At last week’s Connections Conference in San Francisco, all the biggest names in smart homes converged to discuss the biggest challenges — and opportunities — facing their industry. There were panels on smart-home adoption, connected healthcare in the home, and where wearables fit into it all. But regardless of which ones you attended, Amazon’s voice assistant, Alexa, seemed to be the star.
If you’ve ever used your phone to snap off your smart lights, you know that it’s often easier to use a switch — but asking your Echo to turn them on is simpler than both, especially when you’re snuggled under the covers. It’s likely one reason both Google and Apple are coming out with (or are rumored to be coming out with) competitors to the Echo.
So, what happens now that voice control is becoming the linchpin of the smart home?
Nobody said it was easy
Smart-home products are far from ubiquitous at this point and can still pose problems, whether they’re tricky to set up, unreliable, or difficult to integrate into an existing ecosystem. “Before I recommend a service, I do a gut check to see if they can stick out the issues,” Robert Parker of SmartThings said during a keynote at Connections. That’s pretty telling when the Senior Vice President of Engineering at Samsung’s smart-home business admits that systems that are supposed to make your life easier actually require a lot of patience and troubleshooting.
That poses a problem for companies like Comcast that want way more homes to be smart. “From our point of view, we want 10, 20, 30 million of these devices in households, in households that are not tech savvy, that require a lot of help and support and hand-holding,” Daniel Herscovici, Comcast Xfinity Home’s Senior Vice President and General Manager, told Digital Trends. That means the same people that handle your calls and complaints when your Wi-Fi isn’t working could also field calls to help you (or your parents) set up new cameras or door locks, or just send techs over to install them for you.
Herscovici also mentioned harnessing your router to work as a smart-home hub, something Securifi is already poised to do with its Almond 3 router, which, of course, integrates with Alexa. Right now, most hubs are plastic boxes (or shaped sort of like Echos) that have one job: connecting your smart home. But by putting your router to work in new ways, you don’t need an $80 device that’s taking up more room in your entertainment center. While there were a lot of predictions that the smart-home hub would be obsolete at Connections, what’s probably more accurate is that these screenless plastic rectangles will fall out of favor. “You can’t buy anti-virus for your Nest thermostat or Philips Hue bulbs,” Ram Malasani, CEO of Securifi, told Digital Trends. He envisions your router being the guardian of the smart home.
But hubs could have another role to play if this whole voice control takes off. Right now, Amazon’s Alexa can turn on your lights, unlock your doors, and turn up your thermostat. That means your bulbs don’t need speakers for you to command them with a couple words. And while you can buy a Dacor voice-controlled oven and Samsung’s Family Hub fridge, you might not have several grand to drop on these new connected appliances, then a hub could relay between your current (but modified) kitchen set up. “Because there’s less friction on these platforms, voice versus mobile, it’s just going to flow to what’s easy,” Nate Williams, Chief Revenue Officer of smart lock maker August told Digital Trends.
Let’s say it’s the future, and you can now talk to your oven through Alexa, Google Home, or Apple’s latest device. Is it really such a big deal for your to say, “Set the temperature to 350 degrees,” instead of dialing in the number on your smartphone or actually turning the knob? Maybe not, but what if you could say, “I’m making lasagna tonight,” and the oven turned on and set itself to the correct temperature, based on the recipe you used last time you made the dish or using the recipe you just had your voice assistant look up for you?
“Ultimately we think speech is going to be the universal interface of the home.”
It’s akin to using your Apple TV remote to say, “Show me Judd Apatow movies starring Katherine Heigl.” That’s great if you can’t remember the name of Knocked Up and certainly faster than scrolling through several letters to get to the title.
“Being able to issue these really complex requests that you could never really emulate using traditional input modalities, that’s where speech and language on the TV is providing tremendous value,” Kenn Harper,Vice President of Devices and Ecosystems for Nuance Communications, told Digital Trends. Nuance’s tech helps power Apple’s Siri, and Harper says the company wants a bigger place in the smart home. “Ultimately we think speech is going to be the universal interface of the home.”
We’re not there yet, though. The Echo doesn’t have a screen, so if you’re asking her to call you a plumber, which you can do with HomeAdvisor’s instant scheduler skill, you’ll have to trust that she (or rather, HomeAdvisor) will pick you out a good one. “As they become really effective, we’re going to see consumer behavior change,” says the company’s CTO, Brandon Ridenour, of voice assistants. “The trade-off will be, I give up some of the curation and control in the selection process people are so used to today in exchange for a tremendous level of convenience, and an expectation that the providers who are putting these smart devices in the home have done some level of the curation for you.” As these skills evolve, you might be able to specify further that you want a five-star plumber with the most affordable rate.
“The point that we have to get to is this omnipresent voice experience, where it’s ubiquitous, where you can just start talking and the device you’re talking to or your hub will wake up because the devices will know which one is being spoken to,” says Harper. To allay privacy concerns, there would have to be “wake words” before your whole conversations get sent to the cloud, though. It’s a bit impractical to have to remember an oven wake word versus one for your lights and so on, but Harper thinks it’s not unreasonable that one day saying, “It’s hot in here” could prompt your thermostat to kick on the A/C. Of course, we’ve already seen what happens when NPR starts talking about Alexa: She wakes up to the hosts’ voices just as easily as it does to yours and turns up the thermostat.
That’s where biometrics could really come in handy in the future. Your voice saying, “Play music” triggers a different playlist than your spouse’s. And maybe your assistant picks up on the fact that you’re in a hurry and starts responding at a faster clip or learns when you shout “No!” that it’s really, really not supposed to turn on the oven just because you say, “I’m making lasagna tonight” when it’s only 2:00 p.m. “I don’t want to check a box that says never do that again. It should understand,” EVA Automation’s Ali M. Vassigh said during a Connections panel, highlighting that we are indeed still a long way from this functionality.
Yet when you realize that Alexa’s only been around since January 2015, maybe it isn’t too crazy to start speculating exactly what will happen when you tell your voice assistant “I’m hungry” five years from now.
Updated 6/13/2016: Updated to correct Kenn Harper’s title.