Talk to me – The role of Voice Control in the Smart Home

A recent Smart Home report on what features are most desired by users showed that in addition to self-adjusting thermostats, remote locking of burglar alarms and other such staples, one of the features that users really want is a master remote for all services. This is an expression of the frustration with the morass of incompatibility between smart devices.  Very few systems talk to each other in a meaningful way and it is clear that the fragmentation of standards and systems continues to cause customer confusion. By means of example see news that the Nest thermostat will no longer be sold in Apple Stores as (surprise, surprise) it does not support Apple’s proprietary HomeKit system. Given the fact that this fragmentation is likely to continue for the foreseeable future, the hopes for a universal remote, seem, well, remote.

http://www.icontrol.com/blog/2015-state-of-the-smart-home-report/
Smart Homes: What users want – Source: iControl Networks

Indeed, the closest thing to a universal control is the ubiquitous smartphone or tablet, from where individual apps can be used to access your home heating, security, lighting etc. Through its acquisition of DropCam, now called Nest Cam, Google have extended its Nest app to include access to its security cameras, but this integration of heating and security was only made possible because Google bought DropCam, which is hardly a scalable solution across the industry.

So what’s the alternative? This blog post will look at the opportunity offered by voice control solutions, which offer ‘frictionless’ interaction with devices, fulfilling a Jetsons-like vision of what the home of the future would look like. Let’s have a look at what the key players are up to.

Amazon Alexa

Amazon Echo

Following the launch of Echo, its rather strange voice-controlled media player device, Amazon has certainly not been wasting time. It is expanding the voice technology behind Echo to act as a gateway to all sort of interactions in the home. Using its Alexa Skills Kit, companies can ‘teach’ the Alexa voice processing engine to learn commands and actions specific to their application. This interface is not restricted to in-home applications, and by way of example, Amazon says that StubHub, a ticketing company, is using Alexa to allow users to ask their Echo device information about upcoming concerts, events etc.

Of more applicability to Smart Home applications is Alexa Voice Services which effectively decouples the Alexa voice service from the Echo device. Using this platform, anyone producing a device with a microphone and speaker can build in voice recognition powered by Amazon’s cloud-based platform. For example, Scout Alarm is using the platform to allow users to arm the home burglar alarm system by simply telling it to do so as they leave the home, though am not sure whether would-be-burglars would be able to instruct it to disarm by politely asking it too! Nevertheless, the potential for creating frictionless interactions between smart devices and their users are clear. Amazon are clearly bullish about the prospects for this platform as they have set up a $100m fund to invest in companies using the platform.

Apple HomeKit & Siri

Siri

Apple were the first to launch AI-based voice control upon an unsuspecting public, when they integrated Siri in the iPhone 4S in 2011. It should therefore come as no surprise that Siri is being integrated into Apple’s HomeKit platform. In principle, for the time-being, the phone remains the entry point to which users can issue commands such as “dim the lights”, “set the temperature to 28 degrees” etc. If an Apple TV unit is in the house, then the system can be used when the user is out-and-about, with voice commands being relayed back to the home via the iCloud and the Apple TV. Apple’s HomeKit launch has been a bit fraught, with some mixed reviews. Nevertheless, I suspect that this article will require an update when Apple provides us with their latest product update on 9 September.

Microsoft Cortana

Cortana

The elephant in the room is clearly Microsoft. Its Cortana AI interface is well-regarded and has been provided pride of place in Windows 10, the latest incarnation of its PC operating system as well as debuting on Android. While this makes sense for Microsoft, bringing Cortana to a much wider audience than could be achieved by the not-so-popular Windows Phone system, it leaves questions as to what Microsoft’s ambitions are in this space. A glimpse may be achieved by looking at its ‘Project Oxford‘ a beta set of APIs into advanced artificial intelligence services, including language and speech recognition. However, there is little in the space of a Microsoft-powered voice product at the moment, other than a Windows 10 – powered hub by a company called CastleOS. I have long thought that Microsoft have always been spectacularly unsuccessful in using its assets such as Windows and Xbox to branch out into other home applications, and its lethargy in building compelling and useful products based on Cortana may yet be another example of this trend.

In conclusion…

So what are the prospects for voice control acting as the universal remote? In a nutshell, the are mixed. On one hand, the benefits of simply being able to say, “I’m feeling cold” and letting the home thermostat deal with it is clearly appealing. However, by most accounts, the technology is still a bit hit-and-miss, and is certainly not seamless. Moreover, in order to create a true effortless experience, the home must be dotted with microphones able to pick up its master’s or mistress’ commands wherever they may be. It is useless to try to try to tell an Amazon Echo to lock the door if you are in another room. The alternative is to use Siri on your iPhone or Cortana on an Android phone, but given that you need to hold your phone, this provides little advantage over simply using an app. Nevertheless, I feel that the privacy offered by one’s own four walls provides a natural environment for speech-based interfaces, so I will be very surprised if we will not be talking to at least some of our home appliances before too long.

Whether they will listen is another matter entirely.

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