With the rapid pace that most technology moves at these days, the wait for the Amazon Echo to become available beyond the USA hasn’t just been slow; it’s been glacial. Thankfully the wait is now over and you can now order your very own Alexa – that is, as long as you live in the UK, Germany or Austria.
Amazon has paired this launch with a number of high-profile developments focused on cementing its status as a key component of the connected home. After capturing headlines by pairing up with whole-house wireless audio system Sonos, this week’s CEDIA 2016 show in Dallas saw many of the big players in the home automation world lining up to announce their newfound compatibility with the smart speaker that has become a poster child for voice recognition.
Among Alexa’s new friends are several control system manufacturers: Crestron has built in the ability to create customised voice-controlled scenes and settings that can quickly be activated using the Alexa interface, while Control4 now lets homeowners set pre-programmed scenes and manipulate devices supported by its smart home platform. Even Qivicon has jumped on the bandwagon by enabling ‘a range of pre-programmed situations’ to be turned on via an Echo unit.
They join a rapidly growing connected home eco-system whose members are quickly adding enhanced functionality to their own Alexa connections. Lutron’s HomeWorks QS, RadioRA join Caséta lines in being compatible, while the colour-changing functions of Philips Hue smart lightbulbs can now be controlled in this way.
What is the Amazon Echo?
Released in 2014, the Amazon Echo is a smart loudspeaker and home assistant that is primarily controlled using voice. It allows you to access several music services such as Spotify and TuneIn, as well as performing a number of other tasks such as ordering an Uber or buying a pizza from Domino’s.
It is available in two models: the freestanding Echo and the small-form Dot, which doesn’t come with in-built speakers but is instead designed to connect up to a home’s existing audio system. Both are ‘always-on’ systems that passively listen for a wake word before activating fully and listening for a command or request.
While the Amazon Echo is perhaps the most well known ‘intelligent’ home assistant, it is not necessarily a market leading AI. It can give real-time information, answer fact-based question and perform a number of tasks, but its interface can be a little clunky and infuriating at times. That said, its extensive third-party functionality and ability to be placed in locations such as the kitchen where hands-free control is incredibly useful make it perhaps the most consumer-friendly voice recognition device currently available on the market.
A strategy for conquering the connected home?
At the heart of Amazon’s latest partnerships are the ability to quickly and easily activate scenes, which are core elements of almost all current smart home control systems on the market.
By stripping back the required actions of the user to simply asking for a scene to be turned on, the major pain point for the homeowner when it comes to scenes is eliminated, making voice recognition a very powerful tool for the connected home. Yet to date very few businesses have managed to successfully integrate more than very limited voice functionality into their platforms. Echo quickly and easily allows this type of interaction to be added to existing systems, making it a clear route into voice control for the home.
This all points to the Amazon Echo having a significant role to play as the connected home evolves in the coming years – assuming, that is, that no one else comes along to disrupt their relative hegemony over voice assistants for the home (Google, we’re looking at you).
“I would say that the Amazon Echo is unlikely to be the heart of the connected home, but will instead be the cherry on the cake,” believes Ryan Ovens, Projects Director at Andrew Lucas. “Right now, at least, a homeowner will still need a control system with which Alexa can communicate. While it may come to replace the standard interface (i.e. touchscreens) in some parts of the home, the ‘brains’ of the control system will still need to be the same.
“Of course, there are features of these control systems that Alexa could handle, such as recognising the sound of a fire alarm and feeding that back to your control system to act upon it. I suspect this line will become more and more blurred as time goes on and home assistants continue to improve.”
There is another reason why the Echo might gain traction as a means of interaction for intelligent residences: it can be fun to use. From helping the kids with homework to checking the football results and finding out the facts needed to resolve a debate over the dinner table, one of the core strengths of Alexa is that it offers more than simply control around the home.
There are more reasons than ever before to have an Echo in the home. That said, with its current abilities the platform is not a replacement for a connected home control system; instead, it will exist alongside and complement most of the smart systems already running in a property. Maybe one day we’ll see a house where the sole means of control is through the Echo ecosystem – but not just yet.