Speech Heats Up the Connected Homes Market

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Interacting with devices and appliances around the house via voice commands is quickly becoming a reality. Now the biggest companies in the consumer electronics market have not only noticed this trend, but are taking action as well.

As early as 2007, One Voice Technologies ushered in the smart home era with a PC-connected device that played music in response to voice commands. A few years later, Apple launched Siri, and the entire scope of speech-enabled devices changed.

"What Apple spawned with Siri has inspired a wide range of recognized brands...to add speech to their command-and-control options," says Dan Miller, founder and lead analyst at Opus Research. "Automated speech recognition works adequately, and the use of natural language understanding and machine learning means that thermostats, TVs, and other elements of the home entertainment/security complex will get better at recognizing each individual's intent."

Smart device projections from analysts are bullish: Research firm BI Intelligence projects shipments of smart-home devices will climb at an annual rate of 67 percent over the next five years, with 1.8 billion units shipping by 2019.

The market is expected to explode as companies such as Google, Microsoft, Honeywell, and even Amazon bring more smart devices to market.

Honeywell is often credited with bringing the smart home concept into the mainstream with its 2013 launch of the Wi-Fi Smart Thermostat with Voice Control. It is currently experimenting with technologies on its own and with partners.

Microsoft in August announced a partnership with about a dozen start-ups to develop connected home devices. Amazon introduced Echo, a speaker and Internet-connected device equipped with smart assistant technology.

Google, though, is the company that has made the most noise in this market of late, paying $3.2 billion to acquire Nest Labs last year. Nest, most known for its speech-enabled thermostats, also offers home appliances such as smoke and carbon monoxide alarms. At the Consumer Electronics Show in January, it announced partnerships with 15 appliance giants, including Whirlpool and LG, to incorporate its technologies into their products.

At the heart of the speech-enabled connected home lies natural language. Nest incorporates speech recognition, artificial intelligence, and natural language understanding from Interactive Voice (Ivee) to provide personal assistant capabilities. Technology from Ivee—best known for smart alarm clocks—is featured not only in Nest but also in connected home systems from Lowe's, Honeywell, GE, and other manufacturers.

In September, privately held Speaktoit launched api.ai, a natural language understanding (NLU) platform that allows developers to voice-enable apps and devices, including those for the smart home.

Ilya Gelfenbeyn, CEO of Speaktoit, explains that the NLU piece is perhaps the most significant. "A developer need only provide a few examples for the ways in which a user could interact with a connected device, and api.ai can add in synonyms and additional context information. The creation of these heuristics, or rules based on machine learning, further ensures the user request gets registered and fulfilled," he says.

Since the launch, Gelfenbeyn says smart home development has accounted for roughly 30 percent of api.ai's use. "The smart home's promise is big, and we think it should perform to expectations. Developers on api.ai agree, and we're seeing some interesting projects emerge," he says. "The interest in creating efficient, context-based language understanding is there for the connected home. We're seeing extensive interest from both connected home hub providers for embedding speech interfaces into the hubs, as well as for individual solution providers that are looking to build smartphone-based apps."

Wit.ai's speech recognition and natural language platform has also generated considerable buzz, culminating in its purchase by Facebook in early January for an undisclosed amount. So far, more than 5,500 developers have used Wit.ai to voice-enable many devices.

Growth of such capabilities "is not found in a centralized, managed, closed approach, but an open, distributed, community-based network of developers," wrote Alex Lebrun, cofounder and CEO of Wit.ai, in a recent blog post."Wit.ai already powers hundreds of apps, wearable devices, and home automation systems, but we have only scratched the surface of the problem. I doubt we'll ever see a single, monolithic solution provided by one company alone. Instead, a few start-ups will solve well-defined pieces of the problem. Natural language applications will be made up of these interlocking pieces."

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