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Pandora voice mode wants to spin the perfect tunes for you

"Hey Pandora, play something from my most impossibly vague instructions."

DaniLeigh performs in a yellow graphic outfit in front of a Pandora P logo.
DaniLeigh performs at Pandora Presents Beyond last year. 

Streaming music service Pandora is arming to do battle with Alexa and Google Assistant in the one area it already knows well: music recommendations.

Pandora on Tuesday introduced "voice mode," a function that lets people ask Pandora's mobile app to play something for them.

"People are getting more conversational [with their voice commands], and in getting more conversational, they're getting more vague," Chris Phillips, Pandora's head of product, said in an interview last week at CES in Las Vegas. "I can be vague, and it just gives me a great response."

Amazon's Alexa has begun a process to make music recommendations by voice more conversational too, but it's taking a different route. Last year, the voice assistant began engaging in more of a dialogue when you ask it to play something on Amazon's own music-streaming service. It tweaked the voice assistant by letting Alexa ask follow-up questions when you're hunting for songs and by playing samples before diving in. The goal was to get you to music you like in 25 to 30 seconds.

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Pandora is skipping the followup-question step. What sets Pandora apart is an unmatched history building technology just for music recommendations. Instead of building a voice assistant that needs to field requests about detailing the weather, hailing an Uber or explaining interstellar physics, Pandora's voice mode needs to be good only at music discovery. And Pandora has nearly two decades of experience making music recommendations on mobile devices with its dedicated Music Genome Project, a track record that is unusually deep and long.  

To put its music recommendation expertise onto a voice platform, Pandora partnered with SoundHound's Houndify voice and conversational artificial intelligence. 

Voice Mode is launching for a small set of beta users Tuesday. By saying the wake phrase "Hey Pandora" followed by a request, users can guide their listening experience "by just speaking naturally," the company said. 

Types of requests include: 

  • Control requests to change stations, control volume, skip or pause music, and other basic navigation commands. 
  • Thematic requests based on personalized recommendations that can be guided by moods and favorite activities like "play something for my workout" or "play music for relaxing."
  • Open-ended requests like "play something different, "play something I like" or "play more like this." 
  • Basic requests for a specific artist, song, station, podcast or playlist like "play new music by…" or "play my happy jams playlist." 
  • Interactive requests like "what song is this?" or directional requests like "add this song to my party playlist" or "I like this" to give a thumbs-up.

During my demo, Phillips showed me how you can request podcasts by who appeared as a guest, so if one of your favorite celebrities or writers is doing the rounds on interviews, you can easily find a podcast she or he appeared on. 

Pandora said that voice mode would be widened to all mobile users "soon," without specifying the rollout timeline.  

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