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Connected Homes June 2016 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Michael Gold

Speech Recognition

Why is this topic significant?

Amazon's Echo, and other speech-enabled fixed appliances, could help realize the vision of a home that has conversations with its occupants.

Description

Smartphones have recognized speech for some years now, but smartphones aren't necessarily the most convenient user interface for every information request and interaction with home automation. Amazon's Echo is a compact speaker with a microphone array and a Wi-Fi connection that connects to cloud services, recognizing and responding to speech requests for information, multimedia, merchandise, and to spoken commands to home-automation devices. Amazon.com doesn't report sales figures to the public, but the company currently lists Echo as its third-best-selling electronics item. During April 2016, analysts at Consumer Intelligence Research Partners published their estimate of some 3 million units sold since the product first appeared in late 2014. The Amazon Echo appears to be on a path toward continuous improvement as new development partners including Uber make their services available via Echo, and as machine-learning algorithms refine the models that the device uses to understand and respond.

During May 2016, Google announced that "later this year" it would release Google Home, which resembles Amazon's Echo. Unlike the Echo, Google Home units that reside in each of several rooms will interconnect to provide multiroom audio features. Media outlets reported a rumor about Apple's supposed intention to release a similar product.

Some appliances come bundled with speech-control features. Without reaching for a smartphone, users can speak commands to smart thermostats from Honeywell and to light-fixture accessories from start-up ActiVocal.

Implications

New developments promise to simplify the integration of speech recognition with home automation. Currently, Amazon's Echo can control Insteon Hub, SmartThings, Wink, and other home-automation gateways, which in turn can connect to diverse lamps, alarms, sensors, and actuators. But in the future, users might adopt and integrate hands-free speech assistants and Internet-of-Things capabilities at the same time and with a single purchase. Unlike any current Amazon-, Apple-, and Google-branded products, the available speech-enabled Homey hub from start-up Athom reportedly contains Wi-Fi, Z-Wave, ZigBee, and other radios.

Always-listening speech-recognition offerings are inappropriate for the most privacy-sensitive customers. If malicious parties intercept speech in a high-profile cybersecurity breach, many people could see the products as undesirable.

Impacts/Disruptions

Many science fiction stories describe computers that converse. New and emerging products indicate that visionary ideas are becoming realities for some households, and that within a few years, multifunctional speech appliances could become common in homes. In an ideal case, natural-language recognition will greatly promote adoption of connected-home technologies by solving problems with ease of use and ease of installation—problems that have inhibited market development for smart homes and the Internet of Things.

In parallel with Echo's ability to expedite retail purchases from Amazon.com, Google Home also promises e-commerce interactions. Bots, speech assistants, and agent-based AI software may all play roles in identifying specific third-party services and applications that fulfill a user's generic spoken request. Recent natural-language technology demonstrations by Microsoft and Viv Labs respectively depended on partner relationships with companies such as Domino's for pizza and Uber for transportation. Suppliers of speech platforms will likely seek to earn finders' fees or customer-acquisition bounties from such third-party vendors. But market development might suffer if speech assistants steer transactions toward a brand that offers the largest reward to an affiliate speech-platform supplier instead of recommending a brand that offers the best deal for the end user.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium to High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 5 Years to 10 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Electronics manufacturing, semiconductors, sensors, actuators, cloud services

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

Connected Toys

By David Strachan-Olson
Strachan-Olson is a research analyst with Strategic Business Insights.

Why is this topic significant?

Electronic toys are widely available, but now many toy manufacturers are developing connected toys that use Wi-Fi or Bluetooth to add increased functionality to their toys.

Description

Many connected toys use Bluetooth to connect to applications running on mobile devices to create innovative experiences. Edwin the Duck is a rubber duck with LEDs, a speaker, sensors, and Bluetooth connectivity that provides interactive games and educational activities for children. Anki Overdrive, a car-racing toy similar to slot cars, uses a mobile application to allow each driver to control the speed of his or her car and fire virtual weapons at other cars through an augmented-reality (AR) interface. Companies such as Sphero and Parrot offer a variety of remote-control robots and drones that also are controlled through a mobile device, in some cases using applications that support AR and programming features.

Certain connected toys have Wi-Fi connectivity that allows them to access cloud-based systems over the internet. Hello Barbie is a doll from Mattel that uses cloud-based speech-recognition technology from ToyTalk to allow Barbie to respond to a user's voice. CogniToys will soon be releasing a toy dinosaur that is powered by IBM's Watson cloud platform, and that is capable of having a conversation, answering questions, and playing games.

Implications

The widespread use of smartphones and tablets, along with the availability of inexpensive electronics, has enabled the market for connected toys to develop. Earlier smart toys typically required a USB connection to a computer, as well as unique software, which sometimes presented difficulties for parents. But simple mobile device applications are easy to install, and they allow parents to get smart, connected toys up and running quickly.

As with other connected devices, security and privacy for connected toys are concerns, in particular because parents often are more protective of their children's privacy than of their own. In the fall of 2015, VTech, a connected-toy manufacturer, was hacked, leading to public exposure of information about millions of end users—nearly all of whom were minor children. The hack prompted many parents to discontinue use of VTech products, and it triggered increased regulatory scrutiny of connected toys. Hello Barbie has also received criticism from parent groups because the doll sends voice recordings of children over the internet to a third-party company. Connected toys that connect only with local devices, such as nearby smartphones, are less likely to face privacy concerns from parents than are toys that collect and send data over the internet.

Impacts/Disruptions

Despite potential privacy concerns, connected toys are likely to be a fast-growing sector of the toy industry because connectivity can greatly expand the capabilities of toys. Many parents are concerned about their children playing in video game worlds only, and many connected toys, particularly those with AR features and programmability, bring some of the compelling aspects of video games into the physical world. Parents are also attracted to connected toys' educational aspects. Imaginably, future connected toys will further blend the physical and digital worlds to create unique mixed-reality experiences. Connected toys could also serve useful secondary functions, such as monitoring home environments and helping parents keep track of their children's play. Cloud computing could help develop the intellectual abilities of future toys and allow their capabilities to be updated over the air.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: Now to 5 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Electronics manufacturing, toys, sensors, actuators, mobile application development

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: