2016 was undoubtedly a big year for all things voice command, the star of the show being Amazon Alexa, which is now compatible with a plethora of home automation devices, many of which launched at CEDIA 2016. In fact, with Alexa voice activation integration announcements being announced left, right and centre, Amazon became one of the show’s main talking points.

But with this momentum comes inevitable teething problems. CE Pro Europe talks to Todd Anthony Puma of top US integration company, The Source Home Theater Installation & Design to uncover issues installers are having as a direct result of the popularity of voice command.

Anthony Puma, The Source Home Theater Installation & Design

 

What are your thoughts on voice control, in particular the Amazon Alexa platform?

 

Voice control is a great addition to the user interface toolbox. Just as we always recommend that clients have a handheld remote in the home and do not rely entirely on touchpanels, we also are strongly recommending that clients do not rely entirely on voice control.  There needs to be another user interface in the home: touch panels, mobile devices, remotes, etc.  At this point, voice control is cool and fun, but is not reliable or robust enough to handle the every day workload.

While we don’t have any direct experience with Google Home at this point, our expectation is that the upsides and risks will be very similar to Echo/Alexa.

“We  are strongly recommending that clients do not rely entirely on voice control”

Do you see an upside of voice control becoming so popular?

 

Absolutely. It is opening up discussions with clients new and old. Existing clients are reaching out to us to integrate Alexa into their existing control system. This gives us an opportunity to interact with this client again, on their request and without it being a ‘service call.’ They are getting a cool new toy, so they are in an upbeat mood and amenable to other, new innovations and services we can provide.

For new clients, it is another reason for them to want to use an integrator and not do something on their own. While setting up an Alexa device is pretty easy, it can be intimidating to some people and it does require quite a bit of after sales service to keep it functioning.

“We have found accuracy to be approximately 50-75%, meaning most commands have to be repeated at least once”

What challenges does Alexa present for the integrator?

 

At this point the biggest challenge is reliability. We don’t see Alexa as a threat. However we do explicitly tell our clients, multiple times during the set up, that this is a very new technology and as such may not be reliable and may require multiple visits in the future if it falls offline or does not work properly.  It is not hardware-designed for our industry and therefore is not as reliable as the systems we are accustomed to installing.

“It is not hardware-designed for our industry and therefore is not as reliable as the systems we are accustomed to installing”

 

What have your professional experiences with Alexa been like?

 

We have set up Alexa both in our own homes as well as in a couple of homes for very tech-savvy clients. It has been a challenge to say the least. The integration with control systems leads to a much higher failure rate on individual commands. We have found accuracy to be approximately 50-75%, meaning most commands have to be repeated at least once. We have had several issues where we have lost complete communication between Alexa and the control system, requiring a service call to reset the Alexa (sometimes a few times) and re-acquire all of the control system commands.

But, when it works, it is pretty amazing. Clients love showing it off to their friends, even more so than the base control system they have or the touch panel they paid over $1,000 for.

“[Alexa] is opening up discussions with clients new and old. Existing clients are reaching out to us to integrate Alexa into their existing control system”

What do other integrators say about it?

 

Most are cautiously optimistic – mainly for the reasons stated. It will be a long time before voice control replaces the need for other user interfaces (if ever).  But the reliability and increase in service calls is a major concern, not to the mention the bad taste it can leave in a client’s mouth if they spend money for us to set it up and it doesn’t work as they expect, or worse, it loses communication with the control system and stops working with the home automation system entirely.