From lightbulbs to thermostats and from doorbells to refrigerators, household electronics are getting smarter. Tech manufacturers are adding wi-fi technology to appliances, enabling us to create schedules, automate tasks, issue voice commands and control them using our phones and even our voices.
While popular solutions like the Philips Hue Smart Lighting platform and the Nest Learning Thermostat have been around a few years, new developments are taking things to the next level, as we examine in the fourth part of our series, The Future of Technology.
The rise of digital assistance
There seems to be no limit to the types of devices that can be enhanced by technology. We’ve now got door locks, smart blinds, gadgets that can gauge water consumption, security cameras like the BT Smart Home Cam 100, kitchen scales, kettles, doorbells, smoke detectors and even a smart fork that tells you when you’re eating too fast.
However, it’s digital assistant devices like Amazon Echo and Google Home, which represent the fastest growing area of this nascent sector, with millions of homeowners welcoming them into their lives.
It’s easy to see why. The personal assistants within these devices enable us to use our voices to search the web for information (like unit conversions while cooking, for example), hear news bulletins on command, get traffic updates about the daily commute before leaving, hear calendar appointments, book an Uber, order a pizza and anything in between.
Since it was first introduced more than two years ago, Amazon has introduced five different Echo options, including the Echo Show. It has a built-in camera and a touchscreen that is designed to enable easy video calling.
Furthermore, the Alexa voice assistant is also outgrowing the Echo range. Amazon released a kit that allows any manufacturer to build Alexa skills and products.
The voice is the centre of the smart home
Perhaps more importantly, a device like Echo can be the glue that holds the smart home ecosystem together, allowing devices to work together rather than each requiring a different app or remote control.
Alexa ‘Skills’ can also be used to sync to a huge range of smart home devices, enabling you to control them with voice commands like “Alexa, turn off the lights” or “Alexa, lock the door”.
According to Jean-Marc Frangos, BT’s Managing Director of External Innovation, the Alexa voice controls could take the smart home into the mainstream and make it easier for non-techies to jump aboard.
He told BT.com: “Voice is reaching a level of maturity that is very useful when you start having a complex smart home; where you start turning the lights on and off, or turning the thermostat up and down. Also if you’re reviewing security footage, to rewind this, check that...”
Having a plethora of connected technology running throughout the home could make controlling it all quite a complex experience if using a mobile device or a dedicated hub with a touchscreen. Voice makes it seamless, Frangos argues.
“If you want smart home that has all these features then a control panel becomes quite sophisticated,” he added. “I’ve seen some of the touchscreen panels and they look like something you’d see at Nasa in Houston!”
“I think voice control could democratise the smart home and be one of the reasons it really takes off.”
While Amazon is leading the charge in this effort to bring all smart home tech under one roof, it isn’t the only player in the game. As we mentioned Google wants to do the same thing with Google Home and Assistant, which is its own version of Alexa that leverages the power of Google Search.
While Amazon and Google (as well as Samsung and Microsoft) are pitching for control of your connected home through voice commands, lesser-known manufacturers are envisioning other control methods.
Frangos added: “A company called Sevenhugs has developed a remote which you point at a particular device, like your TV, light switch or thermostat. It uses triangulation technology, with little beacons in the ceiling corners, to help the remote know which device it is pointing at.
“Depending on which device you point it at, it shows a different screen. I thought that was interesting, because voice might not be enough. Some of the commands might be a bit of a mouthful, but if you can point at that light, it might be a better way of doing it.
“The battle for the user experience in the smart home is only just beginning and it’s going to be an exciting one to watch,” Frangos added.
Read more in our The Future of Technology series: