Has the smartphone finally found its voice? After decades of dreaming of a time when home appliances and gadgets could talk to one another, the electronics industry has come up with two solutions that, when used together, could be the missing pieces of the smart home jigsaw; voice control, and the cloud.
I was at the CES in Las Vegas in January, the biggest technology exhibition in the world, and where the latest and greatest innovations are first aired to the world’s media. Usually the CES is dominated by hardware – 100-inch TVs, cars and, of course, robots – and 2017 was no different. Except that this year, everything seemed to speak, not only to the user, but also to each other.
The Consumer Technology Association (CTA) forecasts that 4.5 million ‘voice assistant devices’ will sell in 2017, up 52% on 2016, while Juniper reckons that the smart home market will be reinvigorated by voice control and surge to be worth US$83 billion in 2017.
Cue an industry-wide obsession in Las Vegas with Alexa, Amazon’s Voice Assistant, which is the chief feature on the company’s market-quashing Echo 360º smart speaker (and the more basic Echo Dot product). If you’ve not seen these million-selling microphone-enabled gadgets, the theory behind them is quite simple; you put one in each room, then ask it questions. Usually, the questions are pretty straightforward: “Alexa, set a timer for 10 minutes”, “Alexa, what’s the weather like tomorrow”, or, most typically, “Alexa, play some music by … “.
However, get two third-party Alexa-enabled gadgets and they can control each other. That’s prompted hundreds of companies to seek (and get) permission from Amazon to build products around Alexa, essentially using it as an industry-wide communications platform. The CES was rammed with light switches, kettles, ovens, fridges, lamps, phones, gesture-control devices, smart sleep-aid systems and robot vacuum cleaners. In fact, Alexa now has over 7,000 ‘skills’ that enable it to perform tasks on behalf of hundreds of different gadgets.
What most people miss when discussing Alexa is what it does that’s genuinely different. Sure, it recognises your voice, thereby creating a new user interface. Great, but what it’s doing that’s truly new is networking and interfacing gadgets, providing a cloud-powered platform to link them all together. So as well as asking your smart robot to vacuum the house, you can also ask it to switch-off the lights upstairs, and vice versa. You can tell Alexa to turn on your oven by talking to a lamp, or talk at your bedside clock to close your motorised window blind. Alexa is a layer of cloud communications.
It gets weirder. The likes of Lenovo and Onkyo have even been allowed to construct their own speakers, essentially upgraded versions of the Echo. Why? Because Alexa is just software, it’s artificial intelligence that lives not on the gadget itself, but on the cloud. The Echo itself isn’t a very impressive piece of hardware at all, but that’s not Amazon’s game. It wants Alexa to become a ubiquitous ‘digital mind’ that eventually takes over from smartphones, essentially replacing the apps that were once their main attraction.
The initial success of Alexa does suggest a thirst for something with a few less pain points than smartphone apps, which in retrospect got nowhere near becoming a user interface for the smart home. Its Alexa Voice Services department could be a massive money-maker for Amazon, but don’t rule-out the company’s main rivals. Google Home, which only launched in November, is predicted to be the ‘next Alexa’; within a few months most analysts expect Alexa-enabled products to also be compatible with Google Home. Several connected cars at the CES featured voice control from Microsoft’s Cortana (although I spotted Alexa in at least one of them), while Siri – part of Apple’s HomeKit – seems bound to appear in a new guise in 2017. You can be sure that Apple will not miss a market opportunity like this one; surges in consumer demand for an all-new product category do not come along very often.
So voice control is finally good enough to be adopted on a widespread scale, but it’s less about smarts, and more about creating a hands-free home. Now that’s something we should all speak-up for.