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Connected novelties and toys–security and useability issues that affect this product class

Giftware chook (rooster)

Connected versions of classic novelties and giftware will be subject to severe scrutiny

An issue that is rearing its ugly head is the rise in availability of connected novelties and toys. They are toys, novelties, giftware, seasonal decorations and other items that are able to connect with your computer or network. This connectivity function is often sold as one of the key marketing features with it able to work with an online service of some sort.

When I talk of toys, I don’t just talk of what children play with with but also other toys that adults end up playing with. These can include the so-called “executive toys” that live on the office desk for one to keep the other hand busy while they are on the phone.

Who typically sells these products

Toys and novelties are typically sold through a large range of online and bricks-and-mortar retailers, whether they be toy stores, gift stores, souvenir outlets or multi-facet outlets including department and discount stores. In some cases such as rural areas, a store like a newsagent’s could even sell novelties or toys.

Another factor is that novelties are given away to people and businesses as a gift or premium. This can typically happen as part of a “loot bag” offered out at conferences or tradeshows or simply used as a giveaway during a presentation to encourage audience participation.

Christmas wreath

Seasonal decorations that connect to the Internet can also be a security or setup risk

The common factor here is that most of the outlets that sell this kind of product are staffed by people who don’t have much technological know-how. This can affect the procurement process affecting whether the item exhibited at the gift fair should be stocked, or providing customer advice during and after the sale including how to get the connected novelty fully operational.

Artisans who make these gifts and novelties

Amazon Echo on kitchen bench press photo courtesy of Amazon USA

Your Amazon Echo will soon be expected to work with a wide range of toys and novelties

There is also the fact that craftspeople like to make various toys, novelties, gifts and other items and sell them directly to customers or on a wholesale basis. But they do want to add some extra functionality like musicality or flashing lights to some of their product lines.

Typically, if they want this extra functionality in these gifts that they make, they have someone else make and supply the necessary components like clockwork movements or electronic-circuit kits to fulfil the extra functionality in a pre-assembled form.  Then the artisan installs the pre-assembled mechanisms or circuits in the toy or gift as part of putting the whole thing together.

It allowed these artisans to focus on their craftwork and build the items they want to sell, while being able to offer a wide range of goods. The same comments that apply to finished goods also apply to the various components and kits that are being sold to these artisans for their projects.

In this case, the artisans have to be aware of what they procure when they are being sold a “connected functionality” kit for installation in their projects. For them, they have to be aware of customer-support issues including setup and data-security issues regarding this extra functionality.

Connected modules for construction sets and similar hobbies

The same concept also extends to construction-set platforms like Meccano, Lego and FischerTechnik where children and adults build items using the pieces that are part of the respective platforms. In this case, anyone to do with these platforms could offer connected modules or kits that have the ability to control one or more items in their platform-based project like a motor, light or solenoid using an “Internet Of Things” approach. Here, these modules have to be able to seen as equivalent to a connected toy or novelty, especially if the idea is to implement cameras, microphones or GPS sensors.

It also applies to model railways, track-based car-racing sets and the like where they can be extended with functionality modules sold by the set’s vendor or a third party catering to these hobbies. Again the modules also need to be designed for security if they are capable of being part of the Internet of Things.

Use of these items

There is the desire for people to buy these toys and novelties as gifts for others in their life. It also includes the fact that the recipient wants to get the item “up and running” as soon as possible.

This will involve having the device connected to a host device through Bluetooth or USB or to a home network for proper reliable use. It should be about a standard process that is implemented for onboarding including the installation of any extra software.

Key security issues

A key security issue concerning the connected toy, novelty or similar device is that it can be an espionage item presented in an innocuous form. It can concern us both at home and in the office because we can easily be talking about items that are confidential and sensitive in our personal and business lives.

This was highlighted in a crime-fiction form to the Germanic viewership in Europe through the Munich-based Tatort “Wir Kriegen Euch Alle” (We Get You All) episode shown there on Sunday 9 December 2018. This story was focused around a connected doll that was given by strangers to various childrens’ families in middle-class Munich and was used as a surveillance tool to facilitate crimes against the families.

It underscored that Germany has some very strict policies where the sale of surveillance devices that are disguised as innocuous items isn’t allowed in that country. But, in the story, these dolls were imported in to Munich from a location in Austria which is a short drive away and facilitated by the Schengen Agreement in the European Union.

Let’s not forget the recent cyberattacks such as the Mirai botnet that were facilitated by dedicated-purpose devices like network-infrastructure equipment and videosurveillance cameras which were running compromised software. Then there are factors regarding data-storage devices and “bag-stuffer” novelties given away during business conferences where there is the possibility of them being loaded with questionable software.

What would I like to see

Security

There has to be identification on the toy’s or novelty’s packaging about what kind of sensors like location sensors, microphones or cameras that the device has, as well as whether the device transmits data to online services. This includes whether the device does this directly or via intermediary software running on other computer devices such as mobile devices running companion mobile-platform apps. Even a hang tag attached ti the novelty could highlight what kind of sensors or online services it uses which would be important for those items sold without packaging.

Preferably, this can be achieved through standard graphical symbols indicating the presence of particular sensors or the use of online services and social networks. It can also identify whether the toy’s or novelty’s functionality are dependent on these sensors or online services.

App stores and other software platforms that host “connector” software have to implement stringent permissions for these kind of devices especially if they use a microphone, camera or location sensor. There could be standards on whether the software is allowed to record from these sensors over a long time or keep the recording persistent on the host device or online service.

A limitation I would also like to see for connected toys and novelties that if they work with another computing device including a smart speaker, the connection can only be effectively within the same premises. This can be tested through the use of a peripheral-grade connection like Bluetooth or USB to a computing device or limiting the range of discovery for network-based devices to that of the same logical private network or subnet. Here, it represents all the devices on the LAN side of a home-network’s router and excludes devices existing on other logical networks served by the same physical device like “guest” or “community” networks.

As far as Bluetooth is concerned, the toys should implement authentication processes during the setup phases. Then the device ceases to be able to be discovered once it is paired with a host device. It is like what we are seeing with Bluetooth headsets and similar devices that have been recently released. They may also have to work on a limited radio range to prevent successful connection from a distance.

There should also be a simple “factory-reset” process to allow the user to place the toy or novelty in to setup mode, effectively wiping data from the device. This allows a recipient to effectively “claim possession” of the device as if it is new, avoiding the situation where they may be given something that is compromised to do what someone else wants it to do. It also applies to situations where you are dealing with ex-demo stock or gift-fair samples.

This should also apply to online services associated with these toys or novelties where the user has proper account control for the device’s presence on that service and any data collected by that device.

There are devices that observe particular functions according to a particular device class supported by many platforms like a novelty nightlight or illuminated Nativity scene that works with a “smart-home” setup or a novelty Bluetooth speaker. These devices have to work according to the standards in force for that device class and its connection to the host device or network. It is more important where the device may perform further tricks while running alongside dedicated vendor-created software but is able to have basic functionality without this software.

A software-level security approach could be achieved through an open-source or peer-reviewed baseline software that ticks the necessary boxes. This would apply to the firmware installed in the device and any apps or other companion software that is required to be run on other computing devices for the novelty to operate. It also includes a requirement that this software be reviewed regularly for any bugs or weaknesses that could be exploited, along with compliance requirements.

This could be assessed according to a set of European norms because the continental-European countries are very concerned regarding privacy thanks to their prior history.

As far as modules for integration in to toys, novelties and giftware is concerned, the modules should meet the same requirements as finished products that would have the same functionality. Craftspeople should also be aware of data security and user privacy issues when it comes to choosing modules for their projects that are dependent on computer devices or networks.

Setup and Connectivity

Another area that is a sore point for connected toys and novelties is bringing these devices on board for you to use. In a lot of cases, this is exacerbated through awkwardly-written instructions that can test one’s patience and not much knowledge about what is needed for the device to work fully.

The device packaging could use Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or other standard logos to indicate what kind of connectivity it needs to operate fully. This is to be highlighted with the “app store” logos for various operating-system app stores if the device is dependent on companion apps for full functionality. Similarly, use of other official platform logos can be used to identify compatibility with platforms like smart-TVs or voice-driven home-assistants.

Simple-yet-secure setup and onboarding procedures are to be paramount in the design of these devices. For Bluetooth-based devices, they should use “simple-pairing” such as pressing a button on the device to make them discoverable. This is even made easier with a trend towards “out-of-the-box” discoverability if the device isn’t paired with any host. Then the user activates their host device in “Bluetooth Scan” mode to discover the device,  subsequently with them selecting the device through its presentation name.

Windows, Android and iOS are even implementing simplified device-discovery routines for Bluetooth devices, with the ability to lead users to visit the app store to install complementary software. This will make things easier for users to get the toy or novelty up and running.

Wi-Fi-based devices would have to use WPS-PBC push-button setup, Wi-Fi Easy Connect, or other simplified setup processes for integration with the home network. It also applies to other network connection standards where you have to enrol the device on to that network.

Smart-home devices that implement Zigbee, Z-Wave and similar standards also have to implement simplified discovery protocols implemented in these standards to bring them on-board.

In relationship to security, I underscored the need for use of device-class standards as much as possible. But it also applies to connectivity and useability where a device that honours device-class standards is also easier to use because you are operating it the same for its peers.

Conclusion

This year will become a time where security and useability will be of critical importance when toys, novelties and other similar goods that connect to the home network and the Internet are designed and sold to consumers. Here, these issues may avoid these kind of toys ending up in disuse due to security or setup issues.

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Staff panic buttons to drive networks to handle the Internet of Things

Article

Ekahau Wi-Fi Pager Tag panic button

Emergency-alert buttons like this Ekahau Wi-Fi name-tag panic-button setup will be influencing network architecture for the Internet Of Things

The Hotel Panic Button Could Redefine Hospitality Networking | IoT World Today

My Comments

In some workplaces where staff work alone at night or other times where they are in danger, portable emergency-call buttons are often used. Initially they were the same size as an older garage-door opener but they are becoming the size of a pendant, badge or fob. As well, rather than these devices lighting up a separate alert panel, they light up a message or “throw up” a map with an indicator on a regular computer running building-security software to show where the danger is.

Initially, they were being positioned for very-high-risk workplaces like psychiatric care or the justice and allied settings. But other workplaces where staff work alone are seeing these devices as an important safety measure, usually due to various occupational health-and-safety requirements.

For example, hotels in the USA are moving towards having Housekeeping staff use these devices in response to workplace agreements, industry safe-work safe-premises initiatives or city-based legal requirements. But these systems are being required to work in conjunction with the Wi-Fi networks used by staff and guests for business and personal data transfer.

A device of the kind that I had covered previously on HomeNetworking01.info was the Ekahau Real Time Location System. This was a pendant-style “panic-button” device, known as the T301BD Pager Tag which had an integrated display and call button. It also had a setup that if the tag was pulled at the nexkstrap, it would initiate an emergency response.  I also wrote an article about these Ekahau devices being deployed in a psychiatric hospital as a staff emergency-alert setup in order to describe Wi-Fi serving a security/safety use case with the home network.

This application is being seen as a driver for other “Internet-of-Things” and smart-building technologies in this usage case, such as online access-control systems, energy management or custom experiences for guests. As I have said before when talking about what the smart lock will offer, the hotel may be seen as a place where most of us may deal with or experience one or more of the smart-building technologies. Also I see these places existing as a proving ground for these technologies in front of many householders or small-business owners who will be managing their own IT setups.

One of the issues being drummed up in this article is quality-of-service for the Internet Of Things whereupon the device must be able to send a signal from anywhere on the premises with receiving endpoints receiving this signal with no delay. It will become an issue as the packet-driven technologies like the Internet replace traditional circuit-based technologies like telephone or 2-way radio for signalling or machine-to-machine communication.

The hotel application is based around the use of multiple access points, typically to provide consistent Wi-Fi service for staff and guests. Such a setup is about making sure that staff and guests aren’t out of range of the property’s Wi-Fi network and the same quality of service for all network and Internet use cases is consistent throughout the building. Here, concepts like mesh-driven Wi-Fi, adaptive-antenna approaches, load-balancing and smart smooth roaming are effectively rolled in to the design of these networks.

Wi-Fi access points in the smart-building network will also be expected to serve as bridges between IP-based networks and non-IP “Internet-of-Things” networks like Bluetooth Low Energy (Bluetooth Smart), Zigbee, Z-Wave or DECT-ULE. These latter networks are pushed towards this application class due to the fact that they are designed to support very long battery runtimes on commodity batteries like AA Duracells or coin-style watch batteries. There will be an emphasis on localised bridging and the IP-network-as-backbone to provide better localisation and efficient operation.

These systems are being driven towards single-screen property-specific dashboards where you can see the information regarding the premises “at a glance”. I would reckon that operating-system-native applications and, perhaps, Progressive Web App versions will also be required to use operating-system-specific features like notification-panels to improve their utility factor in this context.

As far as the home network is concerned, I do see most of these technological concepts being rolled out to the smart home with an expectation to provide a similar service for householders and small businesses. This is more important as ISPs in competitive markets see the “Internet of Things” and improved Wi-Fi as a product differentiator.

The use of multiple Wi-Fi access points to cover an average home being made real for a home network thanks to HomePlug wireless access points, Wi-Fi range extenders and distributed-Wi-Fi systems that will bring this kind of localised Wi-Fi to the smart home. Typically this is to rectify Wi-Fi coverage shortcomings that crop up in particular architecture scenarios like multi-storey / split-level premises and use of building materials and furniture that limit RF throughput. It is also brought about thanks to the use of higher-frequency wavebands like 5GHz as Wi-Fi network wavebands.

There will be an industry expectation to require access points and similar devices to provide this kind of “open-bridging” for Internet-of-Things networks. This is more so where battery-operated sensor or controller devices like thermostatic radiator valves and smart locks will rely on “low-power” approaches including the use of Zigbee, Z-Wave or similar network technology.

It will also be driven typically by carrier-supplied routers that have home-automation controller functionality which would work with the carrier’s or ISP’s home-automation and security services.

To the same extent, it may require “smart-home / building-automation” networks to support the use of IP-based transports like Wi-Fi, HomePlug and Ethernet as an alternative backhaul in addition to their meshing or similar approaches these technologies offer to extend their coverage.

In some cases, it may be about Zigbee / Z-Wave setups with very few devices located at each end of the house or with devices that can’t always be “in the mesh” for these systems due to them entering a “sleep mode” due to inactivity, or there could be the usual RF difficulties that can plague Wi-Fi networks affecting these technologies.

DECT-ULE, based on the DECT cordless-phone technology and is being championed by some European technology names, doesn’t support meshing at all and IP-based bridging and backhauls could work as a way to extend its coverage.

Such situation may be rectified by access points that use a wired backbone like Ethernet or HomePlug powerline.

In the context of the staff panic button use-case, it will roll out to the home network as part of a variety of applications. The common application that will come about will be to allow the elderly, disabled people, convalescents and the like who need continual medical care to live at home independently or with support from people assuming a carer role.

This will be driven by the “ageing at home” principle and similar agendas that are being driven by the fact that people born during the post-war baby boom are becoming older as well as the rise of increased personal lifespans.

Similarly, this application may also be underscored as a security measure for those of us who are concerned about our loved ones being home alone in a high-risk environment. This is more so in neighbourhoods where the risk of a violent crime being committed is very strong.

But I would see this concept work beyond these use cases. For example, a UK / European central-heating system that is set up with each radiator equipped with a “smart” thermostatic radiator valve that is tied in with the smart-home system. Or the use of many different control surfaces to manage lighting, comfort and home-entertainment through the connected home. This is something that will rise up as most of us take on the concept of the smart home as the technology standardises and becomes more affordable.

What is being highlighted is the requirement for high quality-of-service when it comes to sending “Internet-of-Things” signalling or control data as our networks become more congested with more gadgets. Similarly, it is about being able to use IP-based network technology as a backhaul for non-IP network data that is part of the Internet-of-Things but providing the right kind of routing to assure proper coverage and quality-of-service.

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Orange to launch their own smart speaker platform in Europe

Article

Freebox Delta press photo courtesy of Iliad (Free.fr)

Freebox Delta as an example of a European voice-driven home assistant

Orange adds smart speaker to control TV | Advanced Television

My Comments

Some European companies are working on their own voice-driven assistant platforms. At the moment, Movistar and Free have platforms that are part of their triple-play set-top-box services while the BMW Group are working towards one for the automotive context.

But Orange who have a foothold in France and Spain as far as multiple-play telecoms services are concerned are intending to release a voice-driven smart speaker known as Djingo. It is an alliance between themselves and Deutsche Telekom but will integrate Amazon Alexa technology. The French will benefit from Djingo in the European Spring of 2019 while the Spanish will benefit later in the year.

On this site, I have called out for the European tech firms to work towards one or more highly-capable voice-driven assistant platform that can effectively compete with Alexa, Cortana, Google Assistant and Siri.

It is also about having the European voice-driven assistant platforms work towards European values such as a competitive market, end-user privacy and service transparency, including having the data kept on European soil.

But the problem with Orange’s and Free’s deployment is that they are implementing Amazon’s technology rather than creating their own technology. This may be to avoid the so-called “Video 2000” problem where Philips and Grundig developed a highly-capable videocassette platform. But this platform, only adopted by some European names, didn’t succeed due to the popularity of the affordable VHS platform. In this case, most of the videocassette recorders based on the Video 2000 platform were sold in to the European markets and most of that platform’s marketing was focused within Europe.

This is compared to a large number of commercial passenger airlines maintaining the European-built Airbus aircraft in their fleet alongside American-built Boeing aircraft.

If a European voice-driven assistant platform is to succeed, it has to be offered around the work as a viable competitor to what Silicon Valley offers but with the values Europeans cherish. This is because there are consumers, service providers and enterprises who also underscore these values and want to benefit from AI-driven voice assistant software.

As I have said before, the European Commission could encourage the development of European-based IT that honours the European values and market it around the world. This is rather than always engaging in court battles and antitrust investigations to deal with Silicon Valley’s market dominance.

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Big Mouth Billy Bass to become the start of Alexa-driven novelties

Article

Amazon Echo on kitchen bench press photo courtesy of Amazon USA

Your Amazon Echo will soon be expected to work with a wide range of toys and novelties

The latest Big Mouth Billy Bass is made to be a rockstar with built-in Alexa support | Windows Central

From the horse’s mouth

Amazon

Big Mouth Billy Bass – Compatible With Alexa (Product Page)

Alexa Gadgets Toolkit page

My Comments

Amazon had just polished their Gadgets Toolkit which is an application programming interface for interlinking devices of various kinds with the Alexa voice-driven home assistant platform. This has opened up a path for doing things like interlinking novelties that can show off when you ask Alexa for them to do so.

The first of these is the latest take on the Big Mouth Billy Bass phenomenon of the late 90s and early 2000s.

This novelty is a toy fish that is mounted on a board and starts singing songs like “Don’t Worry Be Happy” or “Take Me To The River” at the touch of a button. This is with the fish’s face swinging around to face the audience and its mouth moving in sync to the lyrics. It brought about other singing-and-dancing novelties that performed to pre-recorded songs in a funny manner.

But this latest iteration of the Big Mouth Billy Bass fish interlinks with any Amazon Echo device via Bluetooth and acts as a speaker for that Echo device. It is programmed to move the mouth in response to speech that comes through the Echo device, be it Alexa, a singer or a podcast author. The fact that it is designed to work tightly with the Alexa ecosystem will mean that if Amazon issues updates, this peripheral will gain these updates.

It will become the first of many toys and novelties that work in conjunction with the Alexa ecosystem. This includes short-form electronics modules that will be pitched to artisans who make giftware such as cuckoo clocks or Christmas decorations for them to include in their projects. Let’s not forget that Google, Apple and others will look towards extending their “smart-home” or similar platforms to work with this class of device.

An issue that will be raised regarding this product class is the fact that connected novelties and toys are being designed with very little thought for household privacy and data security. Infact a lot of IT security experts even suggest that people don’t use or give these devices at all. But this device is designed to work as if it is a peripheral for an Amazon Echo device and only connects to it via Bluetooth.

There will still be issues regarding the design of connected novelties and toys including data security and ease of connectivity. This is more so if they are to be sold through the toy and giftware retail sector where most staff are not likely to have a clue regarding the technicalities associated with these devices.

One way is that if the gadgets are to work alongside a voice-driven home assistant platform or regular computer / mobile operating system, they have to work using a “gadget API” associated with that platform or operating system and developed by the platform’s or operating-system’s developer. This is without the need to write a hefty app to gain the most out of the device. The use of APIs rather than a custom app or skill can also limit the kind of data that is collected via the novelty or toy and provide the end-user with greater control over what the device does.

As well, the “gadget API” has to also support a simple but secure setup process including permissions for various activities like use of microphones, cameras or speakers. This may be a similar process to installing or using an app on your smartphone or mobile-platform tablet where the operating system will ask whether to use the camera, microphone or sensors.  Other issues that will also come about include a “secure by design” approach for the gadget’s firmware including regular update cycles to rectify software vulnerabilities.

Let’s not forget that the “gadget APIs” would also need to support the use of the connected device as a “master clock” if the gadget is to display or react to the current time or date. This is to avoid the need to reset the clock on these devices whenever Daylight Saving Time starts or ends or worry about that clock losing time.

What I see coming about is a relentless push to offer toys, novelties and giftware that are intended to work with the home network and the Internet. But there needs to be a secure simple approach to how these gadgets are designed.

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Amazon Alexa is a native app for Windows 10 PC

Article

Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 Intel 8th Generation CPU at QT Melbourne hotel

You can use Amazon Alexa on any Windows 10 computer thanks to a generally-available Microsoft Store app

Control Alexa from your Windows 10 PC | CNet

My Comments

Amazon are releasing a Windows 10 native app that serves as a gateway to their Alexa voice-driven home-assistant ecosystem. Initially this was a very limited release that was preinstalled on certain computer ranges like Lenovo’s Yoga laptop range, but they are making it generally available through the Microsoft Store in the USA. This means you could install it on any Windows 10 desktop, laptop or 2-in-1 rather than having to buy one of the certain computers that come with this function if you want to speak to Alexa through that computer.

It will be targeted for any regular computer that is running Windows 10 as long as it has a microphone and the usual keyboard. There will be the ability to invoke Alexa through a keyboard shortcut or to click / tap the Alexa button within the app. The “Wake On Voice” functionality where you can speak the “Alexa” keyword to invoke Alexa will be available on some supported computers.

At the moment, the Amazon Alexa native app for Windows 10 doesn’t provide the kind of management that its iOS or Android mobile-platform brethren provide. This means that you will have to use the Alexa management Web page to manage the Skills available to your Echo devices or the smart-home ecosystem that they are part of.

Amazon Echo on kitchen bench press photo courtesy of Amazon USA

This will make your Windows laptop work a bit like the Amazon Echo

The other question that may be raised by Amazon as part of developing the Alexa app further is whether the Alexa app will provide a visual interface of the “Echo Show” kind for those skills that have visual abilities. It may be seen as a further direction for third-party Alexa-platform devices to answer the Google Assistant (Home) platform.

I would expect that these features will come through in newer versions of this app. Similarly I would expect that this app would be rolled out in to all of the markets that Amazon has established the Alexa / Echo ecosystem in to over time.

The Alexa app is part of a strong effort by the two Seattle-based IT giants to provide a strong partnership between their efforts i.e. the Windows desktop operating system for Microsoft and the Alexa voice-assistant / smart-home ecosystem for Amazon.

This effort was initially represented through the availability of “pathway” skills between Microsoft’s Cortana and Amazon’s Alexa assistants. It is with the ability also to provide the necessary abilities to users to interlink their user accounts on each of these services for transparent operation.

It could be seen to be about Microsoft dumping the Cortana assistant’s home-automation roles. Or it could be about Amazon and Microsoft to fuse together their voice-driven assistants in a manner to build a highly-strung Seattle-based voice-driven assistant platform to take on what is being offered by Silicon Valley.

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Third-party Google Assistant smart displays start benefiting from Google Home Hub features

Article

Lenovo Smart Display now to be the same level as the Google Home Hub

Lenovo to Send Out Update to Smart Displays That Has All the Google Home Hub Goodies | Droid Life

Lenovo updates Smart Display with Google Home Hub features | Engadget

From the horse’s mouth

Lenovo

New features coming to Smart Display (Oct 22nd) {Forum Post – Press Release)

My Comments

Google recently launched their Home Hub smart display which is a “first-party” effort to offer more that what their Google-Assistant-based third-party smart displays offer.

This included multiroom audio functionality with Google’s Chromecast, Home smart speakers and other similar devices; Live Album display for the Google Photos application; tight integration with the Nest Hello smart doorbell; a dashboard user interface for your compatible Internet-of-Things devices on your home network; amongst other features.

But they have started rolling out extra software code to third-party Smart Display manufacturers to open up these extra features to their Google-based smart-screen devices. The first of these to benefit from this update are the Lenovo Smart Displays which will benefit from a firmware update (version 3.63.43) to be rolled out from October 22nd 2018.

The firmware will be automatically updated in your Lenovo Smart Display and you can check if it is updated through the Settings menu. Here, you have to “swipe up” from the bottom of your Lenovo Smart Display’s screen to expose the Settings icon, which you would tap to bring up the menu.

The question that will surface for others with similar Google-based smart displays like the JBL Link View would be if and when the display’s manufacture will roll out the firmware update for their devices. It is something that is similarly happening with the Android mobile-device platform where the Google first-party devices have that latest software updates and features first while third-party devices end up with the software a few months later. This is ostensibly to allow the device manufacturer to “bake in” their user interface and other features into the package.

But could the Google-based Assistant / Home platform simply end up as the “Android” for voice-driven smart-display devices?

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Google and Amazon on the network multiroom audio game

Articles

Amazon Echo on kitchen bench press photo courtesy of Amazon USA

Amazon intends to make the Echo smart speaker and Alexa voice-driven home assistant part of a full-blown network multiroom audio system

How to set up multi-room audio with Google Assistant & Chromecast speakers | The Ambient

How to set up multiroom music playback with Amazon Echo | The Verge

Amazon Echo speakers adding stereo pairing, better multiroom audio support | CNet

Amazon Leapfrogs Google And Apple In Home Automation | Lifehacker

From the horse’s mouth

Google

Multi-room group playback with Google Home (Support Resource)

Amazon

Play Music on Multiple Echo Devices (Support Resource)

Amazon Announces New Echo Devices—Add Alexa to Every Room and Your Car (Press Release)

My Comments

Google Home and the Chromecast platform is already running a basic network multiroom audio setup

Google recently enabled their Assistant and Chromecast platforms to support network-based multiroom audio through compliant audio devices.  This has the facility to stream selected online audio sources to the audio devices that work these platforms and permits the use of logical groups as well as party-mode playback of the same source across the multiple devices in that group.

Amazon initially let out an Alexa application-programming interface to permit multiroom audio play across multiple Echo or Alexa-compatible devices. This initially supported logical groups and party-mode playback of the same source across devices in a logical group. But they one-upped Google by adding extra functionality to their Alexa API for multiroom audio including the ability to set up a stereo speaker pair or allow a speaker to be a member of two groups. It is in conjunction with a newer Echo Show device answering the Lenovo Smart Display that is based on Google’s Home Platform.

As well, Amazon had just unveilled new hardware under their brand to take advantage of these new capabilities. One of thse is the Echo Sub subwoofer that can be set up to work alongside a single Echo speaker or a pair of Echo speakers set up to work as a stereo pair for wider stereo separation. It is about adding that bit of extra bass kick to the sound that comes out of those speakers. Then the Echo Dot and Echo Plus speakers have been revised while an Echo Input device was unveilled to put all its audio output via a a connected speaker or sound system.

To connect your favourite hi-fi system to the Amazon Alexa infrastructure, Amazon offered the Echo Link devices which just exist to stream audio content. Both of these connect to the equipment via an analogue RCA line-level connection or an SPDIF digital connection which can be coaxial or optical. They also have both a digital and analogue input connection, perhaps to pass audio devices through the connected sound system, but I am not sure if these devices can stream an audio source in to the Amazon Echo setup that you have established. The Link Amp variant has an integral power amplifier in order to play the music content through your existing passive speakers.

A question that may surface as Amazon rolls the enhanced network multiroom audio functionality across the Alexa platform is whether third-party devices could benefit from these new functions. As well, could Google answer Amazon by offering the extra feature and more for their Home platform especially if they run a range of smart speaker products under their own label? It could simply be the sign of things to come as both Amazon and Google duke it out for the voice-driven home assistant market.

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BMW to use the car as a base for a European voice-driven assistant platform

Article

BMW Intelligent Personal Assistant may be the cold, distant German Siri of our dreams | CNet

From the horse’s mouth

BMW Group

Video – Click or tap to play

My Comments

I have been pushing for the idea of European firms answering what Silicon Valley offers but applying European values to these offerings. Here, it’s like the rise of Airbus and Arianespace from France answering the USA’s leadership in the aerospace industry.

I was calling this out because the European Commission were always worried about the way the popular Silicon-Valley-based online services, especially Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple were doing to European personal and business values like democracy, competitive markets, user privacy and transparency. Their typical answer was to either pass more regulations or litigating against them in the European court system. But they could easily encourage European companies to offer online services that underscore the European mindset through, for example, business-development assistance. 

It is something that is slowly happening with the rise of Spotify, the leading world-wide jukebox, rising from Sweden. There is also a persistent effort within France to answer YouTube with a peer-to-peer video-streaming service.

Now BMW have stepped up to the plate by working on a voice-driven assistant which will initially be focused towards the automotive space. But they intend to take it beyond the vehicle and have it as a European competitor to Alexa, Siri, Google Assistant or Cortana.

But I would say that even if they don’t get it beyond the car dashboard, they could establish it as a white-label platform for other European tech firms to build upon. This could lead to the creation of smart-speaker products from the likes of Bang & Olufsen or TechniSat that don’t necessarily have to run a Silicon-Valley voice-driven assistant platform. Or Bosch or Electrolux could work on a “smart-home” control setup with a voice-driven assistant that is developed in Europe.

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Google Assistant has the ability to break the bad news cycle

Article

Google’s Assistant is here to give you a break from the horrible news cycle | FastCompany

From the horse’s mouth

Google

Hey Google, tell me something good (Blog Post)

Video – Click or tap to play

My Comments

The news cycle that you hear in the USA has been primarily focused on bad news especially with what President Trump is up to or some natural disaster somewhere around the world. It is a very similar issue that is happening around the world. A common issue that is drawn out regarding this oversaturation of bad news is that it can bring about fear, uncertainty and doubt regarding our lives with some entities taking advantage of it to effectively manipulate us.

Some of us follow particular blogs or Facebook pages that contain curated examples of good news that can break this monotony and see solutions for the highlighted problems. But Google is extending this to a function they are building in to the Google Assistant platform with stories that are curated by people rather than machines and, in a lot of cases, derived from a variety of media sources. But this is facilitated by the Solutions Journalism Network non-profit which is more about solution-focused media coverage.

Of course, there will be the doubters and skeptics who will think that we aren’t facing reality and are dwelling in the “Hippie Days” and the “Jesus People” era of the 1960s and early 1970s. But being able to come across positive solutions for the various problems being put forward, including people working “outside the box” to solve that problem can inspire us.

This is a feature is offering on an experimental basis through the USA only and can be used on your Google Home or other Google-Assistant devices. But as this application is assessed further, it could be easily made available across more countries.

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JBL Link View Google-powered smart speaker up for pre-order

Articles JBL Link View lifestyle press image courtesy of Harman International

JBL Link View now up for preorder as the next Amazon Echo Show competitor | CNET News

JBL’s Google-powered smart display launches next month for $250 | The Verge

JBL’s Google-powered smart display is available for preorder | Engadget

JBL Link View Google Assistant smart display up for pre-order, ships September 3rd | 9 to 5 Google

From the horse’s mouth

JBL

Link View (Product page – link to preorder)

My Comments

The Amazon Echo Show is just about to face more competition from the Google Assistant (Home) front with JBL taking advance orders for their Link View smart speaker. This is although Lenovo has just started to roll out a production run of their Smart Displays which are based on the Google Assistant (Home) platform.

JBL have taken advance orders on this speaker since Wednesday 2 August 2018 (USA time) with them costing USD$250 a piece. They expect to have them fully available in the US market by September 3 2018 (USA time). The display on this unit serves the same purpose as the one on the Lenovo Smart Displays where it simply augments your conversation with Google Assistant using a visual experience.

These units look a bit like a boombox or stereo table radio and have an 8” high-definition touch screen along with two 2” (51mm) full-range speakers separately amplified and flanking the screen for stereo sound reproduction. Here, this traditional approach with the stereo speakers at each end of the device leads towards better perceived stereo separation. CNET saw this as offering more “punch” for music content compared to other “smart-display” devices that they experienced.

There is the camera to work with Google Duo but this device has also been designed to take care of user privacy needs thanks to a privacy shutter over the camera along with a microphone mute switch.

Like other Google Assistant (Home) devices, the JBL Link View can work as a wireless speaker for Chromecast Audio and Bluetooth links from mobile devices.

This is the start of something happening with the Google Assistant (Home) platform where the devices being offered by Lenovo and JBL are offering more than what Amazon are currently offering for their smart displays. It includes the stereo speakers for the JBL Link View along with larger displays for both the Lenovo and JBL products. LG and Sony are intending to launch their Google-powered smart displays soon but I don’t know when.

Personally, I would see Amazon and Google establishing a highly-competitive market for smart speakers and allied devices especially if both of them answer each other with devices of similar or better standards. As well, licensing the Alexa and Google Assistant (Home) standards to third-party consumer-electronics companies will also open up the path for innovation including incremental product-design improvements.

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