While on their way to Dallas, most of the attendees of CEDIA 2016 had no idea what the big story of the show would be. Neither, by the way, did professional industry pundits, technologists, or the media.
We did know that Amazon, the huge online retailer, was one of the keynote presentations. But we didn’t really know much more than that. Then, during the Amazon keynote presentation, company executive Charlie Kindel announced several integration partnerships between Amazon’s Echo line – an Internet appliance featuring voice control – and major custom integration brands like Crestron, Lutron, Control4, and others.
And just like that – CEDIA 2016 became the voice control show. But what does this mean for integrators? Here are four things you need to know about voice control:
1. Who’s on First
The concept of voice control was first introduced to the mass market in a primetime cartoon show called the Jetsons back in 1962. The show, set in the future, followed the exploits of George and Jane Jetson, and their kids Judy and Elroy.
The Jetsons lived in a community that floated in outer space, and their daily lifestyle had them interacting with many futuristic devices. One of those devices was their housekeeper Rosie, a robot with whom you interacted via voice control. Now, many decades later, we stand on the precipice of voice control becoming a reality.
The growth of interest in voice control comes from major mobile device brands like Apple (Siri) and Google Android. Both of these companies had originally conceived of voice control for hands free use of mobile devices by automobile drivers.
But Amazon, who was seeking to disrupt the computer business, scooped them all by pursuing the home market with Echo, a Wi-Fi connected Internet appliance that allows users to hear weather, news, music, and other online services – all ordered up by voice commands.
And, as we learned at CEDIA 2016, the Echo also has the ability to interface with certain home integration control systems. Now Amazon wants integrators to begin designing all of their systems with a VUI – Voice User Interface.
2. Amazon Echo Has Two Types of ‘Skills,’ And Why That Matters
Both Apple and Google have – belatedly – attempted to play catch-up to Amazon, with Apple announcing their Home Kit (with “Siri” voice interface) and Google launching Google Home (with “OK Google” voice interface). But Amazon has a clear head start on the home front.
Amazon’s true innovation with their Alexa voice interface was two-fold: First, their units include a multi-microphone array with excellent far-field performance; and, Second, an always-on design, such that the unit is always listening for the wake-up command (“Alexa”).
Also, Amazon did a great job of broadening the vocabulary that Alexa will recognize, AND they included a reasonably good artificial intelligence (“AI”) to understand what it is you are trying to order it to do – no matter the phrasing used. This has been a failing of previous systems – very limited vocabulary, with strict syntax requirements, which meant that mistakes or command failures were common.
Amazon’s Alexa is not perfect…but it is clearly far superior to anything we’ve seen before now.
The concept of a VUI is dependent on what Amazon calls “skills.” Skills are like aural apps, featuring a combination of a voice command – tied to triggering a specific responsive action.
Amazon’s Alexa system has two types of skills – “custom skills”…and “smart home skills.” It is beyond the scope of this discussion to get into a detailed explanation of how these skills are created.
But what you need to know is this:
- Custom Skills – Allows integration partners to totally customize a skill or operation. However, they are constructed in such a way that when issuing your voice command, you must add an additional system designation. For example, if you are using an integrated Crestron automation system and want to turn on the dining room lights, the proper voice command would be: “Alexa, tell Crestron to turn on the dining room lights to 50%.”Crestron’s Alexa integration predominantly relies on custom skills. This allows them to create more flexible commands…but users must add the “tell Crestron to…” in all of their commands.
- Smart Home Skills – Smart home skills were introduced later and – this is important – contain a set of commands that are built-in, or native, to the system. This fact means that there is a more limited amount of pre-set command options available. However, there is one advantage – for the same scenario described above, the proper voice command would be the more simple: “Alexa, turn on the dining room lights to 50%.”Control4’s Alexa integration relies solely on the smart home skills. While this limits them to a more limited and basic set of commands, the plus is there is no need to add a system designator. Control4 believes yields a more natural voice command.
3. Industry Reaction
For the most part, the manufacturers we spoke with – both those currently offering Amazon Alexa integrations, and those who are still just studying it – were all fairly enthusiastic about the advent of a new era of voice control. Some even suggested that the time has come for integrators to incorporate voice control in most, if not all, of their system installations.
Integrators, on the other hand, seemed to fall into one of two camps. The first camp was integrators who have totally bought into the concept. They note how amazed their clients are when trying a voice controlled system, how advanced the Amazon Alexa systems seems to be, and how they intend to offer it in all of their systems.
The second, far larger camp is also interested (even excited) in the concept of offering voice control – but taking a much more cautious approach. These integrators tell us how past experiences with voice control, or “hands free” systems, have been unreliable. Many of them told us they were engaging in tests of the system and would determine best practices before implementing voice control on a grand scale.
Probably the best recommendation we received was from that second camp of integrators. Their advice? They suggest integrators proceed with caution, personally test a solution before rolling it out to your clients (“We don’t use our clients as guinea pigs,” one told us.)
Several told us that best practices dictates integrators should use is to design “concentric rings of control.” In other words, build in redundancy such that each resident of the client’s home can use the control solution best suited for them: wallpad, touchpanel, remote control, and voice.
This way, depending on the personal preference of the user, or the unique circumstances of the situation (arms full of holiday gift packages, for example), there is a control solution that works best.
[PHOTO CREDITS: Top-Crestron Electronics; Middle-Control4; Bottom-Amazon]