Poor Virtual Assistants performance is placing an increasing pressure on the quality of microphones used in devices. Peter Cooney, an analyst at SAR Insight & Consulting says that “there is an arms race” in the market for microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) microphones. Marwan Boustany, an analyst with research firm IHS Markit adds that “microphone performance has not really improved that much”.
This lack in microphone performance is the leading reason behind the different Virtual Assistants (Siri, Cortana, Alexa, etc.) not performing up to standards. Given that the last time that there was significant advancement in this industry was back in 2012, there is much for MEMS mic manufacturers to catch up on.
Over the years, manufacturers have been steadily increasing the number of mics found on devices as a way to improve clarity of the sound pick up by the virtual assistant in the event some are muffled or aimed in the wrong direction. Apple’s iPhone 6S comes with four mics, the Droid Turbo comes with five mics.
There is a trade-off to increasing the number of mics — increased battery usage, increased costs and a chance of the mics causing interference amongst themselves. Samsung thus uses only two on its devices.
The current demands from Samsung and its rivals are simple. They require a higher signal-to-noise ratio, allowing the mics to isolate voices more clearly and from an increased distance; And a higher acoustic overload point, the threshold at which the mic can no longer distinguish signal from noise.
All of that has to be achieved without the chips for the MEMS mics increasing their size and power consumption or reducing in reliability. Currently the market leader, Knowles, who shipped 1.4 billion MEMS mics last year has turned to software in order to improve microphone performance.
Though there are companies such as Vesper experimenting on new technology that improves performance, they do not expect to see its implementation until mid-2017. For now, Virtual Assistants will need to rely on more mics being crammed into the device so as to recognise your voice commands.