A voice from tomorrow

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Speed U Up is leading the way into a voice-controlled future

Imagine you’re in a huge garden and the plants are in full bloom. The sun is shining. Birds are singing. You’re sitting back and relaxing on a sunlounger. Welcome to the House of Voice, a creation of the digital agency Speed U Up. In this delightful spot in the middle of Chur, Head of Software Alexander Efa and Project Manager Flurin Carigiet are developing the smart, voice-controlled assistants of the future.

A workplace like this is a rare sight. What inspired you to create this atmosphere?

Alexander Efa: Before I came here, I’d only worked in open-plan offices. I was lost for words when I saw this place! The stress-free environment, the little stream around the corner. Being able to just go for a walk. I couldn’t quite believe it. A lot of companies still seem to think people can be 100% productive eight hours a day. I have my best ideas when I least expect them – when I’m out jogging, for example.


Flurin Carigiet: Or chilling out on a lounger! I love brainstorming outside. When I really need to focus, I go to the villa. The garden house is ideal for chats and meetings. Voice technology is a new topic with huge unexplored potential. We’re looking for people with a great deal of initiative and a passion for the concept. That’s why we wanted to create a workplace where employees actually enjoy spending time.

How did your passion for voice tech lead you to Speed U Up?

AE: I worked in the automotive sector for many years, which led me to software development roles in Japan, the United States and Germany. Three years ago, I worked for the only European voice-based project I’d ever known at the time. I came across Speed U Up around six months ago. I’m now responsible for the development of all software applications here, and mainly focus on the voice-related ones.


FC: I’ve always been interested in pioneering technologies, so I was looking for a company at the forefront of voice-based developments. Intelligent voice technology can change the world and really turn it on its head – in the best possible way. I’ve been with Speed U Up for more than a year now. As a project manager, I’m in charge of the entire voice segment.


And you can turn the world on its head from here, from Chur?

AE: Oh yes – in fact Speed U Up is pretty much the only place in Europe where you can. So far, everything to do with voice technology has come from the United States. That’s why I was genuinely surprised to come across a Swiss company that is light years ahead of its time. The smartphone you’re currently using to film us is becoming obsolete. Ten more years and it won’t even be around any more.

Flurin pulls a pair of Ray Ban sunglasses out of his pocket and puts them on.

I know it’s sunny, but I’m guessing they do more than just protect your eyes …

FC (smiles): That’s right. These sunglasses let you see the world around you and take in audiovisual information without needing to look down at your smartphone. We’ve already used these smart glasses to organise guided tours of Vienna and New York on Beethoven’s birthday in 2018. During the tour, the glasses pointed out important locations to the visitors. The New York Times even ran an article on it!


And where is there a demand for intelligent voice tech in Switzerland?

FC: We try to solve local problems. For the Zermatt tourist board, for example, we’ve developed a voice assistant that recommends activities, knows the opening hours of the area’s ski lifts and warns about potential avalanches. The app also shows you how to take the best pictures of the Matterhorn and makes restaurant reservations for you. You can talk to the voice assistant through Alexa wherever you are.


AE: In the long run, we want to be able to develop our own glasses and voice services without depending on the major US players. This requires local partners that can develop the technologies needed. It’ll be some time before they come along. Switzerland needs to be a little bit bolder.


Unlike conventional smartphones, voice-based technologies are much more accessible, and that’s what makes them so innovative.

FC: Exactly – voice technology brings people from different generations together. Children are naturally adept at using voice assistants and enjoy talking to them, and elderly people with health issues can benefit from these technologies, too. Being able to use a voice assistant to make a phone call, switch the light off or just chat to an avatar gives a bedridden patient a great deal of their independence back.


Ambitious visions!

AE: Yes, we want to solve problems caused by a lack of skilled workers: in tourism, at reception desks, in care work, you name it. The idea behind our work is that voice technology can carry out trivial tasks that are currently not well served. This frees up time for people to do more important things. We don’t want to replace people with technology like they do in science fiction films.


Speaking of the distant future: How will voice technology make our lives easier in years to come?

FC: I can see voice technologies being used to speed up information retrieval in institutions such as schools or hospitals in the near future. You could simply ask a question and get an answer without having to waste time searching through databases and websites.

How is this innovative technology reflected in your day-to-day work?

AE: We need freedom to plan our own working time – the question of when we work, where we work. For example, one of our employees recently moved in with his girlfriend in the Netherlands, and he works remotely from there now.


You have offices in Austria and Germany, too. How does this decentralised model affect your team cohesion?

AE: Surprisingly, our team cohesion is better than what I’ve seen at companies where everyone works in the same building. We had two company retreats last year, and management actually apologised that we didn’t have more. At the time, I’d been working here for two months, and I’d already been on two company excursions. I’d never done anything like it in the whole 10 years before coming here!


FC: And we actively make an effort to meet up. When we do get together, we’re in this lovely atmosphere discussing projects or crazy ideas, and we can sit back and relax in the garden together.