In Depth

Why is the BBC launching a voice assistant?

‘Beeb’ will focus on regional accent recognition to stand out from Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant

The BBC is launching its own digital voice assistant in a move that will see it go head-to-head with tech giants Amazon and Google. 

The system, which has the working title “Beeb”, will take the form of voice assistance software that can be accessed through a host of smart speakers, phones and TVs, rather than a dedicated piece of hardware such as an Amazon Echo, the BBC says.

Users can wake the system by saying the word “Beeb”, followed by a command, the broadcaster says. However, the wake word is still under review and may change when the service launches next year.

What is Beeb and how will it work?

Simply put, it’s the BBC’s answer to the likes of Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant. 

According to TechRadar, the service will initially be built into the broadcaster’s website and serve as a tool that lets users navigate its iPlayer catch-up service hands-free. It will also make its way on to other devices, although it’s up to hardware makers as to whether they bundle the software into their products. 

It may seem odd that a broadcaster would want to rival some of the world’s biggest tech giants, but the BBC argues that the service will help it “experiment with new programmes, features and experiences without someone else’s permission to build it in a certain way”, the Mirror reports.

Why regional accents - and data - are key to Beeb’s success

Given that the broadcaster is going up against a multibillion-dollar industry, it’s had to think outside the box to set itself apart from the competition. 

The BBC has pledged to create a system that will understand regional accents, as some US-based voice assistants are notoriously bad at detecting certain dialects, The Guardian says. 

Over the next week, the BBC will ask staff in its offices across the UK to record their voices and ensure that the assistant can understand them, the newspaper says.

Plus, with about 20% of households in Britain having some form of device with voice assistant features, the broadcaster plans to collect data from Beeb users to help improve the system’s receptiveness to accents. 

Kieran Clifton, head of distribution & business development at the BBC, said the system could be vital to its programming schedule, too.  

“Data is more and more important – as it helps us to make more types of programmes we know people like, and equally importantly, identify gaps in our commissioning to ensure we’re making something for all audiences,” he told the Mirror. 

“We also use the data collected about what you watch, listen to or read online to offer personalised programme recommendations,” Clifton added.

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