26.01.17

Crossing the chasm: navigating the popularity of voice control

woman standing by amazon echo and crestron touchpad in her home

Charlotte Ashley explores what the rising popularity of voice control and presence of Amazon and Google in the marketplace means for the wider home automation industry.

You couldn’t wander any hall or corridor in Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Centre, Dallas at this year’s CEDIA Expo without overhearing a conversation about, or meeting someone with a strong view on voice control. It’s a technology that seems to polarise custom installers – some are highly enthusiastic and some sceptical about the returns on a €180 (£150) device like the Amazon Echo commonly billed as ‘DIY.’

“I think that voice control will have a significant influence in years to come. It is not a fad, period,” says Dave Pedigo, vice president of emerging technologies at CEDIA. Speech recognition is far from a new technology, originating in the 1950s – many products came, and failed, around the 1980s and 1990s, but not until the last five to eight years have voice technologies become integrated with our lives with the advent of virtual assistants like Apple’s Siri. 2016 was a landmark year for smart assistants like Amazon Alexa and Google Home, with the former seeing US sales of its Echo device more than double compared to 2015 – fuelled by the development of new smart home ‘skills’ (with more than 3,000 available) and partnerships – an achievement not even Amazon itself could have predicted. More than half of Echo users are using the device as more than a voice-controlled speaker, with increasing numbers using it to control other connected devices according to a Consumer Intelligence Research Partners (CIRP) report – creating valuable opportunity for installers.

But is the success of voice control devices purely down to business heavyweights like Amazon and Google entering the home automation space, or have technological developments facilitated this movement? “There have been significant improvements in speech recognition over the last few years. This is due to very complex refinements in machine learning and deep learning, which have made the experience much more accurate and enjoyable,” says Pedigo. “Amazon took voice control to the next level by combining this deep learning in a stand-alone device, instead of hitting a button on a mobile phone, creating an experience in tune with how we behave in real life.” He adds: “Amazon Echo was the first, but certainly won’t be the last, commercially successful device that enables interaction with devices in the home in a natural setting.”

“Amazon Echo was the first, but certainly won’t be the last, commercially successful device that enables interaction with devices in the home in a natural setting.”

Ultimately Pedigo says names like Amazon, Google, Apple, Microsoft and even Facebook can drive new custom to the market - an opportunity custom installers can seize upon due to their vast knowledge of smart home ecosystems. “These wealthy companies will do their best to take a piece of the pie. At the same time, they’ll bring incredible consumer awareness to the industry and ultimately drive business to our members,” says Pedigo. “Large corporate companies cannot be intimately familiar with the specific needs of every client, but installers can, and are uniquely qualified to be the single point of contact for all technology needs in the home.”

A diverse marketplace

The first home automation providers to offer Alexa smart home skills were Control4 and Crestron, with the list of partners continuing to grow for both Amazon and Google as the wider industry at long-last embraces a more collaborative approach. According to the manufacturers and installers working with voice, all signs indicate that voice is here to stay. “We have seen a huge interest in the voice-controlled home and Alexa is an amazing platform to enable this with a Crestron system,” says Phillip Pini, head of residential development at Crestron EMEA.

Control4’s senior director of product marketing, Brad Hintze, echoes this sentiment, as the company prepares to launch its smart home skill for Alexa in the UK, followed by Germany (included with an annual Control4 4Sight subscription, priced at £75). “We have been able to fill a gap that was previously missing in smart home automation – whole home voice control that allows homeowners to have completely hands-free control of their entire home, instead of only one or two rooms.”

amazon echo with control4 temperature controlling touchpad in backgroundAlexa devices and Google Home may currently have limited availability in the EMEA region, but integrators in countries all over the world are still benefiting from their popularity. “Audio controls are now becoming more responsive to Indian accents and we have a full-fledged module developed for our home controls with Alexa,” says Rajiv Jain, co-founder of Mumbai-based integrator PLAY. “Clients seem to be excited about voice control and we will be integrating our first project with Alexa very soon.”

“The initial success of the Echo suggests this is just the beginning of voice control in connected homes. By working with Amazon to bring music throughout the home with Alexa, we’ve built an integrated collaboration that taps into both Sonos and Amazon’s existing music capabilities so owners don’t have to learn additional commands or keywords,” says John Gahagan, managing director at Sonos UK, after it recently partnered with Amazon, Google and Microsoft.

Reflecting on future developments, Gahagan adds: “The first generation of products is showing that voice is great for scenarios with smaller types of tasks, but it is also clear that voice is a remarkably efficient way to access or navigate large and complex libraries of content, such as music. We’re still a way off from perfecting his, but integrating with other smart systems will allow Sonos to be the two-way bridge that enables voice control and provides high fidelity sound output.”

Devices such as Google Home and the Amazon Echo and Echo Dot are certainly not the only option for homeowners interested in controlling their home with voice. CEDIA 2016 saw the release of Josh.ai’s ‘advanced’ AI system for homes of 5,000 square feet or larger (with Amazon Echo and Google Home among a huge range of product integrations), with plans for expansion into the UK and Europe on the horizon. But what can this type of AI system – five years the making – offer that off-the-shelf voice devices cannot? “If you look at what Alexa is doing or Siri, or Google, they are trying to do voice control for everything. And you can’t really do everything in the home that well, because there’s a lot in the home that you have to just pin down on and focus on,” says Alex Capecelatro, CEO at Josh.ai.

“We understand the architecture of buildings. We know the floors, rooms and the devices (which are automatically discovered), and that’s the reason you have a very flexible way to talk. You can just say, ‘dim the lights in the kitchen a little bit,’ as we’re able to handle speech very naturally.” He adds, “We’re the only ones that we know of so far that can handle a string of multiple commands in one breath. And it’s important, because you may come in the house and say ‘turn on CNN in the kitchen and put the lights on,’ and you don’t want to have to issue those commands one at a time.”

josh.ai interface on different devices

Josh.ai also offers the ability to improve how the system processes voice commands, by monitoring everything (from what devices are online to what commands are not succeeding) to ensure the homeowner’s experience of voice can be as personal as possible. “One of the issues with voice control is that there’s not a single phrase for a single room, you might call it the ‘living room,’ but someone else may call it the ‘playroom’ and if they try and use anything else it fails,” says Capecelatro. “We make it easy for the integrator to see and make changes remotely so they can make that experience better without the customer even being part of it.” In addition to responding to voice commands, the complete Josh.ai system tracks the network to learn all behaviour going on in the home and recognise and react to user routines.

The ‘DIY’ debate

A discussion that comes up continually with voice control and the broader IoT industry, is that while some standalone devices have serious potential as an entrylevel product, their ‘DIY’ nature (whether a reality or not) could be a negative for the wider CI industry. “The benefit of using voice control in a Control4 system is that homeowners can completely customise their experience, and it offers them whole-home control whereas a DIY approach is limited in its capabilities,” says Hintze. He adds: “With DIY solutions comes user errors and setup mistakes that can make voice control products inaccessible. Our dealers are trained to provide the highest level of support and foresight to customers, and are able to properly install and recommend the correct way to use Alexa devices in a home to minimise the chances of product failure or misuse.”

“Telling either an 8-year-old or an 80-year old that they can just simply say ‘turn on the kitchen lights’ makes it so much easier for them.”

“Some view DIY products as a threat and are worried about their long-term prospects, others view DIY products as an opportunity,” comments Pedigo. Capecelatro argues that the nature of voice control has been instrumental to its success and making a smart home a more obtainable prospect. “We’ve been surprised to hear from our customers that one of the biggest things that they get excited about is the idea that voice is the great equaliser.” He continues: “Often they’ll tell us someone in their family struggles with the technology – they don’t want to use an app, but telling either an 8-year-old or an 80-year old that they can just simply say ‘turn on the kitchen lights’ makes it so much easier for them. It’s making technology more accessible.”

Hintze agrees: “Voice control is a great way to introduce new customers who may lack experience with the smart home to the power and capabilities home automation can provide because of its intuitive commands, simplicity and accessibility.”

Revenue opportunities

Pedigo stresses although the most popular voice devices have a low cost of entry, the rewards of their popularity can still be felt by the custom installation channel. “There are valid concerns regarding the ability to make money on a commoditised product, but the reality is that voice control units today are truly cloud enabled thin-clients that are communicating commands to hardware products in the home that would be installed by a CEDIA member,” says Pedigo. “Getting hardware to communicate correctly continues to be a difficult proposition even for those who are tech-savvy.”

He continues: “We’re only at the beginning of the proliferation of voice control there are and will be opportunities to build custom solutions that include professionally installed far-field microphones instead of utilising a bulky device, and that will represent yet another place that CEDIA members can assert their expertise.”

Voice and the wider IoT market could encourage a shift in the market, with increased profit to be had in supporting homeowner’s on their journey from buying their first smart home product. “Our research shows that over the last five years the average price per project, number of projects and profitability per project have all increased dramatically,” states Pedigo. He pinpoints new revenue opportunities that can arrive with the concept of technology managers able to earn recurring monthly fees from helping homeowners “navigate the muddy waters of interoperability, connectivity, cybersecurity and privacy.”

With hardware priced at $2,500 (plus a monthly or one-time support fee), Capecelatro’s Josh.ai system is firmly positioned for the high-end market, but he says the returns are significant for installers. “An Amazon Echo is like the iPad in a Crestron control system – you don’t make much money from it and the user can probably buy it by themselves, but with the control system (like Josh) you can. We are priced at the top of the market, and there is a really strong margin there.”

Changing lives

Amid the excitement surrounding how voice control technology can serve as a useful, occasionally humorous addition to their homes, it can be easy to forget that the technology in some scenarios could in fact be life-changing. “One of our first customers was legally blind, so he has some sight, but reading a screen is difficult for him,” says Capecelatro, who says that a lot of interest in their product comes from customers with similar needs.

“I let my 76-year-old, very ill father use an Amazon Echo for 60 days to see how it affected his life,” recalls Pedigo. “The day I took it back he said that he would think about getting a new one. Less than four hours later he called me and said ‘I went ahead and bought one, I can’t live without it.’ I think there are tremendous opportunities in assisting those with physical disabilities moving forward.” He highlights that the small things, such as telling the lights to “turn on to 25%” in the middle of the night instead of walking across a dark room can make all the difference.

In spite of potential drawbacks to adoption – chiefly concerning security and the privacy of data, with Amazon currently facing demands to release any recorded data in a US murder investigation – voice control looks to be here to stay as a technology that can enhance the life of a homeowner. “Keep the switches, the remotes and your iPhone and iPad apps, but add voice as an additional control,” summarises Capecelatro. “Over time we will see some people gravitate towards using the voice all the time in some places, and for some households it may just be for certain functions. Voice is another interface, it’s not the only interface.”