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SNCF Innovation & Research gets vocal!

In the United States, 20% of Google searches are done by voice. With the arrival in France of the Google Home connected speaker, Innovation & Research has begun exploring new voice applications.

With 8 million sold in the United States alone, connected speakers are enjoying a boom. On 3 August, the phenomenon reached France with the official launch of Google Home. With a selling price of €149, this newcomer incorporates not only the usual features of a speaker, but also microphones to capture the user’s voice as well as the Google Assistant artificial intelligence system capable of understanding voice commands and executing many types of requests.

A new field of research

As for the developers of apps – called “actions” in the Google universe – the launch of a speaker capable of interacting in French opens an immense realm of possibilities. “For a company like SNCF, it is a tremendous field of exploration”, notes Patrick Ung, new technologies project leader on the Design and Passenger Technologies team in SNCF  Innovation & Research. “In fact, we didn’t wait for the rollout of the French-language speaker. We bought our speaker in the spring when it was not yet available in French to be very early in the starting blocks.”

Improving passenger support

And indeed, on 14 November, Innovation & Research presented its functioning POC* to the other SNCF entities during the Demo Day of the Services and Passenger Experience cluster. “We decided to work on passenger support and complement the work Voyages-sncf.com is doing on train ticket purchasing,” adds Ung. To produce its app, the Innovation & Research team focused on the formulation of questions and the optimisation of response times so that the speaker would be able to understand as many user requests as possible and reply to them with maximum efficiency. A partner company was contracted for the IT development.

Simple and efficient

The result? The prototype can already do searches for times and itineraries for well-known locations (for example, the Eiffel Tower), pre-registered locations (“Work”, “Home”, etc.), and any other address in the Ile-de-France region. The information provided vocally, including the details of the itinerary, is also sent by SMS. Information on traffic conditions, with the possibility to get suggestions for a car with driver if there is congestion, is provided too. There is also a function to obtain information about one’s next trip from the ticket saved in the smartphone. “The results of all the tests we have done are very good”, adds Ung. “Besides being able to offer the app to customers, this project has contributed to current Innovation & Research work on conversational agents.”

* Proof of Concept