Gizmos

The Way We Use Smart Speakers Continues to Evolve

They’re not just for smart home help or information.

Woman talks to her Echo.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Amazon, Thinkstock.

The smart speaker space continues to grow. The number of major players is expanding. In the past few weeks alone, we saw new products from Amazon, LG, and Google. The number of devices in people’s homes is rapidly increasing as well. Data released last month by Adobe suggests about 32 percent of U.S. households now own a smart speaker, up 14 percent from January. A majority of new owners and longtime users say they’re increasing their usage. They continue to employ these devices for expected things, such as listening to music, though another more surprising category is gaining popularity.

But first, yes: Streaming music is by far the most popular way we’re using smart speakers. A whopping 90 percent of Nielsen respondents report streaming music. (Adobe’s study put that figure at 70 percent.) Behind that, checking the weather forecast and searching for factual information were the top activities. But a new pastime is gaining popularity—talking to your assistant for fun. 68 percent of smart speaker owners admit to chatting with their Alexa, Google Assistant, or Siri digital assistant just for fun, while 53 percent report a similar activity, asking their assistant “fun questions.”

The popular digital assistants all have either Easter egg–style queries or entertaining games and topics they can chat about. Try telling Siri, “I see a little silhouetto of a man” or asking, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” Google Assistant, while perhaps the most fact-focused of the leading assistants, even has a quirky side, particularly when it comes to movie quotes. Alexa, however, is the leader for time-wasting queries and activities. There are more than 30,000 Alexa skills available for download, and by tapping into these, Echo-device owners can gain even more fun voice-based interactions than the ones Amazon built in. You can play Jeopardy with the assistant, get served daily quotes from The Office, or carry on a conversation with Baby Groot of Guardians of the Galaxy fame. As one user review put it, “I have this amazing technology in my house, and I use [it] to hear Baby Groot say ‘I am Groot.’ ”

But using smart speakers for silly activities shows how these devices have evolved into a standard part of our lives. An Echo or Google Home is no longer just a speaker or just a reference tool. It’s more like a computer or a smartphone, a gadget that can be used for a broad range of things, both productive and inane. It’s another sign that smart assistants are doing their job of becoming more humanlike digital entities. Alexa isn’t just a disembodied voice that answers questions; it’s someone you can turn to when you’re bored, when you need a pick-me-up, or when you’re feeling lonely.

That asking digital assistants “fun questions,” or chatting with them “just for fun,” has become a popular use is a mark of our comfort level with these devices in our homes. It’s also a signifier that manufacturer efforts to make these assistants more engaging and entertaining is working. By the end of this year, up to half of U.S. homes could own smart speakers, and it’s a good bet that many will be using their device just for fun too.