Speaking of the future: Chattanooga draws thousands of voice technology experts from around the world

Staff photo by Erin O. Smith / Jake Kelly, a developer evangelist with Modev, speaks with Kari Olson during the Alexa Conference in 2019 in Chattanooga. This year's conference kicked off Monday.

There will be plenty to say about the rampant growth and immense potential of voice technology during Project Voice, an international conference that lands in Chattanooga this week.

"Voice technology may seem like a gimmick, and to some people it may seem like flat-out surveillance technology out of 1984, but voice is who we are as human beings," said Bradley Metrock, the CEO and founder of Score Publishing, which launched the event in Nashville in 2016 as The Alexa Conference. "As technology evolves over time, it makes sense that we would come back to voice."

This is the third year Project Voice has been hosted in Chattanooga, and first year the name has been expanded beyond the Alexa moniker to include all things voice tech. The conference has grown from around 600 attendees last year to roughly 3,000 this year, and was sold out by last week, Metrock said.

photo Executive Producer of the Project Voice conference Bradley Metrock speaks with press during the conference in 2019. The 2020 event will run Tuesday through Thursday at the Chattanooga Convention Center. / Staff photo by Erin O. Smith

"We're in Chattanooga for the long term," he said. "We're gratified by the relationships we've built in the city."

One of those relationships is with event sponsor EPB, which is a natural connection given the city's reputation as a hotspot for high-speed internet and startup-friendly culture, said J.Ed. Marston, vice president of Marketing for EPB.

"When we first learned about the conference, we decided to become a lead sponsor and serve as a catalyst for bringing it to Chattanooga in the first place," Marston said.

As more and more devices are working from wireless internet connections in every home, high internet speeds and broad bandwidth have become an essential element of everyday life, Marston said.

Project Voice runs Tuesday through Thursday at the Convention Center in downtown Chattanooga.

On Tuesday, new Chattanooga-based company Spokestack is introducing a platform to make it easier for developers to voice-enable mobile apps. They'll host a free workshop for local students and developers at the Convention Center from 5:30-8:00 p.m. Local college students and tech developers are also invited to participate in Project Voice on Thursday, which is EPB Developer Day. Just show up with your student ID or business card to the registration table at the Chattanooga Convention Center for free admission. For more information, visit projectvoice.ai

"We saw this as an opportunity to position Chattanooga as a location for this important trend," he said.

Microsoft, Amazon and Samsung are also event sponsors - a top-tier industry line-up that reflects the potential of the technology, Metrock said.

"Voice technology is grossly underutilized," he said. "There's so much utility there people don't know about."

About one in four homes has a voice-activated assistant in the background awaiting instructions, according to Nielsen research. Metrock sees tremendous potential in those devices and other voice technology. He recently published a book that explores uses for voice tech assistants beyond the standard-issue requests for news, weather and music.

photo Staff photo by Erin O. Smith / From left, Brian Dooner listens as Ganesh Gandhieswaran, founder and president of ThickStat, and Charlie Farber, financial advisor at ThickStat, tell Dooner a little about their business during the Alexa Conference in Chattanooga in 2019.

"We've all lived through tech cycles and hype cycles," he said. "Voice is different."

Voice tech isn't just a cool way to lock the doors or turn on the lights at home, Metrock said. It has the potential to transform the lives of people who have disabilities, including blindness or impaired vision, he said. Using our voices to drive the devices we use also has the potential to get us to look up from our phones for once, he added.

"We're tired of people staring at their phones, and voice is the grim reaper for phones," he said.

Contact Mary Fortune at mfortune@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6653. Follow her on Twitter at @maryfortune.

photo From left, Jariatu Mansaray speaks with Alessandra Laurent, operations analyst for PulseLabs, and Maria del Mar Gonzalez, the social media and marketing director for PulseLabs, during the Alexa Conference in 2019. The 2020 conference, now called Project Voice, will run Tuesday through Thursday at the Chattanooga Convention Center. / Staff photo by Erin O. Smith