Can Voice Control Make Smart Homes Popular?

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The concept of the smart home has been around for years, but is closer to becoming a ubiquitous reality than ever before, thanks to a variety of changes that are making the smart home more accessible to the average tech consumer. Writing for The Verge, Jacob Kastrenakes reported recently that “you can finally build a smart home without being an engineer.”

He was talking about how the smart home ecosystem — full of devices that will set your lights to turn on when you get home from work, automatically lock the doors at the end of the night, or turn the thermostat down when you leave for the day — is beginning to coalesce around smaller ecosystems that are controlled, guaranteed to work, and easy to get started with, like those controlled by Apple or Google.

Apple’s HomeKit platform will soon enable anyone with an iPhone to buy smart home products that will be as easy to set up and use as any other iPhone accessory, but they’ll control the lights or open your doors. Google’s Nest is, in a similar way, building an ecosystem of products like lights and locks to interact with its own smart thermostat and smoke detector. Each ecosystem is centered around a single product — in Apple’s case an iPhone or an iPad, and in Nest’s the ubiquitous and desirable thermostat or smoke detector. Kastrenakes argues that each makes creating a smart home piece-by-piece fun, an essential step to making home automation accessible to a wide range of tech consumers.

But another, more universal force is likely to come into play in helping the smart home gain popularity: The technology that enables voice control. As Kastrenakes posits that it’s the stylish and simple products that will become the first building blocks of consumers’ smart homes, it seems inevitable that these products will also be voice-activated and controlled.

CNET’s Megan Wollerton reported in December that voice control has so far been something of a smart home “outlier” thanks to products that are intriguing in theory but disappointing in practice. Many voice-activated products currently on the market can deliver only limited functionality or sometimes struggle to understand what the user is saying. Even Siri, Google Now, and Cortana, the ubiquitous voice assistants by Apple, Google, and Microsoft, sometimes fall short. But recently announced products like Amazon’s voice-controlled Echo speaker and Apple’s upcoming HomeKit software could make interacting with smart home devices via voice command much more commonplace, and perhaps even help make smart homes more popular and accessible in the process.

Wollerton overviews a variety of voice-activated products that are already available to consumers building their smart home. ActiVocal’s Vocca is a lighting adapter that turns traditional lightbulbs into voice-activated ones. Apple’s upcoming HomeKit — for which vendors recently showed off their first products at CES 2015 — enables you to control devices from locks to lights with Siri. Athom’s Homey is a voice-controlled hub for smart home devices.

The Honeywell Wi-Fi smart thermostat with voice control lets you make adjustments hands-free with an ever-expanding list of questions and commands. The Ivee Sleek is a radio alarm clock that answers your questions and integrates with third-party products for voice control. And Ubi from the Unified Computer Intelligence Corporation is a “ubiquitous computer” that can set alarms and reminders, answer questions, play music, and control third-party devices.

The Echo is Amazon’s voice-controlled hybrid of a personal assistant and a Bluetooth speaker. (It doesn’t yet control any home automation devices, but Amazon seems to have left the door open to that possibility in the future.) TechCrunch’s Chris Nesi wrote that while the device has drawn criticism from tech media as just a shameless cash grab on Amazon’s part, he thinks that when it’s released to the general public, it won’t be a product intended for the tech elite. Instead, he thinks the Echo’s target customer falls in the “meaty center of the technology consumer bell curve.” He notes, “The cool kids might not like Echo, but I’m confident it will find a large and curious audience among the middle of the road technology users. From where I sit, sometimes a new thing just being fun is enough.”

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