Founded in 2005 and backed by high tech venture capitalists, Bristol-based XMOS is well known for its excellence in the prosumer market, but their flexible microcontroller technology has also been leveraged across a range of different markets, including voice, microphone arrays, audio, communications and robotics.
Over the past 18 months, XMOS has moved into a broader market and now stands at the forefront of the far-field voice interface market, combining state of the art sound processing and artificial intelligence. Their unique silicon architecture and highly differentiated software delivers class-leading far-field voice capture – even from across the room, in a busy environment when the person is speaking softly.
CEO of XMOS, Mark Lippett, talks to PwC’s Colin Bates about how the company’s voice and audio solutions are helping to revolutionise the way we live.
So Mark, tell us how XMOS started?
The company was inspired from research that Ali Dixon, one of the founders, was involved in at the University of Bristol in 2005. He was working on a post graduate project with tech that looked interesting and had unique advantages we could commercialise. I joined in 2006 and we got funding in 2007, which is when it really started to move,
XMOS technology foundation is a computer architecture – basically, we sell silicon chips. The original thesis was we would create a very broad, flexible range for people to use in various systems, but we had an idea to focus on a certain part of the audio market that had been starved of the opportunity to differentiate their products. We felt we could liberate people in that space to be creative.
XMOS really took off in 2009, when Apple dropped FireWire interfaces for USB. Some audio accessory players were caught on the hop and we were entering the marketplace with really flexible tech that could solve that problem. Now we are working with around 200 customers who are making things like external sound cards, DJ controllers - things that take multiple channels of audio. We’re about as big a player in that space as there is - and then along came voice.
Can you explain how the company has developed over the years?
Two or three years ago, we were in a global market, which I’d identify as the “prosumer” audio market: the top end of consumer and high volume end of professional. We built global sales channels in North America, Europe and Japan, typically selling to small and medium sized companies, and we won hundreds of customers all over the world.
We noticed that some of our customers were using the tech to create multiple microphone systems. That made us curious and piqued our interest, because it took us outside of the relatively small prosumer market and into the much bigger consumer electronics market. Then Amazon brought out Echo - that was our opportunity to move into the voice-interface market and I jumped on a plane to start a relationship with the team at Amazon. Voice has been a focus ever since, although we maintain a strong commitment to our original USB and hi-res audio customers.
What challenges have you faced?
Start-ups are full of obstacles. It’s a roller coaster. Development of voice technology presented very different technical challenges to those we had faced before, and we ended up acquiring a company to bring in expertise. Moving from SMEs to consumers is also quite a strategic shift in terms of how sales channels build up and how you get the customer engaged.
Plus, the voice space is complex - lots of different bits of tech have to work together. We’ve become much more focussed on partnering as we help our customers understand the new technology and develop their own solutions.
In terms of innovation, how does the future look?
In the audio space, manufactures are already adding voice. We believe context recognition is an important next step in the evolution and adoption of voice. To keep XMOS compelling we have to anticipate where the market is going and what our clients are need. In the short term that means delivering an even richer user experience whilst driving costs down. The way to do that is to put the least tech possible into a device and move the rest tech onto the host or in the cloud. That’s how we’ll go wider and expand rapidly in this market.
How can the tech be used by real people in their everyday lives?
Around a billion people in the world struggle with little to no literacy; voice control is a game changer there, levelling the field and creating a path to better services and education. There’s no knowledge barrier, no need to tap a keyboard or figure out how to work the remote control, you simply talk to the device from across the room. For the rest of us, voice is a more efficient way to obtain information. The tech is very appealing in an automotive context and across the home. An exciting area of use is Healthtech - we have an ageing population living on their own and voice opens up a world of new possibilities there.
We’re also seeing a lot of debate on the amount of screen-time adults and children are engaging in on a daily basis. As voice interfaces become standard across our everyday devices, some of today’s key form factors may start to lose their relevance - which in turn could reduce the amount of time we spend in front of a screen and bring a positive change in our active listening skills.
What is the future for XMOS?
We’re marching ahead full speed on voice and natural human machine interfaces, looking at different types of sensors to improve user experiences. We’re looking at building tech that’s high quality and cheaper, to make sure voice is a ubiquitous tech. From a B2B perspective, we’re working on delivering higher value services to businesses. We have a strong position in a massive market. Our challenge – and our opportunity - is to stay focussed on what we do well.
Please get in touch, I am keen to hear from you. My private business team and I can help with all your business queries including audit, tax, cyber, data and advisory including transactions and corporate finance.
Colin Bates, PwC Partner and regional private business leader. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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