I am often invited to speak at events to discuss the industry’s emerging trends, opportunities and threats. One of my go to slides is a picture depicting evolution versus revolution.
I pose the question, ‘Do you feel that we (the CEDIA industry) is in an evolutionary or revolutionary phase?’ In most years, the attendees and I share the same conclusion, which is that we are in an evolutionary time where new products are iterative improvements upon existing products. There is nothing wrong with evolutionary phases: In fact, it is those incremental improvements that contribute to refining products to meet customer’s ever-increasing expectations.
Occasionally, however, there are products that come out that have a profound impact, both from a societal and industry perspective. In my mind, the last technology product that revolutionised our industry was the Apple iPad.
In just a few short years, the industry went from highly customised touchscreens and control interfaces to highly accessible control on mobile devices.
Interestingly enough, there were fears in the early days about the ramifications regarding touchscreen sales due to the proliferation of commoditised touchscreen devices. Yet, many of the manufacturers I speak to state that the sales of touchscreens, while different than a decade ago, are extremely healthy and have thrived due to the massive appeal of such a revolutionary and readily accessible product.
The CEDIA industry is very healthy, as our last Size and Scope Survey showed that in the last five years (2011 – 2015), the average dealer grew 92.5%. So while Apple and then Android mobile devices significantly altered the landscape of home automation and total home control, the industry is thriving.
While at ISE, I had another opportunity to teach my emerging trends course and the class came to the conclusion I hoped they would – 2016 is shaping up to be a revolutionary year. For me, the main reason is the Amazon Echo.
This is not to discount another revolutionary trend, which is the new reality; the true birth of virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality. That topic requires another full article for another time.
Voice Control: The Year of Alexa
Working for a not-for-profit trade association, it is best practice to not talk about specific products or companies and instead speak of the industry as a whole. However, Amazon’s Echo is a product that, in my opinion, is so revolutionary it cannot be avoided.
While sitting in Rich Green’s ISE class, he boldly and unequivocally declared 2016: “The Year of Alexa.” Rich, being the futurist extraordinaire he is, was spot on.
In case you haven’t heard of Amazon Echo, it is a cloud-enabled speaker with very sophisticated microphones that allows users to perform specific functions. All you have to do is say the name ‘Alexa,’ give it a command, and just like a genie in a bottle it will do your bidding.
To be fair, Echo isn’t the first commercially available cloud-based voice device; that distinction goes to Apple’s Siri.
However, at least to me, it feels like the first truly robust voice-activated device that performs consistently and actually improves quality and ease of life. The reason for the improved experience stems from the deep learning/artificial intelligence engine in the back-end that Amazon has developed.
The comment that Echo is going to ease/improve quality of life is not an understatement, which is why I believe that it is revolutionary.
Much like most cloud-based/Internet-connected devices these days, Amazon has opened up SDK (software development kit) and there has been a rush of integrations for home controls. One of the most important integrations for our industry right now is lighting control.
There are multiple hubs that, through connected luminaires (bulbs) work very well with Echo. You might think that while cool, telling the lights to turn on and off or dim to a certain level as being, at most, a gimmick.
However, if you are washing the dishes, cooking, or being lazy on the couch watching Game of Thrones, turning the lights off with a simple voice command is glorious. But, looking beyond the laziness factor, there are very practical safety uses that can improve quality of life. I will use a personal example as a case study.
I have used Echo in my house for approximately six weeks and have been testing connected luminaires for some time. In my main floor, I have my overhead kitchen lights and two retrofitted pendent lights connected, all on one circuit, connected and controllable via Echo.
For the last few years, my 75-year old father, who suffers from several serious medical conditions, has lived on my main floor. As his health has deteriorated, he has found it difficult to get around, particularly at night.
He has resorted to keeping a flashlight by his nightstand to help guide him to the bathroom at night. With Echo, he easily raises the lights to the desired level without fumbling around for a light switch or flashlight. This has the added benefit of reducing my family’s stress, as we are not quite as worried that he will fall.
There are new use cases coming out daily, including a feature that allows users to send messages to contacts through voice control in event of an emergency.
In the middle of the night, being able to quickly state your emergency is much faster and effective than fumbling around for your panic button or phone. Plus, there are fun things that provide endless entertainment such as asking it to make rude noises, solve maths problems or read the news. The question is – if it is accepted that Echo and emerging voice-control type products will revolutionise system control interface – how will home technology professionals make money?
First, while Echo is likely the first real contender for voice control in the home, it won’t be the only option for long. As such, this article should not be construed as a blatant endorsement of one particular product, but as an example of the opportunities coming our way.
There are other companies looking at creating robust voice control solutions for the luxury market. One such company is Josh.AI, based in Colorado, which is specifically designing solutions with deep learning and artificial intelligence to control a home and accept sophisticated commands through voice.
Other traditional control manufacturers like Crestron, Control4 and Savant have also been working with voice control integration over the last several years.
The second reason is that Echo is ultimately just an interface, often referred to as a NUI (Natural User Interface), for the end user to have the home perform the desired task.
The devices and experiences still require the design, installation and maintenance of all the controlled devices in the home.
For thousands of years, voice has been the primary source of control. If you don’t believe me, think back to when your mother yelled at you to turn the lights off or take out the trash.
Voice just hasn’t been a viable control interface for electronics, particularly in the home. Until now.