Amazon’s Alexa is the talk of CES 2017, as gadget makers rush out voice-activated machines for the smart home

Is voice activation the missing link that could at last make the concept of smart homes a success? Amazon’s Alexa virtual assistant and Echo smart speaker have stolen a march in the race to deliver hands-free living

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 January, 2017, 12:53pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 January, 2017, 1:33pm

“Alexa, is Amazon invading our homes?” The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas this week has seen dozens of gadgets announced that can be controlled using voice commands via Amazon’s Alexa personal assistant, from table lamps and home stereos to domestic robots and even the wider IoT (internet of things).

Alexa is a virtual personal assistant that’s been available for about two years. Like Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana and Google Assistant, you can ask it the weather, set alarms, read the news, and perform various tasks including controlling some smart devices around the home.

CES tech show goes big on smart home devices and wearables, with Asia’s ageing populations set to drive demand

For now Alexa is monolingual and speaks only English, but a German version has recently been announced, with other “international” languages, including Chinese, scheduled to follow.

Not surprisingly, Alexa can also order things from the Amazon store, but the real difference between Alexa and the rest is in its rapidly increasing popularity. Cue an orgy of Alexa-enabled gadgets at the CES.

Although Alexa itself “lives” in the cloud, Amazon’s masterstroke was first to create the Amazon Echo, a hands-free smart speaker controlled with voice alone, and then more recently to issue the Amazon Echo Dot, a smaller and much more affordable version. By taking away the need to unlock a phone and open an app to control other gadgets, using voice as a control mechanism could prove to be the missing link in popularising the smart home.

How Hong Kong’s smart home inventions will change our lives

The Echo and Echo Dot have been way more popular than expected, with the CES organiser the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) forecasting at the show that another 4.5 million “digital assistant devices” will sell in 2017, up 52 per cent.

Amazon itself is cagey about its sales figures, but reported recently that sales of the Amazon Echo family of devices around Christmas were up more than nine times over the previous year, and that the Echo Dot was the best-selling, most gifted item on Amazon.com, with “millions” sold worldwide.

So it’s no surprise that companies at the CES are announcing gadgets that integrate Alexa. Is voice activation the missing link that could at last make the concept of smart home a success?

“It is a success,” says Sam Vang at Lenovo in the USA, which at the CES launched various Alexa-enabled devices. “Echo sold out during the holiday season … it’s popular, and it’s growing, and that’s where the money is,” he adds.

Cue a raft of new speakers integrating Alexa Voice Service. Lenovo’s Smart Assistant, a circular 5W tweeter and 1W woofer speaker with an Intel Celeron N3060 processor, which produces 360-degree sound.

“It has all the functionality of an Echo, but it has Harman Kardon speakers, which are better for playing music at parties,” says Vang of the “premium” version, which is the same price as the Echo (US$179.99).

Divide and conquer: Xiaomi launches Mi Ecosystem as sub-brand for its smart home products made by start-ups

Lenovo will also launch a more basic version, as well as a personal cloud device called Lenovo Smart Storage, which can hold 6TB of photos, movies, and other digital files, and be controlled purely by telling Alexa where to put a file.

Omaker also attempted to improve upon Amazon’s hardware at the CES, announcing the WoW portable speaker with Alexa, which uses Linkplay’s tech to create multi-room speaker systems for homes that can stream from the likes of Spotify, Amazon Music, Audible, TIDAL, Napster and TuneIn. With a compatible speaker in each room, the tech essentially allows Alexa to become a whole-home control system; you could ask Alexa to turn on the lights in the living room and even order food, as well as playing music from any of those services. A similar feature is set to come to Sonos devices during 2017.

Tech-savvy Chinese consumers drive growth for smart home appliances

Voice interactions also look set to come to the wider internet of things. AT&T announced at the CES that its Starter Kits, which help developers build IoT services, are now compatible with Amazon Web Services (AWS), which includes Alexa Voice Services.

“The smart home is one of the very best uses for voice, but it could be used anywhere where humans and machines need to communicate,” says Mobeen Khan, associate vice-president for IoT solutions at AT&T.

“If I’m an engineer maintaining a machine with voice abilities, I could talk to it and run diagnostics just by speaking to it, but usually voice if used for knowledge augmentation,” he says.

Khan gives the example of an engineer using smart goggles or a smart helmet asking Alexa for advice on fixing something remotely.

“But on the consumer side there are limitless possibilities that could use voice – think toys and wearables devices,” he adds.

Only AT&T developers also working within AWS can use Alexa for now, but Khan says that Alexa-capable application programme interfaces (APIs) could soon follow for its developers.

There were plenty of other consumer products integrating Alexa voice control, such as the Vobot Clock (US$35, available in early February 2017), which has no buttons or apps. Although it’s got plenty of its own features – such as “sleep coaching” and customised music alarms – it can be used to switch off lights (such as the popular Philips Hue connected light bulbs), play streaming music, get updates on Facebook, or even to order a taxi from Uber.

Belkin’s WeMo Mini smart plug was also launched at the CES, which allows users to tell Alexa to turn whatever is plugged into it on or off. Belkin will also make available an Alexa-capable WeMo dimmer switch.

On a similar theme, smart home company Netatmo announced a partnership with Velux for windows, blinds and shutters that could be operated via Alexa, while GE Lighting launched an LED table lamp for the second quarter of 2017 that embeds Alexa.

As well as dimming the lights with these gadgets using your voice, you can also order food, listen to the latest headlines … or even switch on a Whirlpool washing machine or put to work Samsung’s Powerbot VR7000 or robot vacuum cleaner. Both were announced at the CES to support Alexa.

Among all the announcements, the real revolution isn’t voice interactions, but interoperability; these gadgets use Alexa as a way of interacting with each other.

It’s really about allowing consumers to add smart capabilities throughout the home through a really simple form factor … consumers don’t need a cell phone, a special switch or a hub, they just need their voice
Jeff Patton

“This integration is so much more than connecting lighting to voice integration,” says Jeff Patton, general manager at Connected Home Products at GE Lighting .

“It’s really about allowing consumers to add smart capabilities throughout the home through a really simple form factor … consumers don’t need a cell phone, a special switch or a hub, they just need their voice.”

Key to Alexa’s success is its almost open platform approach, with Amazon allowing third-party developers to build voice experiences for devices around its AVS (Alexa Voice Service) and ASK (Alexa Skills Kit).

“It’s taken a huge company like Amazon to popularise voice interactions, but it’s done a great job with Alexa,” says Vang. “But the ultimate goal is to use voice to make all your smart home devices work together.”

While the popularity of voice control around the home seems set to grow and grow, the “Alexa Everywhere” trend so obvious at the CES may not last long.

Google Home, a voice-activated speaker powered by the Google Assistant, debuted in late 2016. Its built-in Google services could well prove popular, though at the CES only the Aivia portable Bluetooth smart speaker included integration with the Google Assistant.

That was the big exception to the “Alexa Everywhere” trend, but it’s not game over just yet. Microsoft’s Cortana voice assistant in Windows 10 seems poised to be integrated into the soon-to-be Samsung-owned Harman’s speakers during 2017. Apple is expected to follow suit at some stage.

However, if an arms race or format war is brewing – the early exchanges of which are almost always staged at the CES – it’s Amazon that’s calling the shots so far.

With the smart home market predicted to grow from US$47 billion in 2015 to US$121 billion in 2022, it’s a prize worth shouting about.