CEDIA 2016 Report: Voice Control Dominates Show Floor

The following exchange between man and technology at Control4's press conference on Wednesday, September 14, a day before CEDIA 2016 opened its doors, set the tone for the expo:

"Alexa, turn on CEDIA."  

Voice control is finally here and it’s practical was the resounding message from the majority of exhibitors, but some integrators exploring the show floor were still hesitant. HiddenWires reports on the burgeoning trend, which everybody was talking about at this year’s CEDIA Expo, and how the hype can translate into meaningful AV projects for installers.

We also explore the latest trends spotted on the show floor and what increasing integration between manufacturers means for installations, as well as get CEDIA CEO Vin Bruno’s thoughts on what CEDIA 2016 signifies for the wider residential industry.

How is voice control of value to integrators?
It’s not often the case that one of the busiest stands at a trade show is a first-timer, but when you have the gravitas Amazon has (and you're located in the centre of the show floor) people are going to take notice. Only perhaps Sony’s stand rivaled Amazon in traffic during the show. With debuts from the likes of Amazon and Google, and a small presence from Crestron at the Sonos stand, 2016 signified how the mould for the typical CEDIA exhibitor is evolving. And speaking to Giles Sutton, chairman of CEDIA, he agreed: “We’re starting to see exhibitors from CES starting to emerge with CEDIA.”

Amazon was thrilled with the level of interest at the show and reported 100 visitors per hour to its demo rooms – split with Control4 integration on one side, and Crestron on the other – presenting what the manufacturer partners can offer.

Control4 is the first to develop a smart home skill for Alexa-enabled devices, meaning commands such as 'Alexa, turn good morning on’ can activate scenes with specific lighting, shading, temperature, music and video distribution within the two-second processing period (with a Control4 4Sight subscription).

Crestron integration means users have similar control with commands such as ‘Creston, tell Alexa I’d like to wake up in the bedroom.’

On the Lutron side of things, the company announced HomeWorks QS and RadioRA2 control systems will soon work with Alexa, following the integration with the Caseta Wireless system that was unveiled earlier in the year.

For those who think Alexa is rather visually unappealing, integrators have the opportunity to buy the hardware and integrate the technology into other devices.

Asked how many homes in the US have Alexa, Amazon was a little cagey, but we’re led to believe it’s around 5-10 percent, figures Amazon hopes will grow post-CEDIA both in the US and abroad after the big announcement during the show of Alexa's availability in the UK and Germany.

In development since the 1990s, it seems that many manufacturers and alliances, including the Z-Wave Alliance, believe 2016 will be looked back on as the year voice control really took off not as a takeover technology, but as one that works with other technologies to push home automation forward. At one of CEDIA’s new industry panels exploring voice control, the mood was buoyant. The audience size itself (the ballroom was approximately three-quarters full) showed the willingness amongst integrators to see how voice control can be of value to them. The most important aspect of voice control, according to Alex Capecelatro, CEO at Josh AI, is to be realistic about what you can do with it. “Voice is not magical..it's an ‘and’ solution to work with switches, tablets and remotes,” Capecelatro noted, with Integrator Patrick Hagerman, principal at CyberManor, adding that’s its not a technology that’s going to be relevant for every installation — the most important way an integrator can understand how it can benefit them is straightforward enough: get one and see what it can do.

Some integrators are understandably skeptical about how what some label a ‘DIY’ product priced below the $200 (£150) mark can make them money; the feeling from some US-based integrators was that the US $5,000-10,000 (£3,800-£7,700) market offers limited opportunity for them. Yet Amazon was keen to promote the opportunity voice control offers as an entry level product that can then be scaled across multiple rooms and large homes. “This hasn’t replaced what we do from a sub-system perspective, but expanded it,” said Hagerman. Chatting with Z-Wave executive director Mitchell Klein, he offered an interesting perspective that in between ‘DIY’ and ‘DIFM’ (Do It For Me) there is significant revenue opportunity in ‘DIWM’ (Do It With Me).

On this subject, Vin Bruno, CEO of CEDIA, shared the perfect anecdote; “I met an integrator in England who was called to a house that was cold even though there were three Nest thermostats installed in that house by a plumber. While they were beautifully installed on the wall, and while the boiler was wired properly, the house was cold. It took a home technology professional (a CEDIA member) to go into that house and start working on those thermostats that were already installed and already wired. It took him two and a half hours to get the heat going in the house.” He concludes: "So what does that tell us? Nest thermostat isn’t so DIY, number one. Number two, that plumbers are installing technology. And, thirdly and most importantly, that that home technology  professional walked away with more that £10,000 of new orders. Get an installer in the house and they can teach homeowners what they can do.”

Alexa Echo in home with temperature controlsBrad Hintze, director or product marketing at Control4, reinforced this and told us that voice control’s value can’t always be measured in monetary terms, and can in fact give installers one of their most prized assets – time.  He said the almost ‘DIY’ nature of the Alexa family is a positive for installers as it dealer involvement is limited, and they can focus on then educating homeowners on what they can do with a broader system.

Amazon said this is just the “starting point” for its family of voice control products; the company said it is shipping code every two weeks. Alexa came to fruition from distributing teams around the US to do "millions" of voice recordings, according to Amazon, and as they continue to do more, the system will improve. Dan Quigley from Amazon said they would “like to work on supplying senses to Alexa.” Perhaps the development most realistically to come next will be greater spatial awareness so Alexa can react to thing without naming specific rooms in commands. Pushed to make future predictions, the panel said the market in three years may be similar but beyond that, in 10 years, voice control has the potential to be embedded in everyday lives along with gesture control —dramatically reducing the need for UI’s in the future. “There will be a day where people can’t remember voice not being part of everything,” said Rammohan Malasani, CEO at Securifi.

Attracting a lot of attention down the usually quieter ‘Innovation Alley’ was newcomer Josh.ai, a voice-activated home automation system that can work with technology from the likes of Sonos and Meridian. Josh.ai claim to be “95% faster than other systems” with no custom programming required. An unlimited number of utterances can be configured within setting scenes as desired, as well as for specific users who may enter a home. From the level of interest at their stand and listening to CEO Capecelatro, it seems bigger things may be in the pipeline for Josh.ai, who is working closely with Amazon.

Sonos finally spreads the love
One of the most publicised announcements made pre-expo was the long-awaited announcement that Sonos would officially open up its API for third-party home automation companies Crestron, Control4, Lutron, Savant, iPort and Deutsche Telekom’s QIVICON, and was running demos of the system integration with Crestron and Lutron on their booth. The endorsed integration means Sonos now officially accepts control from Crestron systems via touchpanels and the app. Sonos’s collaboration with Lutron furthermore means users have one-touch control of both audio (skipping tracks and adjusting volume etc.)  and control lights, shade and temperature with its smart home systems.

Asked why the time was right now to do this and Sonos was straight to the point :“We want to be the preferred sound platform for the smart home.” Of course, it could be also that competition is also heading their way in the form of TruAudio spinoff company VSSL, who has introduced a (patent-pending) multi-channel audio distribution system with Google Cast, Spotify and Apple Airplay.

Sonos is also getting on board with Amazon to work on integrating voice control.

Making multi-room audio more accessible
At the expo Riva debuted the capabilities of its customisable multiroom WAND Series, offering patented Trillium stereophonic sound from the speaker and able to stream high-resolution content from Spotify Connect, Pandora and Google Cast, set up via an app. The series has the potential to be used to simultaneously stream up to 32 speakers within a networked audio system and can also be used outdoors. The range’s Arena (up to 101dB) and Festival (up to 106dB) speakers will be released in November and are priced at the lower end of the spectrum, between $249-499 (£190-380). Riva’s main focus is making multi-space audio systems more affordable and will focus on developing its line in 2016 and 2017 with features including voice control and IoT connectivity in the pipeline.

Meridian took the time to preview its Sooloos/MQA–enabled Meridian 218 Zone Controller for single-zone or multi-zone use priced at $1,000/€900. The controller combines both digital and analog outputs and with IP, IR and third-party control.

The very rapidly developing Legrand brand also now encompasses more multiroom audio technology. Nuvo is dedicating a lot of resources on developing new offerings, and introduced its P500 soundbar and multiroom audio player ahead of its worldwide release in November. The 2.1 audio system features an eight-inch wireless subwoofer to power four audio modes – movie, music, voice and night mode – and can be controlled via remote control, the Nuvo Player app, keypads or partner control systems.

Core Brands took things a step further and highlighted how they have expanded the Auriel multiroom audio system from Niles to also now oversee home control. The release of the Auriel 2.0 software update adds streaming audio, climate and lighting control to the platform (first introduced back in 2014). The manufacturer has prioritised quick set-up, with access to lighting scenes and climate scheduling with a few clicks of a Niles handheld remote after configuring on a tablet on a PC. Auriel 2.0 Pandora, Spotify services built in to the MRC-6430 chassis, which can power up to six audio zones.

Battle of 4K
For Barco – hoping to continue on from a very successful 2015 show (which saw them sign off the sales of multiple Thor projectors onsite) – showcasing the potential luxury cinema experience “above and beyond any mass-produced home theatre system” achieved with its partners was on the agenda, the most recent of which is Meridian Audio. Probably one of the most popular demos at the show featured its Thor projector (offering true 6P 3D direct laser technology) was accompanied by an Auro-3D 11.1 system from Steinway Lyngdorf and Stewart Filmscreen director’s choice. The latter of which was showcasing the impressive qualities of its newly released UHD and HDR-ready Phantom HALR screen at the show – available in sizes up to 40 feet by 90 feet (12 metres x 27 metres) and with an ambient light reflectance value of 18 percent.

Barco Residential also previewed its latest Alchemy server offers HDR compatibility and HDMI2.0 / HDCP 2.2 connectivity to deliver high contrast and wide colour gamut.

Outside of the six-figure market, Sony and Epson continued to attract attention with their latest projection offerings. Following on from the successful outing of the VPL-VW665ES / Sony VPL-VW520 native 4K SXRD projector last year, Sony has expanded its HDR-compatible offerings with the more compact 1,800-lumen VPL-VW675ES. As soon as the new HDMI specification is standardised, the projector is forecast to be the first home cinema model to support Hybrid Log-Gamma (HyLG) for HDR broadcasting services and user generated content following a firmware update. With a contrast ratio of 350,000:1, the projector supports HDR capability both for 4K 24P and 4K 60P for fully enjoying various 4K HDR content.

A popular introduction at the Epson booth was the Elite 3LCD reflective laser projector with 4K enhancement and HDR support. The LS10500 features an Absolute BlackTM contrast ratio, as well as 1,500 lumens of brightness.

Amongst the latest screen offerings, all eyes were on the 77-in Signature OLED TV at the LG stand. The flagship model offers dual HDR compatibility, standard 10-bit panels and processing and deep blacks the OLED Series is renowned for. Notably LG have manufactured the TV to almost glass-thickness (they put at around 1/10 of an inch), and the TV’s back is translucent too. New for 2016, every OLED TV features Dolby VisionTM technology as well as an open-format HDR10. The TV will be shipping in the US from next month, with a European release date to be announced soon. Meanwhile Samsung’s booth bucked the trend and had a strong focus on showcasing its latest 4K curved screen offerings – something which had mixed reactions on the show floor.

Amongst the newly unveiled HDR-compatible components was Atlona’s 4K/60 4:4:4 switcher, extender and distribution amplifier offerings. Its Centum Series extender is billed as the first HDR model of its kind, and can deliver HDMI data rates up to 18 Gbps to distances as far as 330 feet (100 metres) – compatible with all formats.

New tools for the integrator
A resounding message from the CEDIA show floor was “we want to make the life of an integrator easier” – whether that be simplifying UIs, new partnerships, or new companies dedicated to doing that. Two interesting debuts at the show were iPoint and OneVision – both have a focus on the US market at the moment, but hope to move into the Europe when viable.

The former, iPoint, was showcasing the newest updates to it iPoint control platform, offering project management, CRM, time tracking, proposal, purchasing, invoicing, scheduling and inventory control all under one umbrella via any Mac device. The workflow management tool has been enhanced to offer further QuickBooks integration and improved online syncing.

Ex-integrator Joseph Kolchinsky heads up OneVision, who introduced its Integrator Service Desk (ISD) at the show. Ten years in the planning, Kolchinsky hopes to fill a gap in the market for providing full-time support and service to integrator’s customers, allowing integrators both save time and build revenue through their service contracts. Using management tools such as Ihiji Vision, OneVision monitor problems with network-connected devices and the network itself – meaning installers only are required if the problem requires a home visit to resolve.

Final thoughts from Vin Bruno
Speaking to CEDIA’s CEO Bruno, he was enthused by the energy he’s seen at the 2016 and 2015 edition of the show, which he said matches the liveliness he saw back in 2007. Bruno also noted that we are now working in an industry where installers selling million-dollar systems are commonly installing a company like Sonos’s systems. He concluded: “We have become the single point of contact for all of our homeowner client’s technology needs. That’s an important position and how we’ve changed from 1989 when we were first founded to who are today, and the value we now provide to homeowners.”

With the planned global alignment of CEDIA in the US and EMEA (in discussion for around seven or eight years, according to Giles Sutton), and with over 18,750 visitors in attendance at this year's expo, exciting times lie ahead for the organisation in 2017 beyond.

The next CEDIA Expo will come to San Diego from September 6 to 9, 2017.

Charlotte Ashley is a reporter for HiddenWires and InAVate magazines.

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