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Connected Homes September 2017 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Michael Gold

Voice-Controlled Multiroom Audio

Why is this topic significant?

Speech commands can control sound in multiple rooms via Wi-Fi—and could transform the overall home-audio marketplace.

Description

Bluetooth speakers are common, but the devices have limited wireless range. Typically, they lack multiroom capabilities, except for sneakernet—carrying a phone from one room to another. For more than ten years, Wi-Fi speakers have supported multiroom audio; many of the solutions are expensive. New developments emphasize voice-based control of networked speakers that play popular streaming services. The first such offering was the Google Home smart speaker, which works with additional speakers and other Wi-Fi audio gear from brands such as Bang & Olufsen, LG, and Sony. Additional brands will likely introduce compatible products.

Amazon's Alexa-enabled Echo speakers recently gained multiroom capability. Sonos, the industry pioneer and market leader for Wi-Fi hi-fi speakers, has indicated that its products will also be controllable via Echo. Sonos also fully completed design of an integrated product that could effectively become the hi-fi version of Echo. Since 2005, the company has shipped Wi-Fi speakers that support synchronized multiroom digital audio (audio can sound terrible if speakers in multiple rooms go out of sync). Sonos is privately held, but it previously disclosed it collected nearly $1 billion in sales revenue during 2015.

A new set of voice-controlled multiroom audio solutions will be based on Apple's Siri-enabled HomePod smart speakers, due to be available in December 2017. More than a dozen popular consumer-audio and boutique brands will reportedly sell compatible Wi-Fi speakers and other audio gear. Some brands will be compatible with both Apple and Google. Some users' existing Wi-Fi speakers will become compatible if users perform firmware updates.

Implications

Improved affordability and usability will likely lead to adoption by millions of home users who will enjoy music when they roam about during chores and during house parties. Multiroom TV audio will likewise untether people who pay partial attention to (for example) sports and news shows while grabbing a snack from the kitchen or using the bathroom. Cost reductions might obsolete existing Bluetooth wall-powered speakers. But with three business ecosystems now in formation, electronics customers could face new challenges in choosing compatible brands.

Impacts/Disruptions

Markets for smart speakers promise multiple-unit sales to each household. Networked audio sweetens the deal for any user who is tempted to make virtual personal assistants available everywhere in a home. Often, each unit will contain multiple speakers and microphones, promising good news for makers of electronic parts. Presence of multiple units in homes could improve market conditions for many types of Internet of Things devices that smart speakers can control.

Further developments in networked audio will transform high-end portfolios of consumer-audio products. Products that combine speaker arrays plus microphone arrays can use the microphones to provide information feedback that helps improve sound. Apple indicates that HomePod's processor chip (iPhones use the same A8 chip) will "automatically" characterize a room's spatial characteristics and perform real-time analysis of the spatial information in stereo recordings; the chip will respond by controlling a single unit's multiple internal speakers to direct sound and produce a spatial soundstage. Two HomePods will automatically help each other balance a stereo acoustic signal. Other makers of smart speakers seem likely also to automate real-time acoustic signal processing, which since the 1980s has helped sound engineers improve concert audio while reducing needs for tedious calibration procedures.

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, audio production, audio distribution, streaming, broadcasting, digital-audio software, digital-audio algorithms

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

Home Security Meets Cybersecurity

Why is this topic significant?

A new start-up aims to revolutionize security in high-end smart homes and buildings. Aspects of its strategy could deter cyber home invasion and catalyze developments in high-volume markets.

Description

Serial entrepreneur and tycoon Jim Clark recently founded CommandScape, which aims to disrupt markets for high-end building-automation systems by emphasizing cybersecurity, cloud computing, graphical user interfaces based on detailed floor plans, and data over on-premises powerlines. At least for now, CommandScape networks require custom installation. Demonstration video shows a user with an iPad navigating a floorplan diagram, touching a location that corresponds to a security camera, and seeing the camera's images. Similar computer software helps users configure new capabilities and secure interconnections among lights, climate controls, and other building-automation gear.

Emphasizing the importance of cybersecurity in smart buildings, a CommandScape official cited the example of data breaches at Target during 2013, after hackers infiltrated a heating and cooling contractor that worked for the retailer. CommandScape indicates that it does not depend on passwords. Its user-facing security measures rely mainly on smartphones and tablets that contain digital certificates from CommandScape (and that presumably have adequate lock screens and unlocking methods). CommandScape named two hardware partners—video-surveillance specialist Axis and electrical-goods supplier Lutron—and said it is also working with electricians and climate-control contractors.

Implications

Clark recently stated, "There has been limited building management innovation over the last several years." Taking on the duties of maintaining a public-key infrastructure and issuing security certificates to users, vendors, and installers could close cybersecurity gaps that otherwise impair home-network-market development.

Clark is best known for his pioneering influence on the businesses of computer graphics, e-commerce security, and diverse online services, despite poor outcomes for companies he founded. Notably, these companies included Silicon Graphics, which developed the first large markets for graphics-accelerator hardware; and Netscape, the company that first popularized web-browser software. Likewise, CommandScape need not succeed in order to have similarly large influence on smart-building markets.

Impacts/Disruptions

CommandScape might pivot toward mass markets if conditions permit; or the company might play it safe. Its seasoned team has a good chance of growing the high-end home-networking business and making room for itself in a market that is now populated by custom-installation specialists and best-of-breed automation players, including Crestron and iControl (the latter company is currently undergoing a major restructuring).

CommandScape's value propositions and business-model concepts could have widespread direct or indirect influence. Merging building security, cybersecurity, and user-interface technologies makes sense, because otherwise, security often interferes with usability. Increased cloud-based supervision might relax current requirements for chaotic patchworks of Siri commands, Alexa Skills, SmartThings configurations, and If This Then That scripts. However, one hopes that during power and network outages, users can still securely lock and unlock doors that are normally supervised by cloud computers.

Increased use of data-over-powerline technologies, as CommandScape intends for in-building applications (not overhead street cables), could simplify security-camera retrofits while remaining immune to the radio jamming that adversaries can use to disable Wi-Fi cameras. Existing in-wall wiring could also eliminate needs for cables to connect new routers, computers, security consoles, TVs, and speakers. Wi-Fi channels would be clear and open for their usual purposes. A winning powerline-communications strategy likely depends on licensing security-hardened and usability-tested technologies and services to a critical mass of power-supply manufacturers that, in aggregate, build billions of units annually.

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: 5 Years to 10 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Electronics manufacturing, appliance manufacturing, control systems, physical-security services, cybersecurity software and services, real-estate development, property management, multiunit residences, general contractors, low-voltage contractors, interior designers

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: