The question for Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft is which one will be first to command and dominate the voice-controlled smart home.
People have been eagerly awaiting a breakthrough in voice-controlled smart homes since – well, perhaps since Captain Jean-Luc Picard first settled back in his quarters on Star Trek: The Next Generation and issued the command for “Earl Grey, hot!” to the Starship Enterprise computer. Nearly 30 years later, smart home technology appears to be on the verge of that voice-control breakthrough, as major players including Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft compete to establish dominance in the space.
Why now? Credit the Internet of Things, which has emerged as a solid technology foundation for a truly interconnected ecosystem of electronic devices in the smart home. In this ecosystem, voice provides the intuitive interface for easily controlling communications with – and among – all those devices.
Whether it’s Amazon Echo, Google Assistant, Microsoft Cortana or the Siri-equipped Apple HomeKit, voice control is central to the smart home ecosystems that top technology companies aim to build. Before voice, people controlled electronic devices in nascent smart home systems with applications – an app to control the thermostat, another to run the ceiling fan and so on. It’s an approach whose limitations become increasingly obvious as the number of devices grows.
Voice transcends the limitations of application-based control. It provides a common point of access to a potentially infinite number of devices, which can then communicate with each other across the Internet of Things. (It’s also gaining ground overall as a technology interface, with Google reporting in February 2016 that voice searches had doubled over the preceding 12 months.)
Today, it’s not at all beyond the realm of possibility to imagine waking up in the morning and saying “Okay, I’m up” instead of having to fumble for your phone to silence the alarm, then asking “what’s the weather like?” instead of having to interact with a weather app, then heading to the kitchen – where the coffeemaker has automatically started a brewing cycle because it’s learned over time that’s the point at which you like your first cup of coffee.
Or imagine realizing when you get to work one day that you forgot to thaw some chicken for dinner. Your spouse isn’t reachable, but plans on being home by noon. So you can just use your phone to send a voice command to a smart home device: “Ask Pat to put the chicken in the fridge to thaw.” The smart home device will detect Pat’s arrival and pass on the message.
The question for companies like Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft is which one will be first to command the ecosystem of devices that make up the voice-controlled smart home – and thereby dominate the space. Each company has its own unique voice capability, so the answer lies in part in who makes it easiest for device manufacturers to become part of their ecosystem – by means of open APIs or other technology for interconnectivity, for example.
On the other side of the equation are the device manufacturers themselves, who understandably have little or no expertise in voice technology, which can be specialized and complex. Designers often need help designing the voice control element for devices that reside in a smart home. When these devices are attached to private home networks, they also need help enabling more advanced security features.
Bridging the gap between the major players (with their sophisticated voice systems) and the manufacturers (with their limited voice experience) falls to another set of actors in the smart home scenario: semiconductor manufacturers. These companies are the ones that make the processors to enable the integration of complex voice and audio functionality in devices for smart homes. With more than 120 million voice-enabled devices projected to ship in 2021, we’ve got our work cut out for us.
Inevitably, you can expect that every major technology player in the smart home space is going to find its footing there. The real issue is which one is going to find it first and seize the market advantage. There may be no way to know now who that’s going to be, but it’s clear what it’s going to take: an infrastructure that’s easy to join, device manufacturers who are eager to join it and processor companies, such as NXP Semiconductors, that can help make it happen.
-- Martyn Humphries is vice president of consumer and industrial application processors at NXP Semiconductors. He has 25+ years of experience in high tech with a focus in consumer applications and a passion for driving new ideas and evolution for the Internet of Things.