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Is Voice The ‘Killer App’ For Consumer IoT?

Robot assistant

At the recent Consumer Electronics Show (CES), it became clear that our homes will be Voice Castles.

Having a background in wave mechanics and tenure in the world of audio, I was fascinated by Amazon Echo when it first came out: I was one of the first buyers and haven’t looked back. Millions of happy “Alexa-ites” are out there. Membership in this new acoustically-enabled club is getting so large that it’s prompted similar product launches by Google, Microsoft and other tech titans.

And then came CES

According to some estimates, over 1,100 Alexa-enabled products were shown at the convention. It seems that Alexa was the Belle of the Ball. And tying her royalness into this year’s major theme, the Connected Car, some automakers announced that they’ve fallen under Alexa’s A.I.-enabled spell. To me this is terrific, since that means ever more opportunities to utter my desires and cause things to happen within my own fiefdom.

The “killer app”?

For decades, we’ve been hoping for the “smart home” to arrive. Thanks to the steady progression of Moore’s Law, we’re getting there. But there remain stubborn issues of cross-device compatibility and inter-device communications, vendors not wanting to cooperate and telling you to “just buy everything from us and it will work,” etc.

Then along came Alexa. Essentially a universal controller for everything. Not some box nailed up in your garage, but a sleek black cylinder out in the open, that seems to have all the answers. It’s caught nearly everyone but Jeff Bezos off guard. Who would think that our voices would become controllers of our localized environment, the overlords of home IoT?

This wasn’t initially obvious. Like Uber, numerous core technologies had to fall into place for it to even be doable. Internet connectivity into homes had to become fast and low cost. Digital Signal Processing, or DSP, had to coincide with cloud-based artificial intelligence to make speech recognition and complex commands practical.

Amazon saw this coming, and did something about it. It’s perfect for the home version of the IoT. Connected gadgets abound, and something needed to show up to wrangle them. Alexa is doing this without waiting for a “master controller standard” or some such congealing industry initiative.

Smart phones, smart homes, cloud smarts

Alexa shares an important characteristic with the original iPhone that Steve Jobs announced 10 years ago: It did something right out of the box — it was a phone. The coolest phone anyone had ever seen. But as we all know, it was the App Store that evolved it into the connected, interactive world we now live in.

So with Alexa. By being connected into a “cloud brain,” the number and range of features and activities it can enable is almost infinite. But right from the outset Alexa did something useful, in the coolest way you’ve ever seen. It could talk to you, making mundane things such as telling time and forecasting weather seem magical. We’ve been secretly hoping for our homes to become magical, and now they feel that way.

Since launch, the amount of apps, which in the Alexa world are called “skills,” has ramped up enormously. You can order an Uber ride, buy groceries, get news tailored to your desires, activate lots of home IoT devices, on and on. Most devices don’t need to talk to each other, they just need to be controlled. Alexa does that for you.

So what about the other guys?

You mean, those upstarts AppleGoogle and Microsoft? They’re pushing very hard into this voice-enabled home (and car) market, so it’s reasonable to say that the jury’s still out on who will be the ultimate winner. Although if we use smartphones as a reference, there could be more than one de facto standard. I’m not sure that there needs to be a clear winner, since we’re essentially talking about closed user groups, i.e., within the confines of a given household.

It gets much trickier when we expand their influence to include automobiles, since for now even the more forward-thinking infotainment system designs aren’t able to switch operating environments. It would be akin to switching your iPhone over to Android when an Android-proficient user picks up your phone. Since the latter doesn’t tend to happen in practice, that isn’t an issue. But in a car, you could have any mix of Amazon Alexa, Google Home, Microsoft and possibly other “voice operating system” users get in and all want to control the features of that vehicle. Thus, the real battlefield may end up being the mobile one.

Should I be thinking about this in my business life?

Probably yes, but for a long time it’s more likely to take the form of having an Amazon Echo in your office. Note it would work best in a closed acoustic space, since the devices aren’t person-specific. But currently there aren’t a plethora of “skills” that directly address business needs. That could change as more devices and systems adopt Alexa-type functionality. Or will a purely business-oriented “Alexa” appear that takes the corporate world by storm? Sort of the LinkedIn to Alexa’s Facebook?

What could happen is that clever applications emerge to take advantage of Alexa’s (or Google’s, or Microsoft’s) unique cloud-based capabilities for professional use. For example, if a company could constrain Alexa’s functionality using a dashboard of some kind, then skills that would be useful in, say, retail stores could be posited. The fact that systems like Alexa are speaker-agnostic would be perfect for when you have no idea who’s going to walk up and ask something.

The answer is 42*

Given the breadth and depth of possibilities for these new controllers, for now it’s going to be fascinating to just enjoy the ride. Many bright minds are enthusiastically focused on taking the cloud-based A.I. systems that power these obelisks to ever-richer levels of voice recognition and application enablement. If you haven’t plunged in, it’s just a modest purchase away. And your home too can become a Voice Castle.

*(for fans of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, you knew that was the answer all along . . .)

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