03.03.17

Report: Amazon & CEDIA collaborate for Alexa education event

dean bryen, amazon echo evangelist, presenting at CEDIA education event in London
Dean Bryen, voice/AI evangelist at Amazon, speaking at CEDIA event

On 21 February, 2017, CEDIA joined forces with Amazon to host a day of training on how to optimise voice control in installations and create the most suitable skills for clientele via the Alexa platform.

Around fifty installers and hardware manufacturers from the CEDIA community gathered at a sell-out event, “Mastering the Skills of Voice Control in the Home,” at CodeNode in London. Exploring how integrating Alexa voice control can be monetised in projects and how to build both smart home and custom skills (and which is most suitable) for clients was Dean Bryen, voice/AI evangelist at Amazon.

The voice experience and the elusive 99%

“Pretty soon we’re going to live in a world where devices don’t have keyboards,” opened Bryen. He said the smart home is a high utility case for voice, supporting interactions that can make life easier for homeowners – especially in the kitchen (e.g. for setting timers, following recipes), where 50% of Echo devices are deployed.

Although machine ASR accuracy currently sits at around 95%, the company recognises that there’s still work to be done. “We’re striving for 99% in next five years by improving natural language understanding,” said Bryen, noting that the change the industry has witnessed in the past five years has been huge.

He added that technological advancement in the industry is approaching a key crossover point in the 2010s – from assistance to intelligence (and a contextually aware agent living in the home). Amazon is investing heavily in advancing as an industry from ASR (automated speech recognition) to NLP (natural language processing) and the shift towards AI systems, and is currently challenging universities to create a 20-minute conversation where man is indistinguishable from machine (which it will back with a cool $1 million), in the spirit of the Turing Test.

The growth of voice control is evident in the figures – searches via voice were close to negligible in 2014, and now account for 10% of all search traffic, with 15 billion searches currently being recorded each month from devices via Siri, Google Home, Cortana and more. It is predicted that 200 billion searches will be recorded each month by 2020 as voice becomes more integrated with everyday lives.

“It is predicated that 200 billion searches will be recorded each month by 2020 as voice becomes more integrated with everyday lives.”

Amazon believes it can lead in voice control space thanks to its expertise focusing on building a consumer-driven experience as the largest cloud computing service provider in the world. Bryen stated that the company are working on capitalising on Echo being the fastest-selling Bluetooth speaker in history by aggregating data to build better machine earning algorithms, as well as remaining in constant dialogue with its users.

"We admit it's not the most natural thing to talk to"

It was refreshing to hear Bryen openly discuss Alexa technology’s flaws, rather than just focusing on the huge popularity of Echo and Dot. When it comes to achieving the retailer’s goal of making the technology “invisible” to the end user, he admitted that there’s work to be done. “We admit it’s not always the most natural thing to talk to, but we’re definitely working on it.”

He pinpointed security and multi-user ID as the key things the company were working on to improve the interface – with the end goal of resolving issues regarding hacking vulnerability from devices sharing contingencies, and command involving opening doors and voice banking.

The company envisions a day where it can provide separation analysis of speakers and priority controls to users by supporting situational content within a listening range. Bryen also listed “Good morning,” “I’m home” and “Goodnight”-style trigger words as the type of commands Amazon hope to one day support Alexa reacting to (similar to “scene” currently supported by Creston’s Alexa integration). Yet today’s reality is that there are many issues with multi-room use and perception to be ironed out before facilitating this type of interaction.

As a side note, for all those clients worried about the “listening” nature of Alexa, Bryen clarified that it important to remind homeowners that audio is only sent to the cloud after hearing a trigger word and devices can be disengaged with the mute function. Voice utterances and history can also be permanently deleted from the back end upon request.

How to monetise voice

Addressing the reason a significant proportion of integrators were sat in the room, Bryen went on to outline where voice control can be profitable for them. “Integrators are the new architects,” said Bryen, highlighting statistics demonstrating the increasing number of prospective buyers of “smart” home products in 2017 (Icontrol Networks), and suggesting that 60% of consumers would prefer someone install a such a product for them (Parks Associates). Bryen suggested the following model for home technologists:

Labour

+ Margin on equipment and products

[+ Monthly service and maintenance]

Revenue

“Extra services include upgrading to the latest software, programming news skills, troubleshooting, providing tutorials on new features and consulting on new additions to a system, or additional device integration.”

“Voice gives us the opportunity to justify these extra services,” said Bryen. These include upgrading to the latest software, programming news skills, troubleshooting, providing tutorials on new features and consulting on new additions to a system, or additional device integration. He added that low frequency adjustments made in the cloud justifies an installer making the changes for the homeowner.

Bryen added that Alexa may not always be the right model, and for those occasions Amazon stressed the usefulness of integrating Alexa hardware into other devices in creating far field Echo devices.

Final thoughts

With the potential of the market not yet realised beyond early adopters, Amazon firmly believes it can help installers tap into the market beyond the 2% (comprised of enthusiasts and experts/high net worth users), with Alexa acting as a point of entry into homes installers may have never reached before. Amazon has unwaveringly confidence in its product and voice becoming “primary interface for the home,” reiterated by Bryen with his message of “Think something can make Alexa better? We’re probably working on it.” Presumptious or not, Amazon’s active engagement with the installer community in collaboration with CEDIA is unquestionably a vital step to making home technology something enjoyed by the masses.

Watch Amazon’s Dean Bryen’s introduction to designing and developing skills with the Alexa Skills Kit or his presentation on using Alexa's Smart Home Skill API to find about more about how to programme skills to suit the needs of homeowners.


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