Self-service kiosks have for some time been a part of the restaurant experience, but the COVID-19 pandemic has called into question one of the device’s defining features: the touchscreen. At a time when more people are avoiding public spaces and restaurants are urged to “go contactless,” do we really want to order our food from a device 20 people had their hands all over before we stepped up to it?
A Silicon Valley company called Sensory believes not, which is why it has recently taken its technology into the realm of quick-service restaurants (QSRs) to outfit kiosks with a new kind of interface: voice.
Anyone with an eye to the restaurant biz could see this trend coming as far back as a year ago. Voice interfaces are part of many consumers’ homes now (roughly 88 million U.S. adults), and the last 12 months have seen QSRs make big strides in the voice-tech realm, most notably with McDonald’s 2019 acquisition of voice-tech company Apprente. But, as with most food tech these days, the pandemic has accelerated the need for voice-enabled tools to improve hygiene and social distancing in the restaurant setting.
Sensory may be new to the QSR space, but the company is Old Guard when it comes to voice. Having worked on voice and vision AI for the last 25 years, Sensory’s technology is already deployed in major industries like banking and automotive. Which is to say, the folks behind the name know a thing or two about making voice tech efficient and easy to use, two things that are a must for today’s beleaguered restaurant industry.
Sensory’s VP of Marketing, Joe Murphy, said the company is currently in talks with major QSR chains and the technology companies that supply them with kiosks. Once bolted on to a kiosk, Sensory’s tech uses voice and vision AI to create an actual touch-free experience for customers.
The customer first uses a wake word or phrase (“OK, Taco Bell”) much as they would with an at-home Alexa or Google speaker, to trigger the system in the kiosk. That system relies on automatic speech recognition (ASR) and natural language understanding (NLU) to translate speech to text in real time and process the order. The application then executes the task and places whatever item the customer ordered (e.g., chalupa) into their cart.
This is the process you might expect for any walk-up or drive-through kiosk equipped with voice, and Murphy went into detail about how Sensory’s approach sets it apart.
For one thing, there’s the combination of voice and vision AI. The latter can roughly assess a customer’s age, gender, and sentiment by collecting biometric data, which it uses to better personalize upsell items. Upselling items to customers is a huge revenue mover for restaurants, and Murphy says the combination of voice and vision make the items far more relevant to each individual customer. (He’s quick to point out that the system does not do full-on identification of individual customers. The biometrics Sensory takes are much more general.)
And though Sensory’s tech can be cloud-based, for these QSR implementations it is actually embedded into the machine, which is obviously better for data security. Murphy also points out that an embedded system gives restaurants more control over that data. “When you work with a cloud based provider that data is not always yours,” he says. With an embedded solution, the data stays in the restaurant’s hands.
Sensory has also put a lot of effort into making its system customizable for each QSR client it works with. Each implementation of the system is trained for that specific restaurant’s language, from the wake word (“Hey Taco Bell”) to menu items in non-standard English (e.g., chalupa). “We build around your menu,” Murphy says of the system.
Voice tech in general isn’t widely implemented across the restaurant industry yet, but Murphy reckons that will change “sooner rather than later.” As mentioned before, kiosk adoption was already fairly widespread before the pandemic. A bolted-on system like Sensory’s allows major QSRs to retain their investment in kiosk machines while updating them to be more efficient and, importantly, more hygienic.
And Sensory isn’t the only company making moves in this space. Besides McDonald’s and its Apprente acquisition, Orderscape and Sevenrooms have both dabbled in voice-tech for restaurants, though their solutions aren’t specifically focused on the kiosk. But Sensory won’t be the lone wolf in its particular focus area for long. With off-premises orders and more contactless restaurant experiences now the mainstay, QSRs and tech companies alike will soon be rushing to implement alternatives to the old standard touchscreen kiosk.