UPDATE: We might have been very wrong on Thread/Weave in Google Home. See correction below.
This year’s CES 2016 was the break-out show for voice control in the smart home. Amazon wasn’t officially represented but the Echo was everywhere with integration partners that could, for example, ask Alexa to “Tell Vivint I’m going to bed.” Hardly elegant.
Only lights and smart plugs had “native” Alexa integration way back then — 11 months ago – so you could command Alexa directly to “Set thermostat to 72” or “Dim the kitchen lights.” Then came thermostats, ceiling fans (thanks Big Ass Fans) and door locks with their rightful Skills, followed in September 2016 by special Amazon treatment for home-automation partners like Control4 and Crestron.
Finally, at CES 2017 we can expect to see native Alexa Skills for multiroom audio, surveillance cameras and other categories.
Note: Companies on the CES exhibitor list are bolded in this piece; non-bolded companies might be part of some pavilion or group, but aren't “official” CES partners in the show.
Alexa Voice Services at CES
But it gets even better. CES 2017 will be the one remembered for truly native voice integration, thanks to Alexa Voice Services (AVS), which enables voice control through a connected device’s own mics, no Echo hub required.
Exhibitors including Nucleus (video intercoms), Invoxia (Triby portable speaker) and Pebble (Core watch) will showcase AVS-enabled products. So too will Ford Motor Co., which might just be the thing that finally bridges the car and the smart home, given that you can use Alexa voice commands in one location to initiate events at the other.
Heck, even LG is incorporating Alexa into its SmartThinQ speaker and home automation hub – a product that aspired to be an Echo-buster when it debuted at CES 2016.
Alas, it appears we won’t see Alexa voice services embedded in Sonos speakers anytime soon, even though the prospect had been discussed in the past. The company told VentureBeat recently that the mics in its PLAY:5 speakers would not be used for voice control. (You saw that right — no official Sonos presence at CES 2017.)
Amazon itself is expected to release an Alexa hub with a 7-inch touchscreen in 2017.
Don’t expect to see Amazon the company, however, unless you have an appointment. “Amazon Alexa” is on the CES exhibitor list, but no booth is given, so you won’t be able to just stroll by and chat with Alexans as you could at CEDIA 2016 in September.
Google Assistant, Google Home, Google World Domination
Likewise for Google, which is listed as a CES exhibitor, but doesn’t have a public booth at the show. Even so, we’re sure to see the Google Assistant voice engine demo’d all over the place by implementers.
Google Assistant, an improved version of the existing Google Now voice engine, came in with a bang just a few months ago. The technology is embedded in the Made by Google portfolio of products including the Pixel phone, OnHub router and Google Home, the company’s answer to Amazon Echo.
Free Webinar Tuesday, 12/6: CES Preview of Audio, Video and Smart Home Trends
Out of the box, Google Home (with Google Assistant) offers “Direct Actions” for home-automation devices including Nest, Samsung SmartThings, Lifx smart bulbs and Philips Hue. This month the company is releasing an SDK for the voice service for broader implementation.
In any case, Google Assistant has a much richer “native” IFTTT integration engine than Alexa, so we’re already seeing plenty of development for products like Logitech/Harmony (“OK, Google, turn on the TV”), Rachio (“Turn on the sprinklers”), Belkin WeMo (“Turn on the air purifier”), and even Control4 whole-home automation.
Because of the ubiquity of Google’s Android OS and the richness of Google’s IoT ecosystem – search engine, maps, phone, Allo instant-messaging, Nest smart-home devices, Chromecast and the Cast audio-streaming service (now just part of Google Home), Google Wifi wireless mesh networking system, IFTTT-compatible OnHub router … yada yada yada … yeah, Google Assistant is going to be a pretty big deal in the smart home.
Google Home, Thread and Weave
Here’s an interesting little nugget: Google’s OnHub router has an 802.15.4 chip inside to run Thread, the Nest-inspired IPv6 connectivity protocol that is slowly gaining traction among product developers.
OnHub can support the next generation of smart devices, thanks to built-in smart-home tech like Bluetooth Smart Ready, 802.15.4, and Weave.
We have learned as well that Google Home has the same or similar chipset for Thread. (I know, it gets confusing — OnHub and Home; they have very similar personalities.) We might expect, therefore, that Google Home is also poised to be as a Thread/Weave home automation gateway.
CORRECTION: While we were told (not by Nest, Google or Thread) that Google planned to support Thread in the future — a Google Home teardown on iFixIt does not mention an 802.15.4 radio onboard. We should mention also that the Thread/Weave service has never been activated on OnHub, a product that is widely expected to be killed in any case. Nest spokesperson Ivy Choi tells CE Pro, “Google Home currently does not use 802.15.4. That said, both Thread and Weave are critical, core technologies for the home and Google and Nest products will leverage these technologies where it makes sense.”
Weave-enabled products are able to communicate locally and fastly with all Nest and other Weave devices – no home network required – just like Z-Wave, ZigBee and (some day) OCF.
While Nest is trying to get third-party developers to adopt Weave, there has only been one taker so far: Yale, with its Linus door lock.
Big Ass Fans was expected to adopt it for Haiku smart fans with SenseME technology, but hasn’t done so yet. Legrand had said last year that it would use Weave for its new Thread-enabled ELIoT smart-home platform, but the company instead went with Samsung’s Artik platform (aligned with the Open Connectivity Forum, or OCF).
Siri and Apple Home
Apple is even a bigger no-show than Google and Amazon at CES, not even meriting a mention in the CES exhibitor list. Still, Siri-enabled smart-home devices should be everywhere now that Apple has officially released iOS 10 and the Apple Home app for HomeKit-compatible devices.
Even before that release, dozens of HomeKit devices had hit the market over the past couple of years, just primed for voice control of a whole ecosystem of Apple-friendly products — gosh, like Philips Hue, Lutron Caseta, iHome/SDI plugs and 5-in-1 SmartMonitor, August Home smart locks, Hunter Fan SimpleConnect ceiling fans, Schlage door locks, iDevices thermostats and sockets , and so much more. DigitalTrends has a nice roundup, but I think we can safely assume that most respectable smart-home brands will have HomeKit-compatible stuff at some point.
For all the compatible products, though, Apple has one big disadvantage when it comes to voice control for the home: no real hands-free options.
Here's the deal:
The latest Apple TV serves up great entertainment services via voice, but you have to press-and-hold a button on the remote to speak to it. Alternatively, you can make voice commands via the dedicated Apple TV remote app for iOS. Here again, you have to press and hold the virtual mic button on your iPhone or iPad … from within the app.
Sorry, but Echo and Google Home have conditioned us to simply speak into the ether: “Alexa, turn the TV to CNN” (Logitech Harmony does a nice job of this). Who wants to scrounge around for a TV remote or mobile device to issue a voice command?
Smart-home commands, i.e., not Apple TV commands, are quite different. Theoretically, you could set your iPhone to awake upon your “Hey, Siri” command, even from a locked screen. You can then issue smart-home commands by voice, without opening an app or pressing buttons.
Of course, your iOS device must be nearby to hear you. There appears to be no real far-field communications option for Siri.
Confused? I certainly am, not being an owner of any IoS device ever. I believe the bottom line is: No handsfree for Apple TV voice control; klunky handsfree for Apple Home commands. Please correct me if I'm wrong.
In any case, Siri for the smart home will be big at CES 2017 and big in general. Bigger still after the show, when Apple may very well launch its own Echo-buster, this one with a camera and facial recognition.
Many thanks to the CE Pro community who helped this Android girl — or tried to, anyway — understand Siri, iOS and Apple TV. Any errors here are totally my own.