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Tech Trends for 2017: Digital home assistant

With leading tech firms competing to create the most intelligent software, 2017 will see mechanical personal assistants in homes up and down the country…

In our Tech Trends for 2015 feature we explored the launch of Alexa – Amazon’s answer to Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana.

Now, the rivalry between tech giants is intensifying as more combine their personal assistant software with speaker-style hardware to create digital home assistants: hands-free, voice-controlled devices that can answer your questions, order you a taxi, play music and control the lights in your home.

Until recently Amazon has been leading the market with the Alexa-powered Amazon Echo, released widely in the US last year and in the UK two months ago. Shifting into position as Amazon’s primary competitor, Google released the Google Now-powered Google Home in the US in November this year.

The two devices have been continuously compared: Home has been criticised for being unable to carry out the full range of tasks that Echo can, but praised for defaulting to a Google web search where Echo defaults to Bing.

With Amazon and Google in the fray, reports that Apple has a Siri-powered device in development come as no surprise. Rumour has it that the device will have a camera with built-in facial recognition software that not only gets to know who lives in your house, but can also detect the emotional state of each person.

Taking this several steps further is Emotech, the London-based start-up behind the four-time CES Innovation Award-winning Olly. A personal assistant bot that comes closer to human behaviour than any other, Olly uses artificial intelligence (AI) and deep mechanical learning to develop an emotive communication style that complements its user’s personality.

In combining this with the ability to learn its user’s routine, Emotech is building a proactive robot that can talk in familiar colloquialisms, suggest things to do in your free time, and possibly shout at you if you don’t get up for work in the morning.

With an estimated five million Echos installed across the US – and a 300% increase in sales figures towards the end of 2015 – the commercial success of existing devices could suggest mounting demand for smart homes: households in which all devices and appliances are connected through the Internet of Things (IoT) and can be controlled using one focal hub.

Apple’s upcoming speaker is expected to capitalise on this. Reportedly, it will utilise Apple HomeKit – a single ecosystem to which enabled appliances can be connected – to allow users to control their HomeKit appliances by voice.

Meanwhile, other companies are looking to create devices that influence the home environment in different ways. ASWY are crowdfunding their smart speaker Spaco, a voice-controlled device boasting ‘cinema-grade' audio with a 720 degree acoustic field, enhanced by futuristic levitating speakers and voice-controlled mood lighting.

How it works

The virtual assistant software that acts as the ‘brain’ of each device typically combines voice recognition and application programming interfaces (APIs).

In Echo and Google Home, tasks are carried out through apps. For example, by syncing apps to Echo – or, in Amazon’s language, teaching Alexa ‘skills’ – users can ask Alexa to order a takeaway through Just Eat, play music through Spotify, or turn up the heating through Hive.

The devices' microphones are constantly on, which means all users need to do to use Echo is say “Alexa” and it will come to life. This ‘wake word’ function is common, and whether the phrase is “Alexa”, “okay Google”, “hey Olly”, “Spaco” or something yet unrevealed, it enables users to access their device’s services easily and from a distance.

However, the always-listening microphones have caused privacy concerns among consumers, many of whom are unsettled by the idea of Alexa listening to their daily lives, recording all interactions with the device and automatically uploading them to the cloud for Amazon to use as data.

Despite these concerns, interest in smart home assistants is only growing and, though the industry is young, new innovations are already shaking it up.

Chelsea Chen, co-founder at Emotech, believes AI with personality is key to the future of home assistants:

“This past year, AI has made it to the front and centre of the connected home with Amazon’s Echo selling over five million units. We’re getting a vision of the future of the connected home with one central hub being your point of contact. Compared to any other existing devices on the market, Olly is more proactive, instead of waiting for command.We believe without a personality, and without emotion, those daily interactions will become functional and will ultimately reach a limit in usefulness. Emotech’s vision is to change the relationship between human being and technologies. Our launch of Olly in early 2017 is just the first wave of what we anticipate to be a personality overhaul for the smart home.

“2017 will kick off for Emotech in Vegas as we attend CES. […] Once we get our feet back on the ground after the show we’ll be running full pace towards our formal launch.”


(will not be published)