“Alexa, will I need a jacket today?”
“Probably not. The high today will be 75, and the low will be 58.”
“Great. Alexa, what time is my first meeting today?”
“You have a meeting with Ryan at 10:00am.”
I recently received an Amazon Echo as a birthday gift, and exchanges like this have since become commonplace in my home. As an avid Apple fan, I’ve been using Siri on my iPhone and iPad for years. When they announced Apple Music, I immediately signed up. Not because their library was any better than Spotify’s, but for one simple feature — ability to ask Siri to play music without having to physically interact with my phone. As more and more of our interactions migrate to apps, it’s become increasingly more painful to accomplish the simplest of tasks. Sure this is due to our increased product experience expectations and in this case the inconvenience of pulling out your phone, unlocking it, searching for the app you need, launching it, and then taking whatever action you originally set out to take. And while Siri should be making my life easier, she isn’t. I can say “Hey, Siri” in as many ways as possible, and she’ll answer maybe half of the time. As a born New Yorker raised in Atlanta, I can guarantee you it isn’t my accent. She just doesn’t work as well as she should. But, I still believe that voice is the way of the future.
The Amazon Echo, powered by Alexa, has shown me the light. My first experience with Alexa was pretty run-of-the-mill as far as connected devices go. I unpacked the box and, upon reading the Quick Start Guide, downloaded the Amazon Echo app from the App Store, as instructed. I connected Alexa to my home Wi-Fi through the app, and from there started to test her intelligence through a series of “recommended phrases”, as well as off-the-cuff statements and questions. All of these interactions were great, and, while I was fairly impressed, the impact of voice on the connected home and the future of IoT didn’t really dawn on me until my wife began using Alexa, as well.
I’ve always been a technologist. New technologies are as exciting to me today as they were when I was a little kid. It’s the major reason why I’m the Head of Engineering for Notion, a simplified home awareness system for the smart age we live in. For me to find a new piece of tech that gets me all giddy is, suffice it to say, nothing new. But when I would start to tell my friends about this great new piece of tech I had just received, and my wife would jump in with “Oh, it’s just amazing! She does this and that and you can ask her these things…” is when I first realized how transformative voice interfaces will be. Ignore the fact that my wife was bragging about how well Alexa worked; she had referred to Alexa as “she” and not “it”. It dawned on me that by building a technology that not only responded well to our voice commands, but did so in a conversational and natural way, the Echo had impressed upon us both that inside this sleek cylinder was an intelligent, sentient being that was always available to answer our questions or perform tasks on our behalf. And this is why voice interfaces will become pivotal to the Connected Home and to the Internet of Things at large.
Alexa worked; she had referred to Alexa as “she” and not “it”
The promise of the Connected Home is an improvement in our quality of life. But no one will say their life is improved by having to pull out their phone, launch an app, and tap a button just to turn on or off a light. In the craze of connecting things, we’re connecting everything, even if that thing shouldn’t be connected. And we’ve taken trivial tasks, such as turning on a light, and actually complicated it by connecting it. In reality, the only thing easier than turning on the light myself is asking my wife to do it for me (we haven’t quite trained our dog to do it, yet). And that luxury can only last for so long before I’m told to get up and do it myself. But devices that respond to voice commands never get tired of bending to your will. They’ll never be too busy to do you a favor and turn on that light, or set that timer, or play some obscure playlist because you’re in the mood for that one song. And, most importantly, they break down the barriers that currently exist between us and technology.
By connecting devices and controlling them through our phones, we’ve inadvertently added another layer of indirection between us and the task we’re trying to accomplish. Voice interfaces, on the other hand, remove that additional hop by allowing us to speak directly to the thing it is we’re trying to control. This is a paramount realization. While startups and enterprises alike are trying to cram all of the promise of a connected world into a 4 inch screen, we’ve been missing the most intuitive and simple interface of all: the voice.
Now, that isn’t to say that natural language processing (NLP) is where it needs to be to make voice interfaces mainstream. If you think NLP is anything but an incredibly difficult undertaking, you’re mistaken. And we’re seeing companies like Apple, Google, and Amazon pour an incredible amount of effort (and dollars) into opening up new horizons in this space. But, it’s an interesting chicken-and-egg problem, where consumers won’t be persuaded by the promise of voice interfaces until they start to see them work better, and companies won’t be willing to invest the time and money into improving these new interfaces, when they can just redesign their mobile app for much less, unless they find that their customers are asking for it. But, as research into NLP, Machine Learning, and Artificial Intelligence continues to grow, it will naturally make its way into the private sector, and we’ll see more and more devices support it as a means of interaction.
IoT companies in particular would do well to investigate these technologies early on and see how they can integrate it as a core part of their product offering. Platforms such as the Alexa Skills Kit (ASK) Interface are already making these incredible technologies available to third party developers, and the number of integrations (known as skills) available on the Echo is growing steadily. Developers have been asking for an SDK to Siri for years, despite her inaccuracies. More and more, we’re seeing the promise of the voice and its place in technology. So, the only real question is what do you want to ask your home to do for you?