Smart speakers

Smart Speakers: A Smart Bet for S Korea’s AI Industry?


You’re probably familiar with names like Alexa and Siri. But have you heard of Bixby, Sally and GiGA Genie?

Many of South Korea’s leading companies are scrambling to catch the global wave of AI-powered smart speakers. From hardware makers like Samsung and LG to internet giants Naver and Kakao and telcos such as SK Telecom and KT, all are out for a slice of a market that has grown rapidly since the release of Amazon’s first AI speaker, Echo, in 2014. The AI-powered speaker market is set to grow to $2.1 billion on 2020, up from $360 million in 2015.

South Korea is home to a tech-savvy population with some of the fastest internet speeds in the world, providing the perfect testing ground for AI speaker technology. The battle between local firms is already looming, so let’s go over the basics of their respective speakers and voice assistants (in chronological order of release date).

SKT NUGU (Speaker: eponymous)

This AI-based voice assistant from from SK Telecom, South Korea’s biggest telco service, was launched in September 2016 (nugu means “who” in Korean). The cylinder-shaped smart speaker that carries the software boasts the longest list of wake words so far, including Aria, Tinkerbell, Crystal and Rebecca. The speaker is connected to external platforms such as South Korean shopping website 11 Street (owned by SK Planet), allowing users to order products just by speaking.

Price: 249,000 won ($231)

KT GiGA genie (Speaker: eponymous)

Launched in January 2017 by South Korea’s second-biggest telco, KT, GiGA Genie is the world’s first AI TV set-top box service, according to the company. When users talk to the TV, the set-top box listens and allow them to choose options such as music, voice calls, home cameras and traffic from a main display page. The speaker part features audio technology from Harman Kardon.

Price: 299,000 won ($278)

Naver Clova (Speakers: WAVE, Friends and Friends Plus)  

Clova’s command word, Sally, comes from a yellow duck character from Naver’s LINE messenger. Clova-powered smart speakers WAVE and FRIENDS were launched in May 2017 by LINE and Naver, South Korea’s most popular search portal. In South Korea, Clova is set to enjoy an advantage over other competitors  thanks to years of accumulated Korean-language search data from Naver’s search engine. Naver has been aggressively promoting the speakers, selling them in bundles with a year’s subscription to Naver Music. However, as the domestic music streaming market is dominated by Melon, owned by Naver arch-rival KaKao, it’s questionable whether promotion using Naver Music will prove effective in the long run. Naver’s speakers are portable, unlike that of KaKao (see below).

Price: 153,750 won ($143)

Samsung Bixby (Speaker: TBC)

Samsung has not yet released smart speakers for its AI assistant Bixby, which was launched in May 2017. But Samsung mobile division president DJ Koh reportedly told the World Mobile Congress in late February that the company would release a speaker in the second half of 2018 (Samsung was unable to confirm Koh’s message at time of publication). Bixby already runs on Samsung’s Galaxy S8 and S8+ smartphones and is connected to mobile payment service Samsung Pay.

Price: N/A

KaKao i (Speaker: KaKao MINI)

AI assistant Kakao i was launched in May 2017 by internet empire KaKao Corp.. Its smart speaker, KaKao MINI, responds to the wake word “Hey KaKao.” KaKao MINI’s advantage over other speakers lies in its connectivity to the company’s own O2O services, including taxi-summoning app KaKao T and mobile payment service KaKao Pay. KaKao also owns Melon, South Korea’s biggest music streaming app, allowing the speaker to source and recommend music based on loads of user data.

Price: 119,000 won ($111)

Though Alexa and Google Assistant have gotten a global head start, South Korean companies may enjoy a home ground advantage. According to the country’s Science and Technology Policy Institute, local firms dominate Korean language processing and have bigger database reserves of South Korea-specific knowledge and content, giving them an edge in translation services.


Cover image: KaKao’s MINI, Naver’s WAVE and Amazon’s Echo get together for an artificial chat (Ho Kyeong Jang/Korea Exposé) 

Juwon is a journalist at Korea Exposé covering all things business. She’s previously worked as a TV producer in Channel News Asia in Singapore and has interned for Bloomberg, AP and Google. Juwon is a proud owner of her dog Noah and a graduate of Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong.