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Are we going to expect more from distributed Wi-Fi setups?

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NETGEAR Orbi distributed WiFi system press image courtesy of NETGEAR

We could be expecting more from distributed-Wi-Fi devices of the NETGEAR Orbi ilk thanks to 802.11ax Wi-Fi and the Internet of Things

Distributed Wi-Fi: How a Pod in Every Room™ Enables Connected Smart Homes | Wi-Fi Now Blog

My Comments

The Wi-Fi Now consortium wrote up a blog article where we are to expect more from a distributed Wi-Fi installation especially in the context of Internet Of Things and the smart home.

One of the key drivers for this issue will be the 802.11ax standard for Wi-Fi wireless networks. This is intended to be the successor to the current 802.11ac but also is about high throughput and the ability for multiple devices to work at once from the same network. As well, it is expected to yield high-efficiency operation with an experience similar using an Ethernet network that uses a switch like when you have devices connected to your home network’s router via its Ethernet LAN ports.

According to the article, 802.11ax with its increased throughput is pitched as being suitable for newer broadband-service technologies like fibre-to-the-premises, DOCSIS 3.1 HFC cable-modem and 5G mobile broadband. In the context of the distributed Wi-Fi network, 802.11ax will be positioned for use as a wireless backhaul between the access-points and the edge router that links to the Internet.

But the article places an expectation on these access-point pods being installed in every room due to the increased number of Wi-Fi-based network-enabled devices connected to the home network. There is also an expectation that these access points will support Bluetooth and/or Zigbee as well as Wi-Fi thus becoming a localised network bridge for smart-home and Internet-Of-Things devices based on these wireless technologies. But I would place in the same scope Z-Wave, DECT-ULE and other similar “Internet Of Things” wireless technologies.

Previously this kind of functionality was offered through separate network bridges that interlinked a Bluetooth, Zigbee or similar-technology device to your home network via Wi-Fi or Ethernet.

Such equipment was typically offered as an accessory for a smart-home device like a smart lock by the device’s manufacturer and you weren’t sure if this piece of equipment would work with other smart-home devices implementing the same wireless-link technology. Or it was offered as a “smart home hub” which worked with devices using a particular wireless technology and supporting certain function classes. But these hubs offered various smart-home controller functions including remote management as long as you were using particular apps or services.

This new approach could allow for an increased number of IoT devices in each room “talking” with the access-point pods and this data moves along the backhaul to the “edge” router for that “smart-home-as-a-service” setup. The article also sees it as allowing for an IoT device, especially one that is battery-powered, not to be part of a large Zigbee, Z-Wave or Bluetooth mesh thus leading to increased device reliability. I would also see it become relevant with setups that use technologies like DECT-ULE which use a “hub and spoke” topology.

For this concept to work properly, the network-bridge devices that interlink Zigbee or similar IoT wireless technologies to an IP-based network have to work independent of particular smart-home controller software. Then the smart-home controller software has to be able to work with any IoT-based device no matter which of these network bridges they are talking to as long as they are on the same logical network. This situation would be of concern with portable user-interface devices like remote controls that are likely to be taken around the premises.

Although this article is Wi-Fi focused, I would still see the wired network being important. For example, some house designers and builders are even wiring the homes they design with Ethernet whether as standard or as an option while the home is being built or renovated. As well, there is powerline networking based on either HomePlug AV500 or AV2 standards. Here, these wired-network technologies are still viable as a backhaul connection alternative especially if you are dealing with building materials and techniques like double-brick or sandstone construction, or foil-lined insulation that can slow down Wi-Fi wireless communications.

But could these wireless-network access-point “pods” be simply a dedicated device installed in each room? It could be feasible for a device that offers other functionality that benefits from the network to be an access point or one of these “pods” in its own right. For example, a network-capable printer or a consumer-electronics device like a home-theatre receiver could connect to an existing network’s backhaul but also be an access point in its own right.  In this context, a Smart TV installed in a lounge area further down the end of the house could become an access point or smart-home “pod” to cover that end area.

The idea has been proven in the form of the Amazon Echo Plus smart speaker which has a built-in network-bridge function for Zigbee smart-home devices. This is alongside the ability for it to be a controller for these devices in context with the Amazon Alexa ecosystem.

What is being put forward with the Wi-Fi NOW “Pod In Every Room” concept is the idea of a single logical network with a high-speed wireless data backbone and access-point devices serving all wireless networking applications for both regular data transfer and smart-home/IoT applications. As long as the approach is driven by common open standards without dependence on particular technology owned by one vendor, then there is the ability for this approach to multi-function Wi-Fi networking to work properly.

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Wi-Fi introduces a new way to onboard new wireless-network devices

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Draytek Vigor 2860N VDSL2 business VPN-endpoint router press image courtesy of Draytek UK

A QR code and a configuration app could be the way to get your Wi-FI network going or add a device to that network

From the horse’s mouth

Wi-Fi Alliance

Wi-Fi Easy Connect (Product Page)

My Comments

The Wi-Fi Alliance has released as part of its WPA3 update for wireless-networks security the Wi-Fi Easy Connect protocol for onboarding new devices to a Wi-Fi network segment. It will work with extant WPA2 network segments as well as newer WPA3-compliant segments which offers the chance for existing Wi-FI devices to support this technology. That is alongside the ability for device manufacturers and software / operating-system developers to meld it in to their existing products using new code.

It is intended for onboarding devices that have a limited user interface including onboarding Internet-capable “white goods” and “backbone” devices like fridges or heating / cooling equipment to your Wi-Fi network. It is currently being seen as an alternative to the push-button-based WPS configuration process for devices that don’t have much in the way of a user interface. For Android smartphone users, much of this process will be similar to using a printed QR code to “onboard” your smartphone to an existing Wi-Fi wireless network.

What is it about?

QR Code used on a poster

QR codes like what’s used on this poster will be part of configuring your Wi-Fi wireless network

The main goal with the Wi-Fi EasyConnect standard is to permit a device with a rich user interface like a laptop, tablet or smartphone running suitable configuration software to pass configuration information to other devices that have a limited user interface. This can be facilitated with an independent configuration app or function that is part of the device’s operating system. Or it could be to allow configuration through the access point using its Web-based management user interface or a management app supplied by the access point’s manufacturer.

In all cases, the software that looks after the configuration aspect is described as a configurator. Access points or client devices that want to be part of the network are described as “enrollee” devices.

Android main interactive lock screen

Smartphones will become part of your Wi-Fi network’s setup or device-onboarding process

It can be feasible for one device to assume the role of a configurator or enrollee. An obvious example would be a computing device like a laptop, tablet or smartphone being able to come onboard an existing Wi-Fi network then you using that same computing device to bring another device like a network-capable fridge on board. Or you could bring a Smart TV or set-top box on-board to your Wi-Fi network using Wi-Fi Easy Connect but it then has the ability to be a “set-up point” for smartphones or tablets who want to join your Wi-FI network.

There are different ways of “associating” the enrollee device with the configurator device but it is primarily about making both devices know that they are trusted by each other.

The main method would be to use a QR code.that is on a sticker or card associated with the device or shown on the device’s display if this display is of the bitmapped graphical kind or can connect to a TV or monitor. Then the configuration device would scan this QR code if it is equipped with a camera.

Another option that is put forward is to use a text string written on a card or shown on a display and this would be used for configuration devices not equipped with a camera. This kind of situation may come in to its own if you are running a configuration program from a regular computer that isn’t equipped with a functioning Webcam.

.. as will laptops, Ultrabooks like this Dell XPS 13 and tablets

The Device Provisioning Protocol standard that is what the Wi-Fi EasyConnect feature is based on supports the use of NFC “touch-and-go” or Bluetooth Low Energy wireless link as another way to interlink a configuration device and an enrollee device during the setup phase. Both these technologies could work well with smartphone-centric applications, wireless speakers, connected building-management technology and the like. But these haven’t been placed as part of the certification testing that Wi-Fi Alliance has for the EasyConnect standard.

Once the initial information is exchanged between the devices, both devices will establish a separate secure Wi-Fi link with each other. Then the configuration software on one of the devices will use this link to pass through the parameters necessary to allow the enrollee device to connect with the extant Wi-Fi network. The whole configuration data-exchange is secured using asymmetrical public-key cryptography with the public key obtained during the initial setup process. Then that device hunts for, discovers and connects to the newly-programmed network.

There is the ability to use this same setup with an access point to set it up to work with an extant network or to create a new network. The latter situation would most likely be based around accepting a machine-generated ESSID and password or allowing the user to enter an ESSID and/or password. On the other hand, the previously-connected Wi-Fi networks list that an operating system maintains could be a data source for configuring a Wi-Fi device to a particular extant network using EasyConnect.

From the FAQs that I had read on the Wi-Fi Alliance Website, the Wi-Fi EasyConnect protocol allows for a single configuration program to configure multiple enrollee devices at once. Here, it is to facilitate situations where you are onboarding many IoT devices at once or are creating a new Wi-Fi network with new credentials.

But it doesn’t support the ability to onboard a single Wi-Fi client device to two Wi-Fi networks at once like your main network and a hotspot / guest network. Instead you have to repeat the Wi-Fi EasyConnect procedure including scanning the QR code for each network you want a device to associate with. This is so you can have greater control over what networks your devices are to associate with, but it can be of concern if you have a separate Wi-Fi network segment with distinct ESSID (network name) linking to the same logical network such as when dealing with a dual-band network with separate network names for each band.

What needs to be done

Personally, I would like to see Wi-Fi EasyConnect configuration functionality baked in to desktop and mobile operating systems including Apple’s operating systems rather than be separate programs. This avoids the need to find, download and install separate EasyConnect apps from your platform’s app store or loading a computer or smartphone with too many apps. But it could encourage other software developers to build improved Wi-Fi EasyConnect configuration apps that may, perhaps, suit particular user needs like asset control in the business-computing context.

I would also encourage the idea of maintaining WPS-PBC push-button pairing as an alternative method to Wi-Fi EasyConnect for onboarding Wi-Fi devices. This is more so for those devices that have a limited or no user interface and the goal is to quickly onboard a device without a rich user interface like a printer to a Wi-Fi router or access point.

Similarly, the use of NFC or Bluetooth as a legitimate certification option for onboarding Wi-Fi devices has to be encouraged and underscored through the life of this standard. Here, I would prefer that smartphones or tablets equipped with NFC and / or Bluetooth be tested to be compliant with the NFC and Bluetooth aspects of this standard.

There also has to be the ability with Wi-Fi EasyConnect to onboard a Wi-Fi network device with a limited user interface to an enterprise-grade Wi-Fi network that uses individual usernames and passwords. This is important for “Internet-Of-Things” devices that will increasingly be part of these networks.

Conclusion

Wi-Fi EasyConnect leads to another way of onboarding a Wi-Fi network device or access point using another device equipped with a rich user interface and can apply across all small-network setups.

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You can find out what Cortana has recorded

Article

Harman Invoke Cortana-driven smart speaker press picture courtesy of Harman International

You can also manage your interactions with the Harman-Kardon Invoke speaker here

How to delete your voice data collected by Microsoft when using Cortana on Windows 10 | Windows Central

My Comments

Previously, I posted an article about managing what Amazon Alexa has recorded when you use an Amazon Echo or similar Alexa-compatible device.

Now Microsoft has a similar option for Cortana when you use it with Windows 10. This is also important if you use the Harman-Kardon Invoke smart speaker, the Johnson Controls GLAS smart thermostat as long as they are bound to your Microsoft account.

Windows 10 Settings - Accounts - Manage My Microsoft Account

Manage your Microsoft Account (and Cortana) from Windows 10 Settings

In most instances such as your computer, Cortana may be activated by you clicking on an icon on the Taskbar or pressing a button on a suitably-equipped laptop, keyboard or other peripheral to have her ready to listen. But you may set her up to hear the “Hey Cortana” wake word to listen to you. This may be something that a Cortana-based smart device may require of you for expected functionality when you set it up.

This may be a chance where Cortana may cause problems with picking up unwanted interactions. But you can edit what Cortana has recorded through your interactions with her.

Here, you go in to Settings, then click on Accounts to open the Accounts screen. Click on Your Info to which will show some basic information about the Microsoft Account associated with your computer.

Privacy dashboard on your Microsoft Account management Website

Privacy dashboard on your Microsoft Account management Website

Click on “Manage My Microsoft Account” which will open a Web session in your default browser to manage your Microsoft Account. Or you could go directly to https://account.microsoft.com without needing to go via the Settings menu on your computer. The direct-access method can be important if you have to use another computer like a Mac or Linux box or don’t want to go via the Settings option on your Windows 10 computer.

Microsoft Account Privacy Dashboard - Cortana Interactions highlighted

Click here for your Cortana Voice interaction history

You will be prompted to sign in to your Microsoft Account using your Microsoft Account credentials. Click on the “Privacy” option to manage your privacy settings. Then click on the “Activity History” option and select “Voice” to view your voice interactions with Cortana. Here, you can replay each voice interaction to assess whether they should be deleted. You can delete each interaction one by one by clicking the “Delete” option for that interaction or clear them all by clicking the “Clear activity” option.

Details of your voice interactions with Cortana

Details of your voice interactions with Cortana

Your management of what Cortana has recorded takes place at the Microsoft servers in the same vein to what happens with Alexa. But there will be the disadvantage of Cortana not having access to the false starts in order to use her machine learning to understand your voice better.

These instructions would be useful if you are dealing with a Cortana-powered device that doesn’t use a “push-to-talk” or “microphone-mute” button where you can control when she listens to you.

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Sonos launches the first soundbar that works with multiple voice-driven home assistants

Articles

Sonos Beam soundbar connected to TV - press picture courtesy of Sonos

Sonos Beam under the TV

Sonos says its new Beam speaker will be able to talk to Siri, Alexa, and Assistant | FastCompany

A closer look at Sonos Beam: Smaller, smarter and more connected | Engadget

Sonos introduce cheaper, smarter Sonos Beam soundbar | PC World

From the horse’s mouth

Sonos

Sonos Beam (product page – direct purchase opportunity, press release)

My Comments

Sonos Beam soundbar (black finish) press picture courtesy of Sonos

Sonos Beam soundbar

Sonos has offered a smart speaker that not just is part of their own multi-room ecosystem but can work with multiple different voice assistants. Now they have taken this concept further by offering the Sonos Beam compact sound bar which can do this same trick.

They have taken this approach due to a reality with people operating two or more different voice-driven assistants. The classic reality would be someone who has an Amazon Echo at home but uses Siri in their iPhone or Google Assistant in their Android smartphone. But these assistants don’t complement each other effectively or even work with each other at all.

But this has been taken further with the Sonos Beam soundbar which is seen as a competitor to JBL’s Link Bar soundbar that has integrated Android TV set-top box functionality and can work with the Google Assistant. Initially it will come with Amazon Alexa but Siri and Google Assistant will be delivered as firmware updates through the year. A firmware upgrade will fully enable the Sonos Beam for Apple’s AirPlay 2 ecosystem which is Apple’s take on a full-blown multiroom setup centred around their products.

Sonos multiroom system press picture courtesy of Sonos

Works equally well with the rest of the Sonos multiroom system

For the sound, the Sonos Beam soundbar uses a digital-enhancement approach to draw out the bass from its compact cabinet. But you could team it with Sonos’s “Sub” subwoofer if you find that this may offer a better job at providing that extra bass. As well, thanks to the Sonos setup, you could team two of their standard speakers if you want to set up the full surround-sound experience.

The Sonos Beam “hears” you through an integrated far-field microphone array. But you can control whether it hears you or not by pressing a microphone-mute button on the speaker – this will have a “mic” icon located on it. The ability to control the microphone on this device reduces the risk of nuisance triggering which can easily happen when TV content is being played. Thanks to the HDMI-CEC standard facilitated by the HDMI-ARC connection, there is the ability to voice-control your TV in relation to sound volume (including muting the advertisements) or power status.

A limitation most of us will find with this soundbar is that it only has one HDMI connection for HDMI-ARC connectivity to the TV for its sound. This can be very constraining for those of us who use a TV that has very few HDMI connections and you use all these connections for various video peripherals.

But it is another effort by Sonos to prove that a smart-speaker device could support multiple voice-driven assistant platforms on the same device. Could this also be a reality with other equipment manufacturers soon? On the other hand, could this device become a virtual friend for that lonely person by providing better sound for daytime TV or being someone to talk to?

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You can find out what Alexa has recorded

Article

Amazon Echo on kitchen bench press photo courtesy of Amazon USA

You can find out what Amazon Alexa has recorded through your Echo device

How To Find Out What Your Alexa Is Recording | Lifehacker

My Comments

Recently, the computer press went in to overdrive about an Amazon Echo setup that unintentionally recorded and forwarded a family’s private conversation and forwarded it to someone in Seattle. Here, the big question that was asked was what was your Amazon Echo or similar smart speaker device recording without you knowing.

Amazon Echo, Google Home and similar voice-driven home-assistant platforms require a smart speaker that is part of the platform to hear for a “wake word” which is a keyword that wakes up these devices and has them listening. Then these devices capture and interpret what you say after that “wake word” in order to perform their function. One of the functions that these devices may perform is audio messaging where they could record a user’s message and pass that message on to another user on the same platform.

I had previously covered the issue of these voice-driven assistants being at risk of nuisance triggering including mentioning about the XBox game console supporting a voice assistant that triggered when an adman on a TV commercial called out a spot-special for the games console by saying “XBox On Sale” or “XBox On Special”.

Here, I recommended the use of a manual “call button” to make these devices ready to listen when you are ready or a “microphone mute” toggle to prevent your device being falsely triggered. As well, I recommended a visual indicator on the device that signals when it is listening. This is a practice mainly done with voice-assistant functionality that is part of a video peripheral’s feature set or software that runs on a platform computing device. Google’s Home smart speaker instead uses the microphone-mute button to allow you to control its microphone.

But you can check what Alexa has been recording from your Amazon Echo or other Alexa-compatible speaker device and delete private material that she shouldn’t have captured. This is also useful if you are troubleshooting one of these devices, identifying misunderstood instructions or are developing an Alexa Skill for the Alexa ecosystem.

  1. Here you launch the Amazon Alexa mobile-platform app on your smartphone. If you are using the Amazon Alexa Website (http://alexa.amazon.com) as previously mentioned on this site, there is a similar procedure to go about identifying your Amazon Echo sessions.
  2. Then you tap on the hamburger-shaped “advanced operation” icon on the top left of your screen.
  3. Tap on Settings to bring up a Settings menu for your setup. Go to the History option in the Alexa Account section of that menu.
  4. Here, you will see a list of interactions with any Alexa-ecosystem hardware or software front-end related to your Amazon account. These will be categorised by what has been understood and what hasn’t been understood. There is an option to filter the interaction list by date, which is handy if you have made heavy use of your Amazon Echo device through the months and years.

You can play each interaction to be sure of what your Alexa device or software has recorded. With these interactions, the current version of the interface only allows you to delete each unwanted interaction on by one. The effect of the deletion is that the interaction, including the voice recording, disappears from your account and the Amazon servers. But this could degrade your Amazon Alexa experience due to it not having much data to work on for its machine-learning abilities.

Here, at least with the Amazon Alexa ecosystem, you have some control over what has been recorded so you can remove potentially-private conversations from that ecosystem.

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Voice-driven assistants at risk of nuisance triggering

Article

Amazon Echo on kitchen bench press photo courtesy of Amazon USA

A problem that showed up with the Amazon Echo’s always-listen behaviour was nuisance triggering for the laughter command

Voice control is no laughing matter | Videonet

My Comments

An issue that has been raised recently is the risk of a voice-driven assistant like Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s Assistant or Microsoft’s Cortana being triggered inadvertently and becoming of nuisance value.

This was discovered with Amazon’s Echo devices where you could say “Alexa, laugh” and Alexa would laugh in response. But if this was said in conversation or through audio or video content you had playing in the background, this could come across very creepy. A similar situation was discovered in 2014 with Microsoft’s XBox when there was a voice-search functionality built in to in and you would wake it by saying “XBox on!”, This was aggravated if, for example, a TV commercial from a consumer electronics outlet was playing and the adman announced a special deal on one of these consoles by saying something like “XBox On Special” or “XBox On Saie” which contain this key phrase.

Similarly, we are starting to see “voice-driven search” become a part of consumer electronics and this could become of an annoyance whenever dialogue in a movie or TV show or an adman’s talking in a TV commercial could instigate a search routine during your TV viewing.

But there are some implementations of these voice assistants that don’t start automatically when they hear your “wake phrase” associated with them like “Alexa” or “Hi Siri”. In these cases, you would press a “call” button to make the device ready to listen to you. This typically happens with smartphones, tablets, computers or smart-TV remote controls.

On the other hand, some of the smart speakers like Google Home use a microphone-mute button which you would activate if there is a risk of nuisance triggering. In this mode, the device’s microphone isn’t active until you manually disable it.

Google Home uses a microphone-mute button to control the mic

Personally, I would still like to see some form of manual control offered as the norm for these devices, preferably in the form of a “call” button with a distinct tactile feel when pressed. Then you would see a different light glow or other visual cue when the device is ready to talk to. Here, the user has some form of control over when the device can listen to them thus assuring their privacy.

Here, the article underscored the role of speech as part of a user interface that integrated one of many different interaction types like touch or vision. This then provides different comfort zones that the user can benefit from when using the device and they then rely on what’s comfortable to them.

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British users can benefit from Google Home Voice Calling

Article

Google Home voice calling now works in the UK

Google brings voice calling to Home speakers in the UK | Engadget

My Comments

Last August, Google launched in to the USA and Canada a VoIP-based voice calling feature for their Home smart-speaker platform. This service allowed you to use your voice to call landline and mobile telephones in the USA and Canada and speak to these callers through your Home smart speaker. A limitation that it had was that it was only for outgoing calls and your caller couldn’t identify you through the Caller-ID framework.

It was an attempt by Google to answer Amazon’s “in-network” calling and messaging service that they were delivering to the Alexa platform. Subsequently Amazon answered Google by providing a similar service with an analogue telephony adaptor that connects to your phone line to provide the full gamut of phone functionality through your Echo speakers.

UK FlagNow Google have taken this feature and launched it in the UK so that people who live there have the ability to call landline and mobile numbers based in that territory. How I see this is Google being the first off the mark to offer a VoIP telephony service based around their voice-driven home assistant within the UK.

There, the idea of a household landline telephone is still being kept alive thanks to most of the popular telcos and ISPs running desirable multiple-play TV/telephony/Internet packages at very attractive prices, a similar practice being offered in some European countries especially France. As w

They are also launching this feature in time for Mother’s Day (Mothering Sunday) which is celebrated in March in the UK. Here, they are running a spot special on their coral-coloured Google Home Mini speaker by dropping the price by GBP£10 to GBP£39 until March 12. This is with it being available through most of the UK’s main electrical-store chains like Currys PC World or John Lewis.

The UK as being the first country beyond the USA and Canada to head towards a VoIP platform based around a voice-driven home assistant could be the first “stage” in a race between Google and Amazon to push this feature across the world.

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The first Cortana-driven smart appliance is a room thermostat

Articles

GLAS thermostat powered by Windows 10 IoT Core operating system launched | WinCentral

Microsoft’s Glas thermostat knocks Nest with Cortana and air quality monitoring | Digital Trends

From the horse’s mouth

Johnson Controls

GLAS room thermostat

Product Page

Spec Sheet (PDF)

Video – Click or tap to play

Microsoft

Video – Click or tap to play

My Comments

Google’s Nest smart thermostat is facing competition with a unit that is driven by Microsoft technologies. Here, the Johnson Controls GLAS smart thermostat, which works with most central heating and air-conditioning setups that implement standard 24-volt wiring setups, connects to your home network via Wi-Fi and is built on a Windows 10 IoT Core operating system and the Universal Windows Platform.

Here, this means that it works tightly with Bing as its external data source for air-quality and current-local-weather metrics. As well, it works as a Cortana terminal so you can control the heating using your voice, but have access to other information resources you would be able to have access to if you used Cortana from your Windows 10 computer. At the moment, judging from the various YouTube videos I have seen of this device in action, this user experience will be audio-only but future firmware updates could provide visual support for Cortana’s replies.

The GLAS room thermostat implements the usual scheduling abilities that the typical programmable room thermostat offers but allows for preemptive operating for when you arrive or wake up so your home is nice and comfortable for you. There is the ability to know what the indoor and outdoor air quality is to be like as well as letting the current weather forecast be used to affect the system’s setpoint (comfort level). It could provide the answer about whether it is important to take that Ventolin inhaler with you if you are suffering from asthma that is aggravated by pollen or similar allergens.

The user interface is based on a colour OLED touchscreen which is actually a piece of translucent glass so you can effectively see the wall behind the thermostat. This means you are engaging with a user experience similar to that of a smartphone or tablet. As well, it would please those of us who place emphasis on devices that complement our room aesthetics. Let’s not forget that you could manage it from a Web page or your iOS / Android smartphone through a native app.

At the time of publication, the expected retail price for the GLAS Smart Room Thermostat will be US$319 with it expected to be released to the US market in March. Here, it will be available through the Microsoft Store or through Johnson Controls Website and dealers.

But what do I see of this thermostat? I see the possibility of it being one of many “smart devices” that will become a control surface for your smart home. In an increasing number of cases, it could also be a point of interaction for a voice-driven home-assistant platform like Alexa, Cortana or Google Assistant with the integrated display earning its keep for visual-support functionality. This is where you could use this thermostat’s touchscreen or Cortana interaction to manage something like lighting or music, or “call up” information at a glance with the information appearing on that display.

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You can have Alexa print documents on your HP printer

Articles

Amazon Echo on kitchen bench press photo courtesy of Amazon USA

You can ask Amazon Alexa to print documents through your HP printer

HP Voice Printing Now Supports Alexa, Google Assistant & Cortana | Android Headlines

Alexa can now control your HP printer | Engadget

No, you don’t need a voice-controlled printer in your life | The Verge

From the horse’s mouth

HP Printing And PCs

Support Page (Amazon Alexa, Google Home, Microsoft Cortana)

Press Release

My Comments

You can now ask Amazon Alexa to print “download-to-print” resources or other material through your ePrint-capable HP network printer. This was a feature initially and quietly offered for Google Home and Microsoft Cortana but HP have given it a lot of space on Amazon’s voice-assistant platform due to it becoming the most popular of these platforms.

… as you could with Google Home

With all of these platforms, the printing function has to be added on as a Skill through the respective platform’s app store. As well, the printer must be able to support HP ePrint or Web Services printing, which enables printing of various printable resources from various content providers as well as supporting “email-to-print” where you can send a document to a machine-specific email address for it to be printed at that machine.

Infact I have given some space to the HP ePrint ecosystem through reviewing a number of HP printers that have this functionality as well as writing some articles on this subsystem such as implementing it in a public-printing concept.

HP Envy 120 designer all-in-one printer

… and your HP Envy 120 designer all-in-one inkjet printer could turn them out at your call

For this functionality to work with your printer, you have to supply its ePrint email address to the Skill as part of configuring it. Another limitation is that you can only bind one printer to that Skill which can be a limitation with multiple-printer households, especially where you may choose to run an HP Envy 100, Envy 120 or similar machine as a secondary machine kept in the kitchen.

Once this is set up, you could ask Alexa to print out something like an art-therapy colouring page or some ruled paper and your network-capable HP printer will turn these out.

What is still happening is that HP is still showing strong committment to the idea of the home or small-office printer being a highly-capable appliance rather than just a peripheral for a regular computer running a full-blown operating system. This means that the host device shouldn’t need to be dependent on a print driver to suit that particular machine. This committment was demonstrated through HP’s network-capable home printers and MFCs having UPnP Printing, then establishing the ePrint ecosystem with its email-to-print and print-from-the-control-panel functions, and now using your smart speaker to order documents to be printed.

What needs to happen is that other printer manufacturers show a strong committment towards home and small-business printers being able to work as a “printing appliance” rather than just as a computer peripheral.

This includes:

  • printing “download-to-print” resource collections hosted by content providers and other organisations or in storage locations on local, network or online storage locations using the printer’s control panel;
  • supporting voice-driven home assistant platforms and other control surfaces;
  • and running a polished “scan-to-email” and “enail-to-print” ecosystem.

Similarly, having other dedicated-purpose devices like Smart TVs, games consoles and the new crop of smart appliances being able to print to these devices without the need for particular software drivers.

Then it could see these devices become highly capable and as part of the smart-home ecosystem.

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Delivery-consignment storage to be part of the floorplan

House in Toorak

How is online delivery going to be handled securely when no-one’s at home?

Most of us who buy goods on the Internet are likely to run in to situations where they miss a parcel delivery due to, for example, no-one being at home. This includes situations with families that have teenagers that arrive home earlier than the parents and it is desirable that adults sign for packages that have been delivered.

This can also extend to situations where you need to have a courier collect goods from your place, something I have had to do every time I have finished with review-sample products where I return them to the distributor or PR agency. But it would also apply when you have to return unwanted merchandise to an online retailer or send faulty equipment to a workshop to be repaired, or simply to use a messenger service to run printed documents from your home office to a business partner. Here, you have to make sure someone you trust is at home looking after the consignment until the courier arrives to collect it.

Intercom panel with codepad

These systems may need to be modified to support secure unattended parcel delivery

There has been recent Internet discussion about the Amazon Key product which is a smart-lock ecosystem that allows Amazon couriers to drop off your orders inside your home after you confirm with them that they have your order. The constant issue that was raised was the fact that courier could wander around your home unsupervised after they drop off the order, thus being a threat to your privacy and home security.

But this may raise certain architectural requirements and possibilities to cater for the rise of online deliveries. These requirements and possibilities are about creating secure on-premises storage for these consignments that have been delivered or are to be collected by a courier while you are absent. It is also about making sure that the courier cannot enter your home unsupervised under the guise of dropping off or picking up a consignment.

They will affect how homes are designed whether as a new-build development or as a renovation effort and will affect how apartment blocks and similar developments are designed. It is very similar to the use of specially-installed lock-boxes to keep front-gate or meter-box keys that are only opened by the utility’s meter reader with a special master key when they read your utility-service meter.

Architectural requirements

One of these could be a cabinet or small storeroom located towards the front of your home and used primarily for storage of delivered goods. Of course, you may use these spaces to store items like clean-up tools or solid fuel. Some householders may see a garage or a shed also serve this same purpose.

An alternative would be to implement a small vestibule or porch enclosure with an inner front door and outer front door, Here, these spaces would be secured with a smart lock or access-control system that ties in with secure consignment-drop-off arrangements like what Amazon proposes.

In the case of a vestibule, the inner entry door that leads to the rest of the house would be secured under the control of the household and not be part of these arrangements. This also applies to arrangements where the vestibule opens to other rooms like a home office.

Apartment block in Elwood

Multi-dwelling units like apartment blocks may have to have luggage-locker storage facilities for unattended parcels

For multi-dwelling developments, this could be achieved through the use of a storage facility similar to a cluster of luggage lockers. Here, one or more lockers are shared amongst different apartments on an as-needed basis. In these buildings, they would be located close to or within the mail-room or as a separate storeroom. For those buildings that have multiple entry vestibules for different apartment clusters, it may be plausible to have a group of parcel-delivery lockers in each vestibule.

If your property has a front gate that is normally locked, you may have to use a smart lock or access-control system compliant with the abovementioned secure consignment drop-off arrangements on that gate.

Security requirements for these spaces

All these arrangements would be dependent on a smart lock or access-control system that ties in with the couriers’ or online-delivery platforms’ ecosystems and would be used when you aren’t at home. Such systems would be dependent on consignment numbers that are part of consignment notes or delivery dockets, along with the recipient being notified by the courier of the pending delivery.

But you would be able to have access to these spaces using your own code, card or access token held on your smartphone as expected for all smart-lock setups.

Integration with the courier’s workflow

Such setups would require the household to register them with an online-shopping platform or a courier / messenger platform operated by the incumbent post-office or an industry association. Here, the household would notify whereabouts the secure storage space is on their property

Product delivery

Typically, when you receive a delivery, the courier would ring the doorbell and find that no-one is at home. Or the door is answered by a child and the standing arrangement regarding the chain of custody for deliveries is for the parcel to be received and signed for by a responsible adult.

In this situation, the courier would have to enter details on their handheld terminal about no-one being home. You would then be contacted by email, text messaging or a similar platform regarding the pending delivery and then you use the platform’s companion mobile app or Website to authorise the drop-off of your consignment in the safe storage space.

Then the courier would receive a one-shot authority code which they use to unlock the storage space so they can lodge your parcel there. Once they have delivered the parcel, you would be notified that the parcel is waiting for collection. You would then use your keycode to open up that space to collect your goods when you arrive.

Product collection

There are also times where we require a courier to collect goods from us. This can be situations ranging from returned merchandise, through equipment being collected for repairs, to sending goods out as gifts. In these situations, a responsible adult may not be home to hand over the item and you don’t want to wait around at home or co-ordinate a pickup time for the consignment.

Here, you would organise the consignment paperwork with the courier or the recipient organisation if they are organising the pickup. As part of this, you would receive a consignment number as part of the consignment note, returned-merchandise authorisation or similar document.

Then you would place the goods in the storage space and make sure this is locked. Subsequently you would enter the consignment number in to the smart lock or platform app on your phone or computer. This consignment number works as a one-shot authority code for the courier to open the secure storage space.

When the courier arrives to collect the consignment, they would enter the consignment number in the smart lock to open the storage space in order to collect the goods. Once they have collected the goods, they then lock up the storage space before heading onwards with the consignment. You would then be notified that they have collected the consignment, with the ability to track that parcel as it is on its way.

Issues that need to be raised

Access to a competitive online-retail or parcel-delivery marketplace

It can be easy to bind an unattended-delivery secure-storage platform to an incumbent postal service (including a courier service owned by or a partner with one of these services), or a dominant online retailer like Amazon.

This ends up as a way for the incumbent postal service or dominant online retailer to effectively “own” the online-retail or parcel-delivery marketplace by providing more infrastructure exclusive to their platform. It can also expose antitrust / competitive-access issues where other courier firms or online retailers can’t gain access to self-service unattended-delivery arrangements.

This issue can be answered either through an app-based approach that works with the smart-home / Internet-of-Things ecosystem to interlink with IT systems associated with the goods-delivery industry; or a common platform adopted by the courier / messenger and online-retail industry that integrates unattended-delivery storage as part of the workflow.

Similarly, these systems need to have a level of flexibility such as being able to work with multiple smart locks on the one property. This would be to facilitate a locked gate and / or two or more storage spaces such as a trunk-style cabinet for small items and a larger storeroom for larger consignments; or to provide a private storage space for each dwelling on that property such as a house converted to apartments.

Conclusion

The online retail marketplace has brought about a discussion regarding management and secure storage of consignments that are delivered to unattended addresses.

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