Our network has become much broader for two years now. We are writing about more and more products, including mobile, smarthome and wearables. All these categories, however, are coming closer together and even partly overlap. Especially in the area of operation we see one important trend often passed; voice control.
Smart speakers: control audio and video with your voice
Voice control is not completely new; we’ve been doing it for a while. Think of operating the navigation system in the car and giving commands to your smartphone. Since 2017, however, we see completely new applications and possibilities appear. The most obvious innovation is the arrival of the smart speaker. This loudspeaker is equipped with a digital assistant, in the form of, for example, Amazon Alexa or the Google Assistant, and serves as a kind of hub for your services, media and smart home equipment. The smart speaker can use voice commands to play your favorite music, read your agenda, answer questions, read the weather and even control your smart home equipment. And audio and video equipment is also included among those smart home equipment. For example, it is possible to ask Alexa to display the live view of the video doorbell on television, to play Spotify music on your receiver or to control your multiroom system to listen to your favorite music anywhere in the house.  Audio and video equipment is therefore increasingly provided with support for voice assistants. We see that Sonos now fully supports Alexa and is working on support for the Google Assistant. Denon and Marantz already have the integration of Alexa and several wireless speakers from major brands are now provided with Alexa or the Google Assistant. In the area of televisions, TVs with Android TV software automatically get access to the Google Assistant, but LG’s WebOS also offers support for Google’s voice assistant. The operation can often run via a microphone that is incorporated in the remote control. If equipment does come with support but not with its own microphones, the operation must be via a smart speaker.
The evolution: smart displays
A smart display is the evolution of the smart speaker, because next to a speaker with its associated possibilities the device comes with a screen. Think of it as a tablet, often on a standard. This display offers even more possibilities to optimally use the voice assistant and display your own media. Think of showing YouTube videos, showing the weather forecast, showing recipes while cooking, surfing the internet, viewing your calendar or even video calling with family or friends. The ability to display images reveals so many more functions and more and more manufacturers are responding to this. More and more interesting possibilities are also being developed. For example, in the US, Amazon has the opportunity to shop through the Amazon Echo Show in the Amazon store, and you can even request clothing advice thanks to the built-in camera.
Smart displays are not just ordinary screens; they are also touchscreens. This means that you are not solely and completely dependent on voice operation. So you can control the screen using your fingers and use the device as a tablet. This is particularly useful if you want to browse, quickly look up something or browse through photos. However, know that in many cases smart displays are not fully-fledged tablets and therefore come with a simplified interface that you can use quickly and can also see from a distance. Also not all smart displays, such as the Google Home Hub, are equipped with a camera.
In the Netherlands we are still somewhat behind in terms of voice control. The majority of consumers do not even have a smart speaker at home. As soon as the trend in the Netherlands really gets a foothold – what happens when the assistants also speak Dutch fluently and the products reach the shops – we expect it to go fast. Perhaps cautiously at first; with a cheaper smart speaker. In the future we will see several of these speakers through the house, with one or two smart displays as a kind of hub, for example in the living room and bedroom. These products offer just a bit more possibilities and are therefore at central points in the house.
A smart display really adds value to the house when you use the possibilities optimally. Do you have a lot of smart home equipment that you can connect and operate via one platform? Would you like to have recipes displayed in the kitchen? Do you want a display next to your bed where you can view some videos or series? It is just how you want to use the functions of the screen, and especially how you want to use it as a family. Unlike a smartphone, a smart display can serve as a hub for the whole family. For controlling the music, showing photos, operating the lighting or viewing the image coming from the video doorbell.
The future: talking to your equipment
So we can pass voice commands today to smart speakers and smart displays, and to use linked services and operate devices. But, of course, we can not mention it yet of course. It often stays with one command and a reaction, with in some cases a question back from the speech assistant and a response from the user. The real, natural interaction is lacking and that depends on a number of factors.
First, in a world of thousands of languages, tens of thousands of dialects and many more accents, it is almost impossible to have a speech assistant understand everything. And understanding everything exactly is necessary to be able to conduct a real conversation and above all to be able to interpret what the user means. And that is not just about accents or languages. For example, children talk differently than adults, and the voice commands must therefore be interpreted in a different way.
In addition, speech assistants must take into account different users; several family members for example. Each family member has his own services, such as a calendar or a favorite playlist on Spotify. The speech assistant must therefore know with whom he / she speaks and respond to it. This problem is slowly being tackled by parties like Amazon and Google, but for now it remains a challenge to implement this perfectly.
Another factor that plays a role is privacy, a serious and hot topic in recent years. In order to be able to communicate effectively and continuously with you, a speech assistant must actually listen to you continuously. Every time using an activation word or pressing a button makes the user experience a lot less natural and makes follow-up questions – and thus making calls – more difficult. But, do we want Amazon, Google, Apple and other companies to keep listening in our household? And what is done with all that data? After all, the data must be stored and interpreted somewhere in order to be of better service to you in the future. These are questions that can not yet be answered just as clearly and where possible strict rules have to be put in place.
Where we want to go is clear; a natural conversation with that voice assistant in your smartphone, your smart speakers, your smart displays or other smart equipment. One of the most important developments to reach that point is artificial intelligence, or artificial intelligence. Put simply, this means that a computer is so smart that it can think along with you, interpret how you mean something, can respond to your expectations and look and think ahead. All this to answer you or to be of service as a person could. And perhaps even better than a person could. Large companies such as Facebook, Amazon and Google are working on artificial intelligence and here and there we see a number of implementations in products such as smartphones and smart devices, so that these devices can again think better with the consumer and respond to the consumer. However, the road is still long and has many thresholds, including the interpretation of all those different people and the monitoring of privacy. The fact that we ultimately go to natural conversations with a very smart speech assistant is fixed and the first steps have now been taken. This development will go even faster in 2019 and 2020 and it is expected that important steps will be taken, particularly in the field of software – and thus artificial intelligence. We look forward to this development with great enthusiasm as it will change our lives forever, and hopefully improve them.