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Amazon Echo at CES 2016 and Beyond: The Next Big Driver for Home Automation

Amazon Echo and the Alexa speech engine have changed the way we want to interact with the smart home. New home-automation partners revealed at CES 2016 suggest voice control as the home-tech UI of the future.

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In searching my computer for Amazon Echo, I came across a blog I started in November 2014 but never finished, called, “If Only Amazon Echo Voice-Controlled Speaker had API for Home Automation.” Fast forward to CES 2016, where Amazon didn't exhibit, per se, but nevertheless may have won the show with its Alexa voice-recognition engine, showcased in scores of smart-home booths, including Big Ass Fans, Belkin Wemo, Insteon, Vivint, Lifx, Ford (Sync) and more.

During the Smart Home panel I moderated at the show, Icontrol CMO Letha McLaren called Echo the most important phenomenon in IoT over the past year. That’s saying a lot, considering McLaren and her team at the giant SHaaS (smart home as a service) provider are deeply engaged in virtually all of the relevant home-automation technologies and trends, even before they happen.

I happen to agree with McLaren, and here’s why: Echo only does a few things, but those few things are quite useful. We use it at home mostly to “Play NPR,” “Set timer,” and find out, “What is the weather?”

We do those things so often that it has changed our behavior. We find ourselves asking Alexa to “Turn on the TV,” even though we have no set-up for that. The pumps are primed, though. When they build it (better), we will come.

Echo makes me want to listen to music. This is a task I would not do if not for Alexa. … Sure enough, Alexa will make customers want to use their home-control systems and, better yet, pay for more devices and services on top of it.

Echo makes me want to listen to music. This is a task I would not do if not for Alexa. Sure enough, Alexa will make customers want to use their home-control systems and, better yet, pay for more devices and services on top of it.

Amazon Echo at CES 2016

Today, there are two basic ways to incorporate Amazon Echo into a home automation system or smart-home device.

One is through the Alexa Skills Kit (ASK), which is a rudimentary SDK for developers. The third party must do all the heavy lifting in structuring the commands and interactions, which can be tedious work. The user has to do some work as well.

Instead of asking Alexa to “Set the goodnight scene,” for example, we must say something like, “Alexa, tell Cleptron to set the goodnight scene.”

There are other ways to “program” scenes into Echo, but they’re not elegant. In the case of the goodnight scene, for example, it might be set up as an “app” through IFTTT so the user could say, “Alexa, start goodnight.”

At CEDIA Expo 2015, we saw Clare Controls and Roomie Remote/Simple Control take advantage of the Skills Kit. At CES, we saw a few more, including Vivint: “Alexa, tell Vivint I’m going to bed” 

A More Integrated Alexa

Beyond the Skills Kit, the Echo team is now working closely with home automation manufacturers to incorporate Alexa more integrally into their smart-home ecosystems.

A couple dozen CES exhibitors showed this seamless integration, which requires the user to say little more than, “Alexa, dim the living room lights to 20 percent,” or “Alexa, turn on the coffee maker.”

But for now, that’s it: Just lights and dumb devices plugged into smart plugs. So almost all of that “Echo integration” you saw at CES was simply lighting control and on/off appliances.

Next up for Alexa: Thermostats.

We know Amazon is working harder on more and better integration with home control, but for now it’s all slow and methodical. We have seen that tactic play out nicely for such companies as Sonos and Nest, and it will work just fine for Amazon, the first company to make speech recognition a true contender for home control.


View the Slideshow: Echo and Home Automation at CES 2016


More Thoughts on Amazon Voice Control

I don’t really listen to music, but when I got an Escient music server about 15 years ago, I started to listen to it more because it was relatively simple to access. Then I lost interest. I started listening again when Pandora came around because, again, it was pretty simple to play my favorite genres. But like Escient, Pandora still required some deliberation – go to your computer or smart phone, press a few buttons to get it started, press some more buttons to change the volume or turn it off ….

Then here comes Echo. It makes playing music so simple that I actually listen to it once in a while. Echo makes me want to listen to music. This is a task I would not do if not for Alexa.

This is important. Even people that have smart homes don’t engage with their devices because it’s easier to flip a wall switch or press a button than to fidget with a phone and app. And it’s even easier to do nothing at all. Arm the security system when you’re heading out for a quick errand? Meh.

This is why security and smart-home vendors lose customers: because the customers don’t use the system. When it comes to renewing a service contract or adding products to an ecosystem, the customer doesn’t see the value because, “We never use it anyway.”

I mentioned that Alexa makes me want to listen to music. Sure enough, Alexa will make customers want to use their home-control systems and, better yet, pay for more devices and services on top of it.

About the Author

Julie Jacobson
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Julie Jacobson:

Julie Jacobson is founding editor of CE Pro, the leading media brand for the home-technology channel. She has covered the smart-home industry since 1994, long before there was much of an Internet, let alone an Internet of things. Currently she studies, speaks, writes and rabble-rouses in the areas of home automation, security, networked A/V, wellness-related technology, biophilic design, and the business of home technology. Julie majored in Economics at the University of Michigan, spent a year abroad at Cambridge University, and earned an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin. She is a recipient of the annual CTA TechHome Leadership Award, and a CEDIA Fellows honoree. A washed-up Ultimate Frisbee player, Julie currently resides in San Antonio, Texas and sometimes St. Paul, Minn. Follow on Twitter: @juliejacobson

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