Q&A: Plantronics CTO on the Future of Headsets: Smart and Sensor-Laden

Joe Burton is the Senior Vice President of technology and development in strategy and CTO at Plantronics, one of the biggest, well-known headset companies in the world (and a key Avaya partner). I caught up with Joe at the Avaya Evolutions roadshow stop on San Francisco a few weeks ago, where he talked up Plantronics’ cutting-edge foray into wearable computing, which in its way is just as impressive as Google Glass.

Plantronics CTO Joe Burton

Joe Burton, CTO, Plantronics

Photo by Andres Larranaga/Avaya

One of the keynote speakers at Avaya Evolutions was astronaut Buzz Aldrin. There’s an interesting tie-in between with your company and our keynote: Every single word from the moon has been spoken through a Plantronics headset.

Burton: Absolutely. I mean, how cool is that to have Buzz here the same day that [Avaya SVP] Gary Barnett was talking about the great integrations between Avaya and Plantronics earlier today?

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The headset is just a headset, right? It’s audio listening and speaking in a microphone. What do you guys do with unified communications? You don’t belong there.

Burton: Boy, I beg to differ, of course, Fletch, as we go through this (laughs). So certainly we have an integration between virtually every headset in the Plantronics line, and all of the Avaya products from the mobility products to unified communications, collaboration in the Contact Center. But the really interesting things that we’ve been doing that make us such a great fit with Avaya is actually we’ve started really thinking about the changing workplace and we’ve started adding intelligence to our headsets.

We know things like: Is the headset on your head or off of your head? Near or far from your mobile phone or your PC? And other information. And we’ve exposed all that information as well as other things through software programming APIs. So developers that use things like the Avaya collaboration environment can write highly productive applications, pulling in the knowledge of our wearable technology from our headsets.

So you play in the headset market across multiple segments. Telephony is just one piece of it. There are things like a firefighter man-down situation. Is the headset go from standing up to laying down, and how fast did it go there. That’s where the accelerometer data becomes important. One of your headsets has a nine-axis accelerometer. I found that out at another show, and that just amazed me.

Burton: That’s right. Literally, the one I have with me today is one of the … PLT Labs is our laboratory division, so PLT Labs Concept One headset, which we’ve actually released to the developer community, as you said, has a nine-axis accelerometer in it that will literally see which direction your head is pointing with very low latency, very high accuracy. And as you say, if something happens like you go from vertical to horizontal very quickly while wearing the headset, because remember I know if it’s on your head or not, then I know that it’s indeed a potential man-down situation. I can prompt you, “Are you okay?” or “Do you want me to call the authorities?” Because I know that it’s on your head or not, I know if you just dropped, probably we shouldn’t be calling 911.

Or throwing it against the wall or something, right?

Burton: You know, you would never do that as long as you’re wearing a Plantronics headset attached to an Avaya UC system (laughs).

But you can have somebody throw YOU against a wall with your headset on.

Burton: And that would be a headset on, and you might want to ask about a man-down situation.

That’s really interesting stuff. So you’re bringing in multiple axes in an accelerometer. You’re bringing in, I guess you would call it biometrics, right, with being able to sense if you’re on the head. What technology is that?

Burton: So there are many different technologies. We’re really entering the world of context and sensors, and the ability to actually bring all that into the headsets, into a piece of wearable technology is really interesting. However, doing it in a way where we’re exposing all that new data along with superior voice quality through a set of APIs really allows us to build unprecedented business value.

Fantastic. And to be here with Buzz Aldrin and when he was on the moon with Neil Armstrong and they uttered those famous words, “Tranquility Base, the Eagle has landed,” over your product, you have to proud to sit and think about that.

Burton: You know it’s just an amazing, amazing company to be representing with that kind of history. We still put that kind of quality and care into every product we build. It’s just terrific.

So where can somebody go to find out about being part of the community that looks at the API, the developers?

Burton: There’s really two different places they can go. Once again, our APIs are at plantronics.com/pdc, which is Plantronics Developer Connection. Or you can go to pltlabs.com and it will redirect you over there as well. Lots of sample code, lots of community interest, and myself and all my engineers will be happy to answer your questions and collaborate with you.

I met the guys from PLT Labs actually right here at this facility for WebRTC, and that’s where they showed me some of the really cool stuff they were doing with the multi-axis.

Burton: Well, it’s pretty interesting with all of the interest in WebRTC that Plantronics has actually won the most innovative WebRTC award the last two years in a row at the WebRTC conference. So clearly we’re on the right track with some of these biometrics.

Related Articles:

Verbio Brings Voice Biometrics to Avaya Breeze™

If you’ve been following the Avaya Connected Blog in recent weeks, hopefully you’ve read about the changes Avaya expects to see in Customer Engagement as we roll out the Avaya Oceana™ Solution, a contact center suite for the digital age.

And perhaps you’ve read how Avaya Oceana is built upon the flexible platform of Avaya Breeze™, which offers extensibility through a Snap-in architecture, creating new opportunities to extend and customize customer and team engagement interactions further.

I’ve previously highlighted how some of our DevConnect Technology Partners are leveraging the Avaya Breeze Platform to do just that, and I’m happy to add Verbio to the growing list of value-added Snap-in vendors.

I had the opportunity recently to speak with Piergiorgio Vittori, who heads up Americas Sales and Global Partnership opportunities for Verbio, as they recently completed DevConnect Compliance Testing of their Verbio Voice Authentication Snap-in for Avaya Breeze. Piergiorgio indicated that it took “about two months, end to end” to bring this voice biometric solution to market, “including design and requirements, programming, testing, demos, tuning, and documentation.”

I daresay that there aren’t many ways to bring out a flexible, biometric-based capability set in that short of a timeframe, which I offer up as a tremendous proof point for how Avaya Breeze really simplifies key aspects of application and communication services integration.

Verbio’s solution, which couples a Breeze-based Snap-in with their core SaaS-based biometrics capabilities, extends the speech search and ASR/TTS capabilities inherent with Avaya Breeze to a new level of speech capabilities, while maintaining a consistent and familiar type of request and error handling methods to be leveraged by other application developers. The Snap-in itself simplifies many of the tasks associated with passing data to the Verbio engine, acting as a sort of Verbio-proxy for application developers already working in an Avaya Breeze environment.

Voice Biometrics has a number of potential use cases, especially when it comes to automated events and actions. From a security perspective the use of voice biometrics can help ward off social engineering hacks, while its application in contact center domains can increase agent utilization and reduce overall call time by eliminating the need to verify a specific users’ identity through numerous Q&A interactions. In this latter case, a users’ voiceprint can very much act like their conclusive identification.

Enterprises and contact center (or even public safety concerns) can further leverage voice biometric analytical capabilities as an emotion detector to determine whether the validity of the users request is being influenced by stress or emotional status.

All of which makes a great proof point for the power of Avaya Breeze in helping to transform how our customers conduct business in this digital age.

Finally… A Contact Center for the Digital Era

Imagine interacting with a company—any company—via your preferred method whenever you want, whether making a phone call, using online chat, sending an SMS, or messaging via Facebook. And, you end up having exactly the experience you were expecting. No not another bad experience. Rather an exceptionally pleasant and good experience, that surprisingly takes less time than you originally anticipated. Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it?

The reality is that traditional business communications have failed to keep pace with consumer-focused technological devices. As a result, customers’ expectations—while very high—are rarely met when interacting with a business. Customers know what a good technology experience looks like, sounds like. The simplicity, built-in intelligence and sophistication of today’s devices and apps have taught customers that it’s not difficult to have a simple and tailored experience. It’s not difficult to teach a computer to know who you are, what you prefer, what you like to listen to, watch, read, how you like to interact. If it’s not difficult, then why are customer experiences with companies so predictably bad?

It’s time to break the mold. It’s time to start a new customer experience wave that makes customers happy about doing business with a company, excited that a company values their time and loyalty. Let’s give companies the freedom to be innovative, proactive, independent and capable of operating in real time to meet the demands and needs of their customers and agents without fail.

Unlike their traditional predecessors, today’s technological systems and capabilities have finally caught up with digital customer expectations. We have arrived at a point in time where the digital brain of a machine and the reasoning mind of a human are aligned closer than ever. Look at IBM Watson, Amazon Alexa.

Now, all that’s needed is similar thinking and innovation applied to business communications. What’s needed is the re-invention of the contact center for the digital era.

Enter Avaya Oceana™

Oceana is a departure from traditional business communications, just as the smart device was a departure from the basic, voice-only flip phone. This is a contact center for the digital era. Companies today don’t want to risk losing customers as a result of a bad experience. They can’t afford it. Companies want a single solution with best-in-class flexibility that gives them the ability to:

  • Drive adoption of self-service channels by seamlessly linking these into the contact center to deliver an omnichannel multi-touch experience.
  • Make agents more efficient and more effective by enabling them to handle multiple parallel interactions using an integrated multi-media desktop.
  • Reduce call times through utilizing contextual knowledge of prior and in-progress interactions to streamline customer interactions.
  • Drive higher customer satisfaction / NPS by tailoring the engagement experience to address their business’s unique/specific customer needs.
  • Rapidly optimize and continuously improve how they engage with their customers by leveraging their system’s flexibility, openness and integration capabilities.

In turn, customers get the experiences they know modern-day technology is capable of providing. The sophisticated yet simple and intelligent experiences they have grown accustomed to having with their smart devices, tablets, laptops, digital televisions and other smart appliances. This is Oceana.

Avaya Is the Innovative Leader for the Digital Era

When we made the decision and accepted the challenge to lead the industry in re-inventing the contact center, we did not enter into this without careful thought and consideration … of everything. Leaving no stone unturned, we diligently looked at what our customers and our competitors’ customers are working with today. We uncovered more cobbled together, Frankenstein-esque systems than I ever thought existed. The complexity of processes and user experiences that companies unintentionally created by not keeping up with technology upgrades was amazing. Holding on to these older technologies today when all of these digital capabilities are available is similar to keeping a shelf full of CDs for your music. Eventually you realize that making the choice to go digital can transform your world for the better.

What we also learned was that if we were going to re-invent the contact center for the digital era, we had to think differently because digital technology and digital customers require different thinking. We challenged each other daily to think differently. That’s been the biggest challenge all along for companies struggling through digital transformations. But as Avaya learned with our own transformation, once you make the hard decisions, start thinking differently and get to the other side of the transformation, a whole new world of opportunity becomes available to you.

As Oscar Goldman used to say during a time when human-to-machine technology was something only Hollywood could dream up, “Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology.” The truth is we finally do have the technology. We can rebuild the contact center. This is no longer a futuristic endeavor, this is now. In fact, let me rephrase that: we have rebuilt the contact center.

This is Oceana. This is the contact center for the digital era. This is the start of something new, the start of something big.

3 Predictions about The Future of Customer Experience

Sometimes I know what the fictional Rip Van Winkle must have felt like when he woke up from his 20-year slumber. It seems like only yesterday that we in the communications world were marveling at the benefits of integrating voice and data. Now it’s all about the multi-touch customer experience and mobile everything. The speed at which communications in general—and customer engagement specifically—are advancing is nothing short of astonishing.

This prompted some thinking around what the next few years might bring. So we gathered insights from a variety of Avaya customers, visionaries within our own organization, and industry analysts to piece together a picture of what the future of customer experience will be in, for example, 2025. A few key themes emerged:

The nature of service will change. In the future, we won’t be talking about a device or media type. It will be all about what smarter consumers expect as outcomes—it starts with WHAT they want to do, followed by HOW they want to take action. It’s all about a customer being able to initiate contact in any number of ways and seamlessly move from one action to the next, in pursuit of resolution, knowing that a business will instantly know who they are, what they purchased (or anticipate what they want to purchase), what previous interactions they’ve had, what the outcomes of those interactions were, and then respond or, better yet, proactively address their needs. Everything is integrated at the point of interaction for the particular desired outcome at that moment.

And, it’s not just smarter consumers. Because the customer of tomorrow has done their own research, attempted to fix their own issues, etc. they require smarter, better equipped and, frankly, happier customer service agents and experts. To meet customers’ increasing expectations for fast, effortless and personal service, employees need to be empowered, be more knowledgeable, have the right tools, and—this is a bit subtler—better motivation. Increasingly, employees expect better work-life balance, more flexible scheduling, the latitude to work from home and the freedom to use their own devices. All of this—on both the consumer and agent side of the equation—means having seamless, adaptable, integrated, and responsive contact center infrastructure and applications. Organizations will be required to have an even smarter enterprise.

Extreme analytics will power customer experience. What is Extreme Analytics? It is analytics driven by context, supported by workflow automation, working with machine learning, and feeding artificial intelligence, just as a start. These are what will be needed to drive highly customized personal experiences. Natural language processing with analytics running in the background will make consumers feel that they are receiving a unique personalized experience, even though they may talk voice-to-voice or face-to-face with anyone from the company. No matter what means—digital or otherwise—the customer uses to initiate contact, the technology will be in place to translate, interpret, understand behaviors, anticipates needs, even if it’s a first contact between the customer and the business. If a customer chooses to visit a store or other location in person, there are still means by which—using GPS, geo-targeting, Internet of Things and other technologies—a highly personalized experience can be sculpted in real time. It will no longer be a digital interface alone. It will be about enabling interaction and personalization no matter where a customer wants to conduct business.

Loyalty is dead. As the post-digital world unfolds, the only loyalty customers will have is to whoever can make it easiest for them to do what they need to do. It will no longer be cognizant or mindful loyalty. Instead—whether it’s retail, banking, cab service, travel, prescription drugs, whatever—tomorrow’s consumers will certainly derive some level of comfort from knowing they’ve interacted with a business before, but that won’t be enough to keep them coming back. The next company that comes along and makes it faster, easier and (maybe, but maybe not) cheaper will get their business.

Here, extreme analytics come into play again. Driving in-the-moment loyalty will require customer segmentation that goes far beyond age groups and other demographics and customer profiles. It will include behavior analysis and an up-to-the-minute understanding of what a customer is doing (or anticipating next) so their experience can be personalized. It doesn’t matter that I fit into a certain age bracket or that I am a platinum customer of this financial institution or of that hotel chain. I have different “care abouts,” and a company needs to know those about me so they can create “anticipatory engagement.” The company anticipates what a customer will need, perhaps even from adjacent industry analysis, which drives knowledge of next best action, and drives proactive outreach—product and service offers that meet an expectation that is only now materializing.

Are these themes the things dreams are made of? Absolutely not. Consumer expectations are already headed in the direction suggested above, as are the technologies that are beginning to enable those capabilities. It’s only a matter of time, the future is now.

Curious to hear more about how we envision the Future of Customer Experience? How are customer expectations changing in your business? I’d love to hear from you.