Voice-driven home assistant platforms Archive

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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Amazon Echo to land in Australia on February 1

Articles

Amazon Echo on kitchen bench press photo courtesy of Amazon USA

Amazon Echo – to be available in Australia and New Zealand on February 1 2018

Amazon Echo Australian Launch: Pricing, Models And Availability | Lifehacker Australia

Aussie brands and publishers get on board with Amazon Echo | Adnews

Aussie enterprises jump on Alexa as bot lands down under | IT News

Everything You Need To Know About The Aussie Amazon Echo | Gizmodo

From the horse’s mouth

Amazon Australia

Amazon Music Unlimited Coming to Australia and New Zealand on February 1 (Press release including refernce to Echo devices)

Product Page

My Comments

I have written some previous articles about Amazon’s Echo devices and Alexa platform but at the time of publication, these devices weren’t officially available in Australia. But Amazon have just announced that they are to launch these devices in the Australian and New Zealand market on February 1 2018.

This is although Google had launched their Home smart speaker and Assistant platform to the Australian market in July 2017.  Then, close to Christmas, they launched the Home Mini smart speaker and were gaining some momentum on the Australian market.

The devices to be initially available are the Echo smart speaker (AUD$119), the Echo Dot adaptor (AUD$49) which connects to an existing audio device with a line input; and the Echo Plus smart speaker (AUD$199) which is equipped with an integrated Zigbee home-automation hub. Amazon also has run an introductory offer for a pair of Echo Dot adaptors for AUD$79.  As well, Amazon are taking advance orders on these Echo devices with the goal to ship them out on February 1.

Amazon has localised Alexa to satisfy the needs of the Australian and New Zealand userbase including giving her that distinctive Aussie accent and having her providing relevant answers. But the moment this news was launched, a significant number of Australian brands got cracking with developing Alexa Skills which provide a link between their services and these Echo devices. For example, the Australian media names like ABC, SBS and News Corporation have worked with Amazon to have their content available through Alexa. Similarly, Westpac and NAB have provided Alexa Skills so you can find out the state of your accounts you have with them.

I see the arrival of Amazon Echo on the Australian marketplace as the start of a major showdown when it comes to voice-driven home-assistant platforms in this country. As well, it will be a wake-up call for Australian service providers to work on “skills” for these platforms.

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Steps are taking place to make Amazon Echo Show become a kitchen TV

Articles (German language / Deutsche Sprache)

Amazon Echo Show in kitchen press picture courtesy of Amazon

A German software developer is taking steps to make the Amazon Echo Show become that small kitchen TV

Amazon: Neuer Alexa-Skill verwandelt Echo Show in einen Fernseher | Netzwelt.de (Germany / Deutschland)

Amazon Skill link

Fernseher für Alexa | Live-Streams hören und sehen

My Comments

There has been a practice amongst a significant number of households to keep a small television in the kitchen. This started off with the arrival of the small portable TVs but is now facilitated through the availability of small flatscreen TVs including computer monitors equipped with an integrated TV tuner. Here, it has been seen as a way to watch those news and lifestyle shows that are run during breakfast time by the TV stations while you are eating breakfast, or to watch daytime TV shows like “Days Of Our Lives” while ironing in the kitchen.

Similarly using a tablet that runs the appropriate client apps could yield the same goal, whether you are dealing with a “broadcast-LAN” tuner, a free-to-air TV platform that has member stations stream their content, a TV-Everywhere platform ran by a pay-TV service or something similar.

Now, with Amazon Echo Show and Spot on the scene along with the imminent arrival of smart displays based on the Google Assistant platform thanks to Lenovo and JBL, a software need has been identified. This need is to bring regular TV stations to these devices so they can become like that small TV.

One effort has taken place in Germany to bring the Internet streams provided by the German public TV stations and most of the cable channels to the Echo Show at your voice command. Hear, you can ask this “Stream Player” to show a station by name or by “channel number” and it will show up on the Echo Show.

What I see of this Alexa Skill that is being premiered in Germany is something that can appeal to a “free-to-air TV” consortium of the Freeview kind, a voice-driven interface for a broadcast-LAN tuner including the SAT-IP platform or a cable-TV provider’s “TV Everywhere” platform. Here, these Alexa Skills or platform-equivalent apps could then enable smart displays to work as the traditional TV. But it may be considered “heretical” by the Millennial generation who are used to watching content on their own terms.

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At CES 2018, Google is answering Amazon’s Echo Show with smart displays

Articles

JBL Link View smart display press picture courtesy of Harman International

JBL Link View – one of the smart displays that is Google’s answer to the Amazon Echo Show (Press picture courtesy of Harman International)

Google takes on Echo Show with four new smart displays | CNet

Google’s routines look ready for prime time at CES | CNet

Google unleashes ‘smart displays’ loaded with Google Assistant | PC World

Lenovo Smart Display makes Google Assistant a smart home sidekick | PC World

Lenovo announces Google Assistant-powered Smart Display | Android Authority

From the horse’s mouth

Google

New devices and more: what’s in store for the Google Assistant this year (Blog Post)

Lenovo

Seeing is Believing on the New Lenovo™ Smart Display – with the Google Assistant™ Built In (Blog Post)

JBL

JBL® Announces LINK View, A Smart Display Speaker with The Google Assistant (Press Release)

My Comments

Amazon Echo Show in kitchen press picture courtesy of Amazon

Google is now giving the Amazon Echo Show something to worry about

Amazon has become the first company to integrate visual support in their voice-driven home assistant platform. This is in the form of the Echn Show and Echo Spot being “smart displays” with the ability to show text or other visual information to augment Alexa’s replies.

Now Google is answering Amazon by having a few other companies launch smart-display devices that work on their Google Home (Assistant) platform. The Consumer Electronics Show 2018 has effectively become the time for a showdown between both voice-driven home-assistant platforms.

These devices have the ability to work as a videophone thanks to integrated cameras and will have improved powerful speakers and microphone arrays. But they will miss out on the ability to show up Web pages. Rather they will provide visual feedback for Google Assistant replies or show videos at your command.

Lenovo has announced two of these smart displays – one with an 8” screen and grey back panel and one with a 10” screen and a bamboo back panel. Both of these units, equipped with the mono speaker and a touch screen can be positioned in a horizontal or vertical manner. They also have a switch to turn off the microphones along with a privacy shutter for their cameras.

JBL also premiered the Link View which has an 8” display but has stereo speakers and a rear-mounted passive radiator for that extra bass kick in the sound. LG and Sony are to release similar smart displays through the coming year thus building up Google Assistant’s position in this space.

But Google is integrating their Assistant (Home) platform in more smart speakers and TVs with some extant Android TVs from TCL, AirTV, Xiaomi and Skyworth having this function provided through a software update. Funai, Haier, Hisense, Westinghouse, Changhong and Element will roll this functionality in newer Android TVs that will be released this year. Of course, LG is integrating this functionality in their 4K UHD TVs.

You can’t escape Google Assistant when you get in to your car because it will be part of the Android Auto platform which a significant number of vehicle builders and aftermarket infotainment manufacturers are implementing.

What I see of this is that it will lead to a showdown between Google and Amazon regarding the voice-driven home assistant platforms that they offer. Who knows what else they could be lining up to answer each other with?

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TVs to work with Google Home and Amazon Alexa

Articles

LG’s 2018 TVs get faster and smarter with Google Assistant, Alexa | Engadget

LG 2018 TVs tap Google Assistant, Alexa for voice control | CNet

NVIDIA Shield to support Google Assistant | CNet (Video – Click or tap to play)

My Comments

A trend that is appearing for this year is to see Smart TVs equipped with the ability to work with Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa. In this case, there will be a microphone integrated in the remote control or the TV set and Google Assistant will reply through the TV’s speakers. The Amazon Alexa Skill that some manufacturers will offer will have access to some but not all of the TV’s functionality through your Amazon Echo or Alexa-compatible device.

Initially Sony had rolled out an Android TV software update to enable Google Assistant to work on their Android-based Smart TVs, while they have an Amazon Alexa Skill in beta-testing.

Now LG are building in Google Assistant in to their webOS Smart TVs which will have access to the EPG as well as functions essential to watching TV. It will also have the same control path as Google Home when it comes to controlling your smart-home devices and if you run a Google Home smart speaker, you could ask Google Assistant to do things like turn on the TV or change channels without needing the TV’s remote. They are also offering an Amazon Alexa Skill for those of you using Amazon Echo but this will provide a limited level of control over your LG TV.

NVIDIA has answered the TV-ownership reality that TV sets aren’t necessarily disposable by rolling out the Google Assistant to their Shield Android TV games console. Here, you can add Google Home control to your existing TV along with the ability to ask questions of Google Assistant. This is facilitated with integral microphones in its game controllers and remote control and Google Assistant replies through the connected TV’s speakers.

This highlights the market reality that TVs and video peripherals will be required to work with one or more of the voice-driven home assistants whether as an endpoint or as a function set added on to the home-assistant platform.

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Hey Cortana! You can work with GMail

Article

You can now connect Gmail to Cortana for calendar, mail, and contact support | Windows Central

My Comments

Windows 10 Cortana Notebook menu

Select “Connected Services” in Cortana’s notebook

Some of you may just use GMail simply as another Webmail account but you can have client-side access to it from certain email clients like Windows Mail, Outlook or your Android email client. Here, if you are using Windows Mail for example, you may find that you could have Cortana work your account from their simply by adding it to the list of accounts your Windows Mail installation works with.

But you may also just use the Web-based user interface for your GMail account and simply use it also as a contacts and calendar storage for your Android phone, especially if you do upgrade your phone frequently.

Add a Service menu in Windows 10 Cortana Notebook menu

Select GMail as the service to add to Cortana

Here, you can create a direct link between Cortana and your GMail account so you can summon her for information from that account. This can be of importance if you buy the Harman-Kardon Invoke smart speaker which is powered by Microsoft’s Cortana voice-driven personal assistant.

To do this, open Cortana on your Windows 10 computer and click on the Notebook icon. Then click on Connected Services in the menu that pops up. Select “Add a service”, then select “GMail”. Here, you will be asked for your Google username and password that you operate your GMail account with. Enter these credentials and Google will then ask you whether you want to allow Cortana access to your account. Once you assent to this, your GMail details are available to Cortana.

This will become more of a trend as an increasing number of social networks, Webmail services and the like provide the necessary “hooks” to allow the various voice-driven personal assistants to work with their services.

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BBC introduces interactive radio drama using Alexa

Article

Amazon Echo on kitchen bench press photo courtesy of Amazon USA

Amazon Echo and similar voice-driven assistants will end up being able to provide voice-driven interactive storytelling

BBC launches interactive voice drama for Amazon Alexa devices | CNet News

My Comments

Any of you who have lived in the UK or other British Commonwealth countries will be familiar with the BBC’s long-time expertise with radio plays. Examples of these include the unforgettable humour of the Goons or the long-evolving countryside drama that is the Archers. If you didn’t hear it on the BBC, you may have heard one of these dramas via a resource available through the Internet or a local public radio station syndicated one or more of the BBC radio plays, making it available to hear through your trusty radio. These are essentially comedy and drama that is delivered through an audio-only medium.

But the BBC are combining this old-time craft of theirs and the concept of the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books to provide an interactive audio drama that you effectively participate in using, at the moment, the Amazon Alexa platform.  “The Inspection Chamber” is a science fiction comedy where you effectively are playing the “extra character” in the show to steer its plot.

It will also be very similar to those text-based adventure games made available through mainframe computers and early home-computer platforms but this effort will be about having a wider vocabulary and natural-language handling.

But I see this as a way to take voice-driven assistants further in the direction of providing entertainment in the form of “Choose Your Own Adventure” interactive storytelling. This could lead to other radio-drama houses and, to some extent, education / training environments taking this concept further to provide voice-driven interactive stories, such as to provide scenario-driven training or language learning.

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