Chat app Line is developing an AI assistant and Amazon Echo-style smart speaker

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Messaging app Line is taking a leaf out of the books of Amazon, Google and others after it launched its own artificial intelligence platform.

A voice-powered concierge service called Clova — short for “Cloud Virtual Assistant” — is the centerpiece of the service, much like Amazon’s Alexa, Microsoft’s Cortana and Google Assistant. Beyond the assistant living inside the main Line chat app, the company said it has plans to release hardware with support for Clova baked-in, as Amazon and Google have done, and work with third parties to integrate the service into additional hardware. Sony and toy maker Tomy aew among the early partners it is talking to.

Also, interestingly, Line has acquired a majority stake in the Japanese company behind a ‘holographic’ AI service. Vinclu is the startup, and its Gatebox is its ‘virtual robot’ that gives AI a graphical presence in the form of manga cartoon-style female — very Japanese.

“Gatebox’s holographic home assistant is voice activated and uses a variety of sensors to interact with the device’s operator in a realistic and natural manner, while also connecting to a range of devices in the home,” Line said.

As this promotional video shows, Gatebox is painted more like a virtual companion than a gender-neutral AI assistant. That might require a different approach if the product is to ship outside of Japan, perhaps involving Brown the bear and others who star in Line’s sticker packs.

There’s no word on what Line plans to do specifically with Gatebox, but the chat app firm did say that it will introduce Clova to the Line app and begin selling a Clova-powered smart speaker in Japan and Korea in “early summer.” The first iteration of Clova will allow the kind of things other AI apps already do, such as getting news, weather info, playing music, etc.

Initially the firm is developing Clova-related services itself — alongside parent firm Naver — but Line said it plans to open the AI platform for both software and hardware up to third parties in the future. That’s where tasks could get more complicated and intricate.

“The goal is to create a thriving ecosystem of contents, services and devices with a wide range of partners, allowing the Clova platform to continue to expand and develop over time,” Line said in a statement.

The company’s foray into AI seems fairly standard compared to what those leading the space are doing, but Line is the first chat app company to make a sustained push. While an AI might help increase engagement with existing users, it doesn’t seem like a bridge to bring new users into the fold and that is among the key issues Line is currently grappling with.

The company, which went public in a dual U.S.-Japan IPO worth $1.1 billion last year, recently posted its largest revenue drop amid slowing user growth, putting it under pressure to generate new revenue streams.

In an interview with Bloomberg, CEO Takeshi Idezawa admitted that the AI strategy — which will include more M&A deals — would not immediately address those concerns.

“It’s one of the longer-term bets. The point is to secure a position early on. People will probably begin to use these services more regularly three to five years from now,” he said.

In the nearer term, Line is focusing on adding advertising to its monetization mix, which is primarily comprised of in-app purchases for games and sticker pack sales.

One of its other bets has been doubling down on different areas of social. The firm recently increased its stake in Snapchat-like service Snow — also owned by Naver — to close to 50 percent, while it has long pledged to be more than just a chat app. Related services it currently offers include mobile payments, music streaming, taxis on-demand and more.

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