Alexa is making her presence felt in the custom channel, but who is she and why should we care? Paul Skelton reports.
Since its debut on American TV screens in 1966, Star Trek has been the inspiration behind many of the most important technological inventions in history, such as the personal digital assistant (PDA) and the handheld mobile phone.
Most recently, the show that launched the legend that is William Shatner is being recognised as the flashpoint for a new revolution in the automation space: voice as a user interface, or VUI.
Charlie Kindel is the director of Alexa Smart Home at Amazon.
In November 2014, the company launched the Amazon Echo and with it, the intelligent personal assistant Alexa. For $US180, consumers could dictate to their homes exactly what they wanted and Alexa, through Echo, would respond accordingly.
Popularity of the device reached fever pitch, to the point where the custom channel has been forced to sit up and take notice.
Market analyst ABI Research believes that more than 120 million voice-enabled devices will ship annually by 2021. Voice control, which combines speech recognition and natural language processing, is quickly becoming the key user interface within the smart home.
And it all started with Star Trek.
“We wanted to create a computer in the cloud that’s controlled entirely by your voice — you could ask it things, ask it to do things for you, find things for you, and it’s easy to converse with in a natural way. We’re a ways off from that, but that was our vision,” Charlie says.
“We believe voice is the most natural user interface and can really improve the way people interact with technology. It’s still early, but we think there’s a lot of potential in this space and we’re working hard to innovate quickly.
“With the massive growth of connected devices and services we believe that voice is the future and will fundamentally improve the way people will interact with technology. Something we see with our customers is that voice enables unbelievably simple interactions (e.g. playing a song on demand is seamless with Alexa as is turning on/off your living room light from your kitchen while you are doing the dishes), and people love having a new option to interact with their technology in a convenient way.
“Of course, that’s not to say smart phones or screens are going away — so long as humans have fingers and eyes, those things won’t go away. For complex interactions where a visual is more helpful, like short form how-to videos, voice may get you halfway there but not provide you with the total or complete experience you were looking for, but we’ve found that the vast majority of simple tasks customers do throughout the day can be solved with voice interaction. There is so much potential in this space that we really think we’re just getting started.”
FROM MASS MARKET TO CUSTOM DARLING
Speaking at the 2016 CEDIA Expo in Dallas, Texas, Charlie explains that Amazon now wants to partner with the custom installation channel as it is the ideal proving ground for technology. He wants to work closely with integrators to “take advantage of the next major disruption in computing – voice as a user interface.”
“Humans have been communicating with each other using speech for hundreds and thousands of years. Some researchers say it’s been 1 to 1.75 million years since we started communicating using our mouths and our ears. Interestingly, humans’ ability to communicate using their hands and eyes came much, much later,” he says.
“So speech is actually more ingrained in how we communicate. It’s a much more natural way to interact. It’s backwards then that in the past 40 years since humanity has been interacting with computers, we’ve really only done it with our hands and our eyes. We don’t use our ears and our mouths, or our other senses, to interact with computers.
“But is touch and writing and keyboards really the best way to interact with computers? I don’t think so. And our customers are telling us very loudly that they want to interact with their environment, with computers, using all of their senses and all of their actuators.
“Wouldn’t it be great if, as humans, we could interact with computers with the same richness and naturalness that we use to interact with each other?”
We are now at the precipice of a new era in computing, Charlie says.
“Thirty years ago, the industry transitioned from character mode interfaces to graphical user interfaces (GUI). This made computers in orders of magnitude easier to use; this disruption caused terrific growth in the computing industry. Entire new companies were born, billionaires were made and more and more customers got access. It happened again with the advent of the internet.
“The same thing happened again about a decade later with the advent of ‘mobile’ computing.
“At Amazon, we believe we’re on the cusp of the next major disruption in computing. These things happen generally every decade and we think the time is now, and we think that disruption is around voice.
“At least, that’s what our customers are telling us. We released Echo in 2014 and sales have gone off the charts – we sell as many devices as we can make.”
Charlie says on average, Alexa users that have paired Echo with a smart home system use the service 16 times each day.
“This is an inflection point that you can all look back on 10-20 years and say ‘wow, we rode that wave’.
FRIENDS IN HIGH PLACES
To coincide with the keynote presentation, a number of CI suppliers pledged support for the Alexa platform, announcing integration capabilities with the popular service.
Among the first to show off its Alexa-integration functionality was Control4.
“Voice is more than just a gimmick – it can enhance other people’s lives more than we can imagine. That’s just a fact of life,” Control4 A/NZ sales director Adam Merlino says.
“Control4 always tries to play with leaders in their fields. That’s why we partner with Sonos and Heos, with Denon and Marantz; we want to offer native support for these products. Amazon is a leader in its field so we want to partner with it, too.”
Control4 chief executive Martin Plaehn adds: “On average, our customers have over 40 connected devices in their homes that are orchestrated by Control4 and now, voice interaction with Amazon Alexa offers another convenient way to control all of them.
“This integration combines Control4’s automation power and extensive support for connected devices with the intuitive voice control from Amazon Alexa, reinforcing our shared vision to make life in a connected home ever-more personalised, comfortable, and hassle-free.”
Also declaring support was Crestron, which has announced that installers can now build voice scenes for its control system.
“We’ve been collaborating very closely with Amazon Alexa engineers to make sure we offer an uncompromising voice control experience that is every bit as seamless and satisfying as tapping a button on a Crestron touch screen, remote control or designer keypad,” says Crestron vice president of residential systems John Clancy.
“You can ask Alexa to set the mood for dinner, or to play a movie in the bedroom, or let her know it’s too cold in the bathroom. Just say the word and your Crestron system responds immediately.”
Crestron installers can quickly define and deploy Amazon Alexa skills using new software modules that interface with both the Smart Home Skill API and the Alexa Skills Kit SDK, John says.
Similarly, Simple Control, which is distributed in A/NZ by AV Supply Group, has announced its iOS apps for control of AV gear and smart home devices have been certified by Amazon for use with its Amazon Echo product.
Once Simple Control is paired with Amazon Echo, users can control the home environment simply by speaking commands to Alexa, such as “Alexa, tell Simple Control to turn on the TV in the kitchen.”
All that said, however, Adam explains that integrators need to be clever about how they implement the technology because “the user’s experience is what it’s all about”.
“You can have all the technology in the world, but if it doesn’t enhance somebody’s experience then it’s a waste of time,” he says.
“I don’t know if voice will ever be the ‘default’ control option. I know that I still like to hold the remote to change a TV channel. At Control4, our remote control is probably our biggest selling product. We sell bucket loads of them. People love the hard button remote.
“I think it’s more a ‘nice to have’. It’s a bit like an Apple Watch interface. Is that going to make people buy a control system? Probably not, but it sure is nice to have.”
WHEN WILL WE GET IT?
That, my friends, is the million-dollar question. Already the devices are finding their way into Aussie and Kiwi homes, but the full Alexa experience isn’t available due to geo-blocking.
As far as Amazon is concerned, “Internationalisation of all our products is super important, and Alexa and Echo are no different. We recently expanded Alexa to the UK and Germany, and you can expect over time we’ll be everywhere Amazon is.”
Now we just need Amazon to ‘make it so’. (See what I did there?)