The BBC has launched a beta version of a Windows-only voice assistant that can only play the broadcaster's content – though it can understand strong British accents, we're told.
The assistant, called "Beeb", was announced in August 2019. At the time, Auntie said that it had no plans to create a smart speaker to rival Alexa or Google Assistant. Instead, its goal was to get users to engage with BBC content in new ways.
That's precisely what today's launch delivers. Beeb can play BBC radio stations, podcasts, or TV shows on PCs. Saying "OK Beeb, update me" will give the user a snapshot of the latest news headlines and weather forecasts. Users can also request fun facts, which will be delivered by the voice of QI's Sandi Toksvig.
Unlike other smart assistants, Beeb will be limited to content within the BBC's own network and the broadcaster says it has no plans to allow users to connect with third-party apps or content. This strikes The Reg as a slightly odd strategy given that Alexa and Google Home users can listen to a wide array of content streams, including the BBC's, through a wide range of content aggregators.
Technology companies have found themselves in hot water over the past few years for commercialising user data collected through voice assistants.
The BBC is selling Beeb as a privacy-friendly option. Because the broadcaster is publicly funded, its business model is not built around using user data to create targeted advertising in the same way that Amazon and Google's are.
However the BBC says that although Beeb will not make any audio recordings of what users say, it will create and retain anonymised text transcripts, which will be used to improve the app in the future.
These transcripts will be shared with Microsoft to improve its Azure AI, which, like Alexa and Google Assistant, sometimes struggles to understand strong British accents. The BBC says that Beeb will specifically cater to understanding the variety of regional accents across the UK.
The voice assistant will only start when it hears the "OK Beeb" cue. Though the BBC warns that Beeb can activate itself it if hears something similar.
The new service is available for PCs and tablets in the UK as part of Microsoft's Windows Insider Program. ®