Remember the late 80s Clapper TV commercial? An advert that touted the convenience of being able to turn things on and off remotely by clapping – made possible by a sound-activated electrical switch that can control ordinary home appliance on any standard power outlet.
Fast-forward the clock 30 years later, the technology behind Clapper may seem outdated, but the concept of using sound to control your home never ceases to amaze us. Today, voice control is again the talk of the town, a feature that is closely regarded as one of the main components of future smart devices.
Interestingly, Amazon’s popular Echo is certainly the one that helped revitalize this long lost fantasy – the ability for us to interact with the devices around us through sound and voice, also dubbed as the home assistant.
Conceived in 2014, the Echo is a smart speaker capable of voice interaction, music playback, making to-do lists, setting alarms, streaming podcasts, playing audiobooks, and providing weather, traffic and other real time information. It can also control a wide array of smart devices using itself as a home automation hub.
To many people, the Alexa assistant – the cream of the crop behind this newfangled device – is about as robust as Siri, which has been Apple’s voice-assistant inside the iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, and Apple TV since 2011.
BECOMING MORE PERCEPTIVE
Getting a device to answer your calls or respond to simple commands will not be enough to inject the same long-enduring excitement as it had once been with Clapper, who was the one that gave us the first glimpse of a smart, magical-like home of the future. As such, Amazon is said to be using new natural-language processing techniques for Alexa that will allow it to recognize emotional tone and apologize for misunderstandings.
According to online sources, this overall improvements are likely to help Alexa interpret ambiguous requests more accurately by applying probabilities techniques. But most of all, the upgrade will enable Amazon to stay on top of the game as Google, Microsoft and Apple ramp up their own voice-assisted services for the connected home space.
The additional tweaks could help Alexa remember what a person had said previously, and applying that knowledge to subsequent interactions while considering his or her emotional tone.
EXPANSION OR RESTRICTION?
So far, a handful of companies have released or promised to release products with Alexa built into them, which now has about 1,900 third-party skills from a range of companies, including Insteon, D-Link, Honeywell, and many others.
Meanwhile, over 10,000 developers have registered to integrate Alexa into their products, while millions of devices with Alexa capabilities have been purchased, according to sources from Amazon.
Commenting on such expansion, Insteon CEO Joe Dada believes that with voice as a platform, Amazon provides a compelling and attractive offering for developers.
“From the Alexa Skills to the Alexa Fund, it’s clear that Amazon is putting their voice services front and center,” Dada said.
Prior to working with Amazon and its Alexa team, Insteon had already supported Cortana via its Windows app and Siri through its HomeKit-enabled Insteon Hub. However, the company executive said the most interesting thing with Echo is that it was designed around voice control. “Not only would the Echo’s far field microphone do a much better job at listening to what users were saying but it would be accessible by everyone in the family, not just the one with the smartphone that has the app installed and configured,” he explained.
But while Amazon has made a lot of progress in terms of ecosystem, it may have a hard time extending Alexa’s reach outside North America because of its weaknesses in mobile technology – as opposed to Siri – and language options (available in English only.) So as EQL CEO Chester Hsieh pointed out, Alexa is basically U.S.-centric, and if you are anywhere else in the world, it isn’t even an option.
“The Amazon Voice Services (AVS) is great, but Amazon’s strategy is slightly limited to U.S market because of its ecosystem,” Hsieh added.
VOICE CONTROL IS HERE TO STAY
There is no doubt that advanced voice recognition will soon become ubiquitous, as natural and intelligent user interface technology continues to integrate seamlessly into our daily lives. In the near future, it will be the primary interface for the connected home, entertainment systems, smart vehicles, and even workplaces such as hospitals, warehouses, laboratories and production plants will be dominated by voice-activated devices.
According to a recent research by analytics firm comScore, 200 billion searches per month will be done with voice by 2020, thus creating a $50-billion-plus per year market opportunity around voice search.
“There’s no doubt that voice as an interface is going to play a huge role in the connected home. It has brought a flood of new users to our ecosystem that likely would not have made the leap into a connected home were it not for the fun and simplicity of voice control,” Dada said.
Similarly, Executive Vice President of TP-Link North America Lewis Wu believes that voice control is definitely one of the main drivers behind the smart home, as it gives consumers an easy way to interact and control their smart devices.
“Personal voice assistants are only going to become hotter and hotter. In addition to the major players like Amazon Alexa, we are expecting more vendors will enter this area soon, and the race will heat up.”
While large companies like Google, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft are all off to a flying start, a new breed of companies in the field of artificial intelligence (AI) are slowly emerging. Put simply, it will still take some time before we see voice-activated solutions become more and more efficient. For now, despite their high entertainment factor, users will also have to put up with their frustration level, to say the least.
ALEXA – ANOTHER SHORT-LIVED FAD?
To this day, there is not a single doubt that Clapper was the one gadget that we all miss. Initially launched in 1986, the device sold hundreds and thousands of units over the next few years. But its stunning creation also later sealed its fate, as the acoustic signal technology for which it was based on was, at most, unreliable because similar frequencies picked up in the background could also mistakenly trigger your appliances.
Although Alexa is a far cry from becoming Clapper (or anywhere near it,) it beckons one to ponder as to how far the former will go to solidify its position in the field of intelligent voice assistant and speech recognition, as companies from all walks of the tech industry begin to plant their interests in natural interfaces such as voice, touch and gesture for the connected home.
And as smart device makers continue to knock on Amazon’s door with an interest to integrate Alexa into their smart gadgets, we cannot say for sure if this will turn out to be another short-lived frenzy, like Clapper. But one thing for certain, Amazon did manage to find a sweet spot in the home with Echo and Alexa, both of which will continue to impact the way we navigate music and other smart devices for quite some time.
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