Smart Homes and the Power of Voice?

By Kirby Smith

Why are so many people excited about Smart Homes?

By now, you’ve probably seen commercials showing people walking into their homes and saying, “Turn on the lights” or “Play jazz music” and, like magic, the lights turn on and music fills the air. Companies that range from Amazon to Home Depot are advertising a slew of devices such as lights, thermostats, smart door bells and door locks that do the bidding of people just by being verbally commanded.  When several of these devices are connected, the term “Smart Home” is used.  However, very few people understand what it really means.  Like personal cell phones and large screen flat televisions in the past, smart home technology may seem to be a luxury.  But, with the drastic drop in price for these devices, it is slowly becoming popular. 

There is also a realization that these devices could be a boon for individuals with unique needs and challenges.  For a person who has limited mobility, or needs to manage a household with many children, or wants more peace of mind when away from home, these devices can become vitally important.

In Forbes July 5, 2017 Investing Article, we have this:

Recently, Best Buy announced that it is expanding space in 700 of its stores to better showcase Amazon’s Echo and Google Home devices and their interaction with smart home technology. Smart home technology is likely to be a key growth driver for Best Buy in the next few years.

According to Zion Market Research, the global smart home market is likely to grow at a CAGR (compounded annual growth rate) of 14.5% between 2017 and 2022 and reach $53.45 billion by 2022.

It almost seems like this industry has popped up overnight.  However, the industry sprung because of sophisticated consumer products that can dramatically change lives.  An excellent example of this is the evolution of the portable phone, now almost exclusively called smart phones.

10 years ago, we used our phones to…make calls.

Arguably this is one of the fastest electronic technology growth periods in history.  In less than a decade, our notion of normal regarding technology has changed. The idea that a phone just makes calls seems like an old notion nowadays.  Many parents feel worry if their children do not have a cell phone in case of an emergency.

In February 2015, Wired magazine reported:

WITH EACH PASSING season, another wave of mobile devices is released that’s more capable and more powerful than the generation preceding it. We’re at the point where anyone armed with a current model smartphone or tablet is able to handle almost all of their at-home—and even at-work—tasks without needing anything else. We’re living proof: for the last two years, WIRED has been able to cover events like CES almost exclusively using our smartphones(…) For those in many developing countries, a smartphone is their first computer and their only Internet-connected device. According to a February 2014 survey from Pew Research reports, Africans use their cellphones for mobile payments, for getting political, health, and consumer information and, of course, social networking. With pricing reaching an affordable $30 to $50 for some smartphones, people who have never before been able to afford a computing device now own one, and it fits in their pocket.

Our relationship with Tech changed.

Consumers first interface with a computer looked like this back in the early 1980’s:

Text input: We memorized commands and typed on one line.  If you didn’t know the commands, you couldn’t do anything. New words like reboot and operating system started to become common.  However, we only used the computers at work and saw learning them as intimidating drudgery.

Graphical interfaces: 1985 we moved on to pointing at symbols of functions and objects.  Suddenly, we could do multiple things at the same time and more intuitively understand how to use it. We could “see” what we are doing.  More people started using computers and some even started to buy them for home use.


Web Browsers: Starting in 1995, suddenly, we didn’t care what computer we used.  Prices became cheaper and the browser worked the same everywhere.  Who cared about how powerful the computer was if you have the Internet?  New words started to become common, such as…the Internet, dial-up, sites, internet addresses, and “surfing”.  We started to need computers to shop, watch things, do homework, etc.  By 2002, debates about facts end with, “Google it!”

Smart Phones: With the popularity of Blackberries in 2005 and the release of the iPhone in 2007, a phone became a tiny computer and was called “smart”.  We carried our computers in our pockets and forget they are computers.  We start walking into poles on streets as we can’t stop looking at our phones.  We begin controlling the real world with a tiny screen and “Apps”.  The only technical thing we think about is “coverage” and when is the next model coming out.

Voice: Voice is the latest and fastest growing trend.  Starting 2011, some of us tried Siri but ignored her when the smarter sister Alexa appeared in 2014.  If we had keys and groceries in our hands, we could tell Alexa or, later Google, to turn the lights on.  Kids don’t have to open a book when they can ask Alexa for answers.  Most important, those with special needs now have access to an assistant that takes requests like…an assistant.

The iPhone changed everything.

Prior to the smartphone revolution, technology giants focused on business and corporate solutions because they could sell big, expensive tech that would tie companies to them for years. Switching to another vendor was too difficult and expensive.  Sometimes the technology would seep into the household, such as personal computers (PCs) and laptops.  Because we used these products for business, we accepted paying thousands for the technology and companies like Microsoft and IBM grew huge.  Even smartphones were geared to business as Blackberry became famous and it was a status symbol to own one personally.  This all changed with the iPhone and the service behind it called iTunes.  Apple broke the rules.  They released a high-tech GPS enabled device that was in no way geared to business.  They advertised only to consumers and focused on the youth market.  IT departments considered them toys and some banned their companies from using them for corporate purposes.  Blackberry laughed at the iPhone for lacking a keyboard.  Meanwhile, consumers formed lines and suddenly the device was no longer just for geeks.  Apple always focused on how you could use it, not what was in it.  Tech became hip, a status symbol, and a way to buy something that did more than one function.  A person could use it the way they wanted.

Apple also shook up everything when they created the App Store and introduced “Apps”.  The operating system was no longer something you had to understand, learn, and buy every couple of years.  It was a shock to businesses to discover Apple (and similar companies) didn’t even charge for upgrades.  Instead of going to a store, you purchased and downloaded apps and music from an online store.  Consumers loved it, businesses were envious, and the giants from Microsoft to Dell to R.I.M. (Blackberry) watched their business models crumble.  As more people purchased iPhones, then iPads, and Android phones, people began to question why the tech at work was so clunky.  People were no longer willing to go to classes to learn how to use software. People “needed” to be connected and the internet became a tool for every person.  People no longer tracked telecom bills according to calls but by bytes.  Software became less bloated and complicated, turning into apps that solved a specific need.  Almost overnight, the concept of an app stores changed our perception of tech.  We all started to trust in devices that tied to online services handling our information, financial data, and entertainment.  New businesses exploded because they provided powerful computing services that didn’t need your devices computing power.  Computer experts had a term called “The Cloud” which came from drawings where IT guys drew a cloud to indicate a remote network function where “we don’t know how it works but it provides what we need and it’s safe”.  Consumers loved the simplicity of cloud services and we saw the rise of Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon, Samsung and…Microsoft (reborn).

Government Technology reported on April 2016:

As Intel’s announcement of 12,000 layoffs by mid-2017 starts to sink in, many technology infrastructure analysts are pointing to the news as more evidence that the PC is dead — or on life-support. Global experts are now predicting that smartphones and tablets will increasingly replace desktop and laptop PCs.

Follow the Money.

By 2013, the mobile market had become saturated with competitors.  With competition so high, profit margins dropped for manufacturers.  Technology companies realized that with the focus on mobile, what were people using when stationary.  Other than being at work, people spend most of their time at home.  From the question, how can more technology be sold to consumers, a whole new industry was created, Home Automation, otherwise known as Smart Homes.

While businesses were slower to adopt, people opened their wallets.  The gears of industry followed the money, and now home consumer products are arguable driving the technology industry.  Like before, products are released to regular people, and commercial companies are slowly starting to adopt the technology:

  • From Reuters June 19, 2018 – “Amazon.com Inc. said on Tuesday that it has partnered with Marriott International, Inc. to help increase guest access to amenities with Alexa, through its voice-controlled device Echo, in an attempt to expand its presence in the hospitality industry.” [https://www.reuters.com/article/us-amazon-com-marriott-intnl/amazons-alexa-will-now-butler-at-marriott-hotels-idUSKBN1JF16P]
  • From Control4 (A business specializing in business automation) – “As a business owner or facility manager you have enough to worry about without letting the technology of business operations distract you. Control4 can give you competitive advantage by improving operating efficiencies. Set your lighting, music, temperature and video to greet your customers with the perfect welcome. With one button your security system arms, lights go on, temperature adjusts, and all the music and TVs automatically turn on. Keep an eye on things—from anywhere. Whether equipment or lights are left on, or unusual activity is detected, you’ll always be in the know.” [https://www.control4.com/solutions/smart-business]
  • From Brooks Brothers – “At Brooks Brothers, our employees are already successfully using Amazon Chime for productive online meetings. With Alexa for Business, we are now using Alexa to simplify our conference room experience. Alexa takes care of all the details by allowing us to begin meetings with the simple voice command, “Alexa, start the meeting”. Not only does Alexa for Business make it easy for me to provision and manage Echo devices throughout my office, but also configure them to work with Amazon Chime and my existing conference room AV/VC equipment.” – Phillip Miller, Head of Infrastructure and CISO, Brooks Brothers.

Of the popular consumer devices, the Smartphone/tablet has dominated but always had one problem… we still must pick them up.  The services behind smart speakers, Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant, are starting to provide the functionality that feels like a natural interaction.  For example, if I wanted to schedule a meeting with John Smith, I can say: “Alexa schedule a meeting with John Smith tomorrow at 3pm.” Alexa will not only enter the event into my calendar, she will send an email invite to John based on his information in my contact list.  On waking in in the morning one can say, “Alexa…I’m getting up.” Alexa will then turn on the bedroom lights, set the temperature to 73 degrees, make an announcement in the kid’s room to start getting ready, turn on the bedroom TV and tune to CNN, turn on the Alexa enabled coffee maker, and finally say “Okay, up and at them!” on the bedroom Echo.

This new A.I./Voice industry is really in its infancy.  Many issues are being worked out, including privacy and security concerns.  However, it promises to grow fast as so many people are enjoying the convenience of using them.  For those with manual/mobile dexterity disabilities or low vision, the devices are a godsend greatly increasing accessibility, independence, and functionality.  Of course, down the road there will be new capabilities and adjustments made to accommodate open work spaces, airplane seats, restaurants, or other public spaces.  We can only imagine where the industry will be in five years if all this has occurred in only three years!







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