A voice from tomorrow

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

Imagine you are in a large, blooming garden. The sun is shining. Birds are singing. You slowly settle yourself into a lounger. 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. Where does this atmosphere come from?

Alexander Efa: Before I came here, I only knew open-plan offices. I was lost for words when I saw this place! The stress-free environment, the gentle stream around the corner. The option of just going for a walk. Was it really possible? Many companies are yet to grasp that humans cannot be productive for eight hours a day. I have my best ideas when I least expect them. When I’m out for a run, for example.


Flurin Carigiet: Or chilling in a lounger! I love brainstorming outside. When I need to focus fully, I go to the villa. Discussions are best held in the garden house. Voice technology is a new, open-ended topic. We’re looking for people with a great deal of initiative and a passion for the concept. That’s why we to offer our staff a workplace where they enjoy spending their 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. And then, I came across Speed U Up six months ago. I’m now responsible for the development of all software applications here, especially the voice-related ones.


FC: I’ve always had a personal interest in pioneering technologies. That’s why I was looking for a company at the forefront of voice-based developments. Intelligent voice technology can change the world and turn it upside down – 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 upside down from here, from Chur?

AE: Oh yes – Speed U Up is pretty much the only place in Europe where you can do exactly that. 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 lightyears ahead of its time. The smartphone you’re currently using to film us is becoming obsolete. Ten more years and it won’t be around any more.

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

The sun is pretty bright, but I guess those do more than just protect your eyes …

FC (smiles): That’s right. These glasses let you take in your environment and consume audiovisual information without your needing to look down at your smartphone. We’ve already used these smart glasses to organise guided tours of Vienna and New York on the occasion of Beethoven’s birthday in 2018. During the tour, the glasses pointed out important locations to the visitors. Even the New York Times 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 offers avalanche predictions. The app also shows you how to take the best pictures of the Matterhorn and makes restaurant bookings 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 American players. This requires local partners that can develop the required technologies. It’ll be some time before they come along. Switzerland needs to be a little bit braver.


Unlike conventional smartphones, voice-based technologies are much more accessible, which is what makes them so innovative.

FC: Exactly – voice technology brings generations together. One the one hand, children are naturally adept at using voice assistants and enjoy talking to them. On the other hand, elderly people with health issues can benefit from these technologies, too. The ability to use a voice assistant to make a phone call, switch the light off or simply have a chat with 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 take over 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 far future: how will voice technology make our lives easier in years to come?

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

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

AE: We need freedom in planning 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. What does this decentralised model do to your team cohesion?

AE: Surprisingly, our team cohesion is better than what I’ve seen at companies that put everyone in the same building. We had two company retreats last year. The management even apologised that these things only happen relatively rarely. At the time, I had 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 ten 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 visions, and we enjoy the garden together.