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Gesture and voice control are set to strongly influence automation in the future; what will these technologies look like and how will they affect the home automation market?

Audio and video analytics have existed for some time in the security industry, but look set to come to the forefront in the next few years as consumers become more aware of what the technology can offer.

Audio analytics can be used in the home to detect events such as a window breaking, then alerting the homeowner if he or she is not there, while video analytics are used in security cameras to detect motion.

Security agencies have used extensive video analytics for years, for instance to distinguish between people and animals at an illegal border crossing, identify and track objects in an airport and verify identities through facial recognition.

Last year Bosch demonstrated a camera that picks up a small flame in a large, open warehouse long before traditional sensors detect the danger. Now what we’re seeing is that this technology is being implemented in consumer-grade products, primarily for facial recognition.

For instance, cameras can determine who is at the door, so the system can save storage space and preserve battery life by recording only when an unknown guest is knocking. It’s not much of a stretch to imagine a scenario where facial recognition is used on automated touchscreens to recognise a user’s face and display their preferences.

Spanish technology firm, Tecnalia has made advances in audio analytics, announcing that it is working on a project for early detection of dementia, using sensor networks in the home combined with sophisticated processing. Essentially, the system would be installed in a home while the resident is relatively healthy in order to establish a normal routine. Over time, sensors would pick up changes in activity such as slowing down, skipping meals, restlessness and other tell tale signs of Alzheimer’s.

CES 2015 marked the beginning of mass-market audio analytics for the smart home, with at least a dozen companies announcing new Internet-connected products that can listen for the blares of ‘dumb’ smoke/CO detectors – and then alert the homeowner via email or text message.

Many ‘listening’ devices feature intelligent sound detection technology from UK-based company, Audio Analytic. SwannOne and Sengled, for example, use the technology for their products to detect smoke alarms and CO, babies crying and windows breaking.

Audi Analytic (smoke-alarm testing)“Audio monitoring is currently introducing a different edge for the smart home,” asserts Andrea Cantone, business development manager, Audio Analytic. “If a smoke alarm goes off, there is nothing you can really do from a video point of view, so you need audio. Audio is becoming one of the major factors towards driving the smart home because it brings a new level of understanding to the house when the owner is not there.”

The smart home market is exploding and devices like smart thermostats, cameras, lights and wireless audio are leading the way. A recent report by Accenture forecasts that two thirds of consumers will have connected smart devices in the home by 2019, with almost 70% of consumers having a smart thermostat and 60% having a smart security system.

“To be fully effective, devices in smart homes require a variety of sensors to make them aware of context,” Andrea advises. “Current sensors are almost exclusively motion-based, determining whether someone is where they shouldn’t be by monitoring physical contact sensors on doors, or analysing video streams from netcams. But ears are also a critical sense that humans rely on, and sound detection is missing from the vast majority of smart home devices.

“Consider for example how you would know if someone were in your house whilst you were also present,” he asks. “It would most likely be your hearing that would detect the presence of an intruder first, and your eyes would be secondary confirmation. In fact, you use your ears in your house to pick-up on a large variety of sounds that let you know what is happening – and not just for security. The combination of hearing and vision allows you to monitor a wide area and you tend to interpret a significant proportion of what is happening based on the different sounds you hear. So what would happen if you were away from home and your smoke alarm went off, or somebody broke the window? The answer is that the sound might just as well not have happened because there would be no one there to react.

“If somebody breaks a kitchen window to gain entry, a sound sensor on a device will recognise the sound and trigger a series of actions in the smart home to prevent further intrusion, for example controlling lights, music or TV, or simply letting the homeowner know it is happening,” he explains. “Sound sensors fill that missing essential sensory gap and make your smart home truly smart.”

Andrea sees sound recognition technology being used more and more in future, commenting that the company has seen a growth in uptake recently, with Audio Analytic doubling in size since this time last year in addition to raising Venture Capital and Angel investment.

“This gives you an idea of the interest and push around the things that we do. The reason behind this is because people are getting more familiar with regards to what sound can do for the home; there is an increase in understanding the capabilities and what advantages they can bring to you. For example, once you understand that a sound is something that can give you an indication of what’s happening in the home when you are not there, you can think of other applications it might fit into. For instance, health care and health monitoring: your grandma is at home (perhaps she is ill or in poor health) – you can be alerted if something is wrong. There currently isn’t anything available in the market catering specifically to this scenario, and this is something we are working towards.”

Andrea sees audio monitoring being used in everyday life in the near future, where he anticipates it will be used for preparing the home for the owner’s arrival, monitoring the elderly or ill, sleep patterns – and even expanding into wearables.

“We are in talks with many of the leading smart home manufacturers at the moment. So this is anything that is, or can be made smart: IP cameras, smart plugs, hubs and gateways, smart lighting, etc.”

However Andrea warns that in order for this technology to become commonplace in the future, it must be easy to use. “People use things because they are easy; for instance voice activation is becoming more common in the smart home now because it is enabling people to use things easily. People are used to using voice commands now; there is nothing for them to learn.”

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Gesture And Voice Control

CE Pro Europe expects voice and gesture control to continue to play a central role in the development of the Internet of Things in the smart home in future, with voice control stealing the spotlight at the moment largely due to the popularity of Amazon’s Echo and Apple’s HomeKit software (which uses Siri to control various third-party gadgets).

Connected home manufacturer, Fibaro is certain that voice activation and gesture are set to transform the smart home over the next few years.

“With the advent of technologies like hands-free for cars, Siri and GoogleNow consumers are becoming more reliant on voice activation,” says Jessica Duran, business operations manager, Fibaro UK Ltd.

“Home automation has already become an extension of this. In the coming years, experts predict that voice activation will become second nature. Many consumers – particularly millennials – are already looking for this type of technology in the homes that they buy, and many builders are finding themselves behind the curve.”

Fibaro, however, is ahead of the curve, recently launching Swipe, an intelligent gesture control device that detects not only simple moves, but combinations of moves as well. A high resolution sensor interprets complex commands, allowing users to switch lights on and off, adjust home audio systems and control a myriad of other devices in the home with a wave of their hand.

“There is nothing on the market like it,” Jessica states. “Gesture control devices, such as the Wii Remote, have been around for some time, but Swipe is the product to bring gesture control to home control.”

Swipe Everything

From Fibaro’s point of view, the possibilities are endless. Obvious applications include using Swipe to turn things on and off with ease, such as lights, cameras, security alarms and audio and video solutions.

“With Swipe, you can activate an entire home scene with one directional wave of your hand,” she explains. “For example, with one wave to the right you could simultaneously dim the lights, turn on your audio system, lower the blinds or turn the heat/air up or down in preparation for a dinner party. In regards to voice activation, you could say: ‘House Turn Off’ on the way out the door and simultaneously turn off all lights, ensure any hazardous items were off (say, an iron or flat iron), turn down the heating and arm the home alarm system.”

Voice and gesture control are already becoming more commonplace across the smart home. “Both will become more common place in home cinemas, in addition to becoming an essential part of a home’s lighting, climate and security control – and more importantly – its automation,” Jessica predicts. “The most significant sector changes will likely come in furniture as we see more reactive furniture designs controlled by gestures or natural movements.”

The global connected devices market – or IoT – is predicted to double in the next five years. Already, it is estimated that there are approximately four connected devices per person, leaving little doubt that voice activated and gesture-controlled devices will continue to be a growing segment of this market.

“At CES in Las Vegas this year, tech companies and appliance makers were showing off their latest lines of connected devices,” Jessica reflects.

“For instance, the smart kitchen is one of the hottest areas of the smart home right now. Voice activation and gesture control are key in this area of the home due to consumer’s desire for a clean environment. This push will contribute to a significant expansion of smart technologies into commercial spaces as well.

“At the time, voice activation and gesture control products were primarily standalone devices. The most significant change will be seen in the combination of these products with other smart home modules and sensors. For example, products that incorporate voice and gesture control in addition to video monitoring, temperature sensing/control and other sensing technologies. Things are already moving this way in the residential custom install market. I can’t wait to see what else is commonplace in 10 years time!”

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Talk To Me

Installers and tech-savvy consumers alike will already be familiar with Amazon’s Echo (only currently available in the US), a wireless speaker and voice command device which is capable of voice interaction, music playback, making to-do lists, setting alarms, streaming podcasts, playing audiobooks and providing weather, traffic and other real time information, not to mention its ability to control an ever growing number of smart devices.

Just some of the many manufacturers boasting Alexa-enabled products include WeMo, Philips Hue, Samsung SmartThings, Wink, Insteon, Nest, ecobee, Alarm.com, Lutron and Big Ass Fans.

An announcement that strongly hinted at Alexa’s potential to dominate the home automation market was its foray into the smart car market: Alexa is linked with Ford Sync, Ford’s infotainment system, meaning drivers will be able to ‘tell’ their car to control their smart home or Amazon Echo speaker.

Imagine the possibilities: on their way home a driver could ask Alexa to open the garage door and turn on the oven, and while at home Ford-owners could ask the Amazon Echo speaker to start the car or to double check that it is locked.

Echo even has big fans in Apple and Sonos, with Sonos CEO John MacFarlane stating, “Alexa/Echo is the first product to really showcase the power of voice control in the home. Its popularity with consumers will accelerate innovation across the entire industry. What is novel today will become standard tomorrow. Voice is a big change for us, so we’ll invest what’s required to bring it to market in a wonderful way.”

Meanwhile, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak thinks that “it’s the next big platform for the near future,” even using it in his own home. “It’s just become such a wonderful part of our life – not having to lift anything up and speak to things and just speak to it anywhere across a room,” he said.

His enthusiasm is interesting considering Alexa/Echo are stealing the limelight (and potential revenue) from Apple’s very own home automation offering, Homekit, which also communicates with and controls devices for home automation, such as lighting, speakers, thermostats, detectors, plugs, blinds, locks, sensors and alarms.

Actions can be performed by talking to Siri on an iPhone or iPad, or even using an Apple TV or the Apple Watch. Lutron, Crestron, Honeywell, Alarm.com, Savant, Insteon and August are amongst the manufacturers with products that work with the Apple Watch.

With Echo/Alexa gaining so much traction, it is not hard to imagine a future where Amazon launches a device similar to the Apple Watch to allow users to control Echo-linked products by talking to their wrist.

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