The Korea Herald


Introducing SK Telecom's rising star, Nugu

By Won Ho-jung

Published : Feb. 7, 2018 - 16:15

    • Link copied

SK Telecom has ambitious plans for its voice-activated assistant Nugu, which it hopes will become the epitome of a customized life powered by artificial intelligence, with services ranging from basic information about traffic and weather conditions to shopping and delivery.

First rolled out in September 2016, the voice-activated speaker is rapidly expanding its service capabilities in conjunction with SK Telecom’s existing strengths in its car navigation system Tmap and e-commerce platform 11st as well as outside partnerships to reach into every aspect of life.

“Our focus is not necessarily on selling more Nugu devices, but on using those devices to introduce AI capabilities to our users and expand our user base,” said an official with SK Telecom.

Models present the B tv x Nugu set-top box. (SK Telecom) Models present the B tv x Nugu set-top box. (SK Telecom)

Nugu has been steadily increasing its available services since its rollout, moving from simple smart speaker capabilities such as playing music on voice command to providing dictionary, audio book and finance-related services.

According to fourth-quarter results announced Monday, monthly users of Nugu had increased from 110,000 last August to 2.11 million users as of December. The company is looking to grow that number to over 5 million users by the end of 2018.

“Based on connectivity with Tmap and expanding the device lineup to TV set-top boxes, we expect roughly 5 million users by the end of the year,” Yoo Young-sang, Chief Financial Officer of SK Telecom, said in a conference call.

Nugu faces tough competition in Korea as voice-activated AI assistants continue to evolve among rivals such as wireless carrier KT, as well as hardware manufacturers like Samsung and online platforms such as Naver and Kakao. 

To boost its competitiveness, SK Telecom is working to move beyond Nugu as a standalone assistant and make it into an ecosystem. 

Last August, SK Telecom released Nugu mini, a speaker that is about half the size of the original speaker and has an internal battery that allows it to be carried outdoors.

The mini-sized speaker sold more than 5,000 units on its first day of release, according to SK Telecom, more than five times the sales results of the original Nugu.

The Nugu mini was followed up by Nugu collaborations with Tmap and SK Broadband’s B tv set-top boxes. By connecting with Tmap, SK Telecom was able to bring Nugu to the 15 million Tmap users via their cell phones. 

The updated Tmap 6.1 allows users to make and receive calls, hear news briefings and search for destinations through voice commands with Nugu without having to carry the smart speaker around.

Expanding the devices and locations where Nugu is used will increase the amount of data stored in the Nugu system, creating a foundation for increasing the accuracy of voice recognition, according to an official. 

By connecting Nugu with TV set-top boxes, Nugus‘s search functions are able to display visual results, overcoming the limitations of voice-only services offered by other assistant speakers.

“Based on the rich content information offered by 'B tv x Nugu,' we plan to continue developing speech recognition and search functions,” SK Broadband said. “The goal is to give users a positive experience that will 
make the device the hub of future smart homes.”

In addition, SK Telecom announced that it would be re-entering the music streaming market with a new platform to be rolled out by the end of the year in collaboration with major K-pop labels. The new platform will be integrated with Nugu in order to give users a customized music streaming experience, according to the company.

By Won Ho-jung (