BBC to launch Alexa rival that will grasp regional accents | Media

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The BBC is preparing to launch a rival to Amazon’s Alexa called Beeb, with a pledge that it will understand British accents.

The voice assistant, which has been created by an in-house BBC team, will be launched next year, with a focus on enabling people to find their favourite programmes and interact with online services.

While some US-developed products have struggled to understand strong regional accents, the BBC will this week ask staff in offices around the UK to record their voices and make sure the software understands them.

The BBC currently has no plans to launch a standalone physical product such as Amazon’s Echo speaker or a Google Home device. Instead, the Beeb software will be built into the BBC’s website, its iPlayer app on smart TVs, and made available to manufacturers who want to incorporate the public broadcaster’s software.

The voice assistant will be woken up by saying the word “Beeb”, although it will not attempt to replicate the full set of functions provided by major commercial rivals – partly because the BBC product has been developed by a much smaller team without the resources of major global technology companies.

Instead, it will enable people to use their voices to engage with existing BBC content and develop new forms of interactive programming.

The name Beeb was chosen as a working title after comparing several potential wake words for the software. Although it is likely to be voiced by a single individual, no decision has been made on who this will be.

The rapid growth of smart speakers in the UK, driven by cut-price products provided by Amazon and Google, means around 20% of British households are already used to voice assistants. This is upending how people listen to the radio, making it easier for them to try new stations, and changing how people interact with other forms of media by placing the devices at the centre of the home.

The BBC already works with other voice assistants but it is increasingly pushing users towards its own products, partly so it can collect more data. From the end of this month its radio stations will no longer be available on the popular TuneIn radio app, which is used by Amazon’s Alexa, because the US company refused to share information on listeners of BBC stations. The BBC is now pushing people to use access its stations via its apps or Alexa, in the hope that people log in and it can understand what people are consuming.

“With an assistant of its own, the BBC will have the freedom to experiment with new programmes, features and experiences without someone else’s permission to build it in a certain way. It will also allow the BBC to be much more ambitious in the content and features that listeners can enjoy,” said a spokesperson.

Despite its own push to collect more user data, by requiring individuals to log in to access services such as iPlayer, the BBC claimed the public had concerns about commercial voice assistants due to issues such as targeted advertising and security. “People know and trust the BBC, so it will use its role as public service innovator in technology to ensure everyone – not just the tech-elite – can benefit from accessing content and new experiences in this new way.”

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