Apple, Amazon.com, Google, and Microsoft are among the companies trying to get you talking—to your phone, to your TV remote, to the funny-looking speaker on your desk. Amazon’s Alexa can order a cookbook and Apple’s Siri can set an oven timer for the cake, while Google’s Home silences the smoke alarm and Microsoft’s Cortana texts party guests to bring a dessert, all via voice commands. It’s impressive right up until the virtual assistants start responding with a familiar chorus along the lines of: “I’m sorry, I didn’t get that.”
These kinds of features test the limits of the microphones they require. The mics in most consumer technology haven’t kept pace with the advances in, say, cameras. They still aren’t great at focusing on faraway voices or filtering out background noise, and they often require too much power to be listening at all times. So the race into voice control by device makers is putting fresh pressure on the handful of obscure companies leading the $1 billion global market for microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) microphones. The message: We need better hardware, software, or both.