA Genie’s hearing capability especially weakens when there is loud music playing. When Genie cranks up the volume, you should watch out because you might not be able to control the Genie until you outshout the music.

Less human interaction

Shy people could feel uncomfortable calling up the front desk to ask for information about the hotel or to request extra amenities like towels and shampoo. Sometimes, they might just give up asking because they don’t want to bother someone.

GiGA Genie comes to the rescue. It lifts that burden from guests because it lets them ask for information and request things without face-to-face interaction or voice calls with hotel employees.

When the reporter asked “Genie-ya, what’s the Wi-Fi password?” Genie replied “The Wi-Fi of the room is Novotel Guest Room; you can use without password,” a smart and useful answer. When asked about the opening hours of hotel facilities, the assistant not only gave the answer to the question but also turned on the homepage of the hotel that showed information about hotel facilities on its display. Adding the display to the smart speaker seemed to be a good idea.

As for ordering things from the front desk, this reporter tried ordering ice and towels. One box of ice came about 30 minutes after ordering it on Genie. I’m not sure what made the front desk take so long, but it still came, proving the order was delivered properly. All the reporter had to say was “Genie-ya, I want some ice.”

Ordering towels was more difficult. When the reporter requested two towels, Genie showed three types of towels on the display and asked the user to select from the options. After selecting hand towels, Genie asked to confirm the orders.

Jim Bulley, a business editor of Korea JoongAng Daily, who visited for a quick test of the device in British English, thought there were too many steps to order one item. This reporter agrees partly, but still it wasn’t such a difficult process because there is a display to help users through the procedure.


Genie Phone

If ordering things or controlling the rooms via voice seems tricky, users get another option while staying at the Novotel. KT is giving out “Genie Phones” it developed using mobile phones from Samsung Electronics to users that put in a prior request for the phone.

Genie Phone doesn’t understand voice commands but it has smart apps inside that can help visitors throughout their stay in Korea. The room controls app helps visitors control lighting, room temperature and the TV and order things via buttons.

The phone operates like any other touch-based smartphone. Except for the one or two seconds of processing time required after pressing a button for room controls, all of the features worked well every time the reporter tried. It was obviously more stable than controlling it via voice when Genie refuses to give you its attention.

Users can control more specific lights in the room. For instance, the voice assistant did not understand when the reporter ordered it to turn off the window lights, but the phone had a window icon linked with the window lights in the room controls app.

Ordering things through the phone was easier as well because you can see the list of things that you can order from the front desk and can place the order by pressing the item and selecting how many of the item you want.

What was most impressive about the phone was that it has its own Korean number. Non-Korean visitors to Seoul staying at Novotel can use the phone for domestic and international calls using the phone’s number without buying a separate USIM or using an expensive roaming service. The phone can simply be used just like your cell phone during your stay in Korea and works anywhere in the country. KT is offering free data and free voice calls for the phone during a promotional period. The mobile carrier said it had not yet set a specific date to end the promotion.

The mobile carrier says it is developing other apps for the phone, which already has a tax refund app to help eligible foreigners navigate the process.

Needs quick fix

Despite the good work, Genie may need some fixes to be worker of the year for a hotel serving global customers. The wake word “Genie-ya” could be a bit awkward for non-Korean speakers. It is a very Korean way of calling someone to add “-ya” after the name.

“Hey, Genie” might have been a better wake word in English, or “Ok, Genie” as Google does, but sadly you are stuck with only one wake word for the English-speaking Genie. If KT could add one or two wake words that are more English-friendly, it would be much easier to work with Genie.

A more difficult problem actually was making GiGA Genie speak English when it is set in Korean mode. The Korean-speaking Genie really only speaks Korean.

When this reporter asked, “Genie-ya, let’s speak English” to Genie in Korean mode, it said either “I don’t understand” or something like “It would be embarrassing to speak English because I’m not good at it” in Korean. It was quite hilarious hearing it say those words. Users need to ask Genie to change to yeong-eo mode, the Korean term for English.

The device should be set to English if the visitor is non-Korean; but in case it is not, visitors can have a go at changing the Genie to English mode rather than giving up on talking with the device because they assume it does not speak English. Those that cannot properly pronounce yeong-eo mode can manually choose the English mode by a touch on Genie’s screen.

Also, the English Genie cannot answer some questions yet that the Korean Genie can. Without weighing the usefulness of a chat companion, a Korean Genie can find a way to answer random questions like “How old are you?” but the English Genie was really dedicated only to its job and did not like talking about its private life. To such questions, the Genie just replied that the Q&A function is not supported yet.

Overall, having GiGA Genie was better than not having it. It’s definitely cool and fun and it understood English fairly well - better than expected, actually. The company said it plans to add Chinese and Japanese within this year, but they are not supported yet.

The rooms with GiGA Genie are not especially expensive, because the hotel doesn’t charge separately for the device. The device is available in about 300 of the total 523 rooms in the hotel. A KT spokesperson said customers can find Genie in most rooms other than the standard room, the least expensive room the hotel offers.

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