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Samsung's new Star Wars-like bot might change into the digital hub of the related dwelling — and that …

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  • Mike Shields, the former advertising editor for Business Insider who is now CEO of Shields Strategic Consulting, argues that Samsung’s new robot Ballie has the potential to take on Google and Amazon’s voice assistants.
  • Nearly 29 million smart speakers were sold in 2019, and voice assistants played a big role in 2020’s CES.
  • Ballie is incredibly cute — and in trying to control the rest of your bots, terrifying at the same time.
  • Whichever device becomes the hub of the home could play an incredibly powerful role for the future of media and advertising.
  • Click here for more BI Prime stories.

Could BB-8 kill the Empire by himself?

Not likely. But Samsung’s new Ballie robot, which shares — as many have noted — a striking resemblance to the BB-8 droid from Star Wars, did make me think about a potential epic battle.

Did Samsung just deliver a Death Star-like blast at the digital evil empires — Google and Amazon — in an adorable package?

Put another way, could simple home robots like Ballie take down voice assistants — and upend the battle to control the ecosystem of the home?

In just a few short years, every gadget lover in America seemed to buy a Google Assistant and or an Amazon Echo. “Google and Amazon are dominating this category,” said GroupM’s global chief product officer Jack Smith during a tour at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this week. “And Google may be just a bit ahead.”

This was highly evident at CES, where so many device manufacturers boasted about their voice assistant connectivity —  and Google’s voice marketing was everywhere.

There were nearly 29 million smart speakers sold in 2019, according to the researcher Canalys.

On the surface, the stakes with voice assistants are massive. If consumers are headed toward living in fully wired smart homes in the near future, whoever builds the device that emerges as the hub of that home would be in an incredibly powerful position for the future of media and advertising. If down the road you use Alexa to talk to everything in your house — your TV, your fridge, etc. — think about all the data Amazon collects and influence it wields.

So what if Samsung steals that pole position?

“It’s a very interesting question,” Smith said.

The bots are coming, and you’ll need one to control them all

Interestingly, the idea behind Ballie is to not supply answers to all the world’s questions, but to tell other devices — including other bots — what to do.

(This assumes, of course, that we all end up with loads of digital devices that we’ll want Ballie to talk to, like a robot vacuum, a smart TV, smart dishwasher, smart fridge, digital thermostat, etc. A big “if” indeed.)

“They want to be a bridge between devices,” Smith said. “That’s simultaneously interesting and absolutely terrifying.”

Is Ballie that terrifying? It’s actually incredibly cute. In the demo I watched, a presentation gave Ballie gentle voice commands, and Ballie told another cute robot to clean up the floor.

It was awfully practical. And if you’re doubting that most people will have robots in their homes like Jetsons — well, how many of you already have a Roomba? The bots are coming, and apparently you’ll need one bot to be in charge.

Wait, aren’t Google and Amazon’s voice assistants valuable because they are essentially voice search engines, from the two greatest search companies on the planet?

True. But then again, how do you use Alexa in your home, other than controlling Spotify and checking the weather? Do you need to have a knowledge base of everything on the internet? Or just a few commands — particularly when many find some voice searches wanting?

“Right now, voice doesn’t have enough consumer trust these days,” said Tobias Dengel, CEO at the mobile app development firm WillowTree, which helps connect marketers’ apps to voice tech. “It is not at a point where it is useful every day.”

As Dengel put it, voice tech is often too slow and clunky. And it doesn’t solve enough on its own. 

“We need to build voice to solve problems, not mimic humans,” Dengel said.

Who knows — maybe voice will never prove to be a monster marketing category. There’s no telling just how lucrative Amazon and Google’s current in-home anchor position is.

Still, whichever manufacturer — be it a voice company or a bot maker — plays quarterback in a person’s home, that’s a home that competitors will likely have a tougher time cracking.

It helps that Ballie just seems fun. Here’s betting most consumers will be charmed by this round bot. And Google and Amazon may want to strike back.

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