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Why should a common retailer join in to a tech platform with their own brands?

IKEA SYMFONISK speaker range press picture courtesy of Inter IKEA Systems B V

IKEA’s affordable path to the SONOS multi-room audio ecosystem

I have seen IKEA present a set of speakers that work with the premium SONOS multiroom audio platform but are more affordable than the SONOS speakers. Then I did some research on IKEA’s Tradfri smart-lighting infrastructure and found that the affordable smart lights offered by them can work with other Zigbee Light Link compliant home-automation setups.

A very similar practice is taking place with some of the German hypermarkets who are offering multiroom audio products under their private labels such as SilverCrest by Lidl / Kaufland.

But there are attempts especially by telcos who are offering “smart-home” systems where they don’t disclose what technical platforms their system supports. This is more so when users buy “starter packs” then want to “build out” their smart-home setup by adding on the devices that suit their needs.

What benefit does this offer?

Here, a retailer or telco’s retail arm can provide a set of equipment that is part of a particular multiroom-audio, smart-home, distributed Wi-Fi or similar device platform at a price affordable for most people. This is more so where they offer the products under their own private labels that are dedicated to value-priced or budget equipment.

Such a system can allow for a low-risk entry path to the multiroom-audio, home-automation or similar platform for most users. This is more so where a user wants to start out small, typically to suit a particular need like having a few lamps managed by a smart-lighting system.

Another advantage that exists for those of us who have invested in that platform is that we can build on it in a cost-effective manner. In the case of IKEA Symfonisk speakers, a person who has one or more SONOS speakers serving one or more primary living areas like the living room or the family room could extend their SONOS multiroom-audio setup to other rooms like the bedrooms in a cost-effective manner by using Symfonisk speakers. IKEA even took this further with Symfonisk by allowing you to have a compatible SONOS soundbar and a pair of the Symfonisk speakers in order to set up a full-on surround-sound system for your TV.

The retailer also benefits from the fact that they don’t need to reinvent the wheel if they are heading towards multiroom audio, smart-home or similar technology. Here, they can come on board with a range of products that suit their brand identity and focus on their specialities like, perhaps, home furnishings.

How does this work effectively

The key devices that are part of the device platform have to be designed as entities that can work with any systems or standards that drive the home-automation, multiroom-audio or similar platform. This means that they are to be interoperable with other devices working on that platform in a transparent manner.

If the retailer is offering a “hub” or “controller” device under their label, they may get away with something focused around their identity. But they could gain better mileage out of these devices by making them work to common technical standards so the devices can become part of the system that you want.

Some systems that allow a device to perform a supporting role like a pair of speakers augmenting a soundbar as “fronts” or “surrounds” for example could open up the path for accessing the desirable functionality.

Conclusion

When common retailers, telcos and installers offer equipment that works according to one or more common technical platforms and is affordable, this means that we can get in to the technical realms that the platforms offer with minimal risk. It also means that we can build out and add functionality to these systems in a cost-effective manner even if we use premium equipment based on these platforms.

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It will be easy to use your voice to delete what you previously said to Alexa

Amazon Echo on kitchen bench press photo courtesy of Amazon USA

You will be able to use your voice to delete instructions you said to your Amazon Echo

Articles

How to See and Delete Alexa’s Recordings of You | Tom’s Guide

You Can Now Tell Alexa To Delete Your Conversations | Lifehacker

My Comments

An issue that anyone with a voice-driven home assistant device will be wanting to have control of is what the device’s platform has recorded when they spoke to that device. It also includes the risk of your device being accidentally triggered by situations such as an utterance of the wake word in a recording or broadcast. A previous article that I have written describes how to achieve this kind of control with your Amazon Echo or similar Alexa-based device.

But Amazon have taken this further for the Alexa platform by allowing you to speak to your Alexa-based device to delete recordings left on the platform during particular time ranges.

How to enable this function

You have to use the Amazon Alexa app or Website to enable this feature but you don’t have to install another Alexa Skill in to your account for this purpose. Once you are logged in to your Amazon Alexa app or Website, enter the Settings section which would be brought up under a hamburger-shape “advanced-operations” menu.

Then you go to your “Alexa Account” option in that section and bring up the “Alexa Privacy” menu. Go to the “Review Voice History” screen and you will see the  “Enable Deletion By Voice” option that you can toggle on or off. Having this feature on will allow you to use the voice commands that will be listed below. When you enable it, you will see a warning that anyone with access to your Alexa-based devices will be able to delete what was said to the Alexa ecosystem.

Commands

“Alexa, delete everything I said today” will cause your Alexa-based device to delete anything you said to it from midnight (0:00) of the current day to the time you gave that instruction.

For greater control, Amazon will roll out this other command: “Amazon, delete what I just said”. This will delete what was last said to your Alexa device and can be of use when handling a nuisance-trigger situation for example.

Conclusion

I would see the other voice-driven assistant platforms provide the ability to delete what you said under your voice control as a user-enabled option. This will be more so as the light shines brightly on what the Silicon Valley establishment are up to with end-user data privacy amongst other issues like corporate governance.

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The UK to mandate security standards for home network routers and smart devices

Articles UK Flag

UK mulls security warnings for smart home devices | Engadget

New UK Laws to Make Broadband Routers and IoT Kit More Secure | ISP Review

From the horse’s mouth

UK Government – Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

Plans announced to introduce new laws for internet connected devices (Press Release}

My Comments

A common issue that is being continually raised through the IT security circles is the lack of security associated with network-infrastructure devices and dedicated-function devices. This is more so with devices that are targeted at households or small businesses.

Typical issues include use of simple default user credentials which are rarely changed by the end-user once the device is commissioned and the ability to slip malware on to this class of device. This led to situations like the Mirai botnet used for distributed denial-of-service attacks along with a recent Russia-sponsored malware attack involving home-network routers.

Various government bodies aren’t letting industry handle this issue themselves and are using secondary legislation or mandated standards to enforce the availability of devices that are “secure by design”. This is in addition to technology standards bodies like Z-Wave who stand behind logo-driven standards using their clout to enforce a secure-by-design approach.

Netgear DG834G ADSL2 wireless router

Home-network routers will soon be required to have a cybersecurity-compliance label to be sold in the UK

The German federal government took a step towards having home-network routers “secure by design”. This is by having the BSI who are the country’s federal office for information security determine the TR-03148 secure-design standard for this class of device.  This addresses minimum standards for Wi-Fi network segments, the device management account and user experience, along with software quality control for the device’s firmware.

Similarly, the European Union have started on the legal framework for a “secure-by-design” certification approach, perhaps with what the press describe as an analogy to the “traffic-light” labelling on food and drink packaging to indicate nutritional value. It is based on their GDPR data-security and user-privacy efforts and both the German and European efforts are underscoring the European concern about data security and user privacy thanks to the existence of police states within Europe through the 20th century.

Amazon Echo on kitchen bench press photo courtesy of Amazon USA

… as will smart-home devices like the Amazon Echo

But the UK government have taken their own steps towards mandating home-network devices be designed for security. It will use their consumer-protection and trading-standards laws to have a security-rating label on these devices, with a long-term view of making these labels mandatory. It is in a similar vein to various product-labelling requirements for other consumer goods to denote factors like energy or water consumption or functionality abilities.

Here, the device will be have requirements like proper credential management for user and management credentials; proper software quality and integrity control including update and end-of-support policies; simplified setup and maintenance procedures; and the ability to remove personal data from the device or reset it to a known state such as when the customer relinquishes the device.

Other countries may use their trading-standards laws in this same vein to enforce a secure-by-design approach for dedicated-function devices sold to consumers and small businesses. It may also be part of various data-security and user-privacy remits that various jurisdictions will be pursuing.

The emphasis on having proper software quality and integrity requirements as part of a secure-by-design approach for modem routers, smart TVs and “smart-home” devices is something I value. This is due to the fact that a bug in the device’s firmware could make it vulnerable to a security exploit. As well, it will also encourage the ability to have these devices work with highly-optimised firmware and implement newer requirements effectively.

At least more countries are taking a step towards proper cybersecurity requirements for devices sold to households and small businesses by using labels and trading-standards requirements for this purpose.

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The battle’s on for streaming-music services

Articles

Spotify Windows 10 Store port

Spotify’s ad-supported free music service faces competition from Amazon and Google

Free ad-supported service tier

Amazon Music’s free ad-supported tier goes live, but only for Alexa users | The Verge

Amazon and Google Are Making Music Free — And That Could Be a Big Headache for Spotify | Rolling Stone

Hi-Fi-grade premium service tier from Amazon

Amazon may be working on a high-fidelity music streaming service | Engadget

Amazon Planning To Hi-Fi Music Streaming Service: Report | Android Headlines

My Comments

The Silicon Valley establishment are realising that other companies are offering streaming-music services that offer service options that they don’t provide in their own services.

Ad-supported free-to-end-user service tier

Amazon Echo on kitchen bench press photo courtesy of Amazon USA

The Amazon Echo will benefit from Amazon’s free music service

One of these is a free-to-end-user service option which is supported by audio advertising that plays in a similar manner to commercial free-to-air music radio.

Spotify had, for a long time, established its streaming-music service on a “freemium” model with an ad-supported basic service tier free to the end-user. This is alongside their Premium service tier which can be fully enjoyed on your mobile device or Spotify Connect endpoint audio devices and without advertising.

The advertising models included display advertising on the user interface along with radio-commercial-type audio ads at regular intervals. They also offer to marketers advertising ideas like sponsored playlists or sponsored listening sessions.

Now Amazon and Google are offering a free-music ad-supported streaming tier for their “online jukeboxes” but this will be limited to their smart-speaker platforms rather than a Web-based or mobile-based experience. There will also be a limited music offering available through this music tier.

Premium hi-fi-grade service tier

Cambridge Audio / Rega hi-fi system

Amazon to undercut Tidal and Deezer when delivering a streaming music service fit to play through hi-fi equipment

The other is a premium streaming service that yields at least CD-grade audio fit to be played through that hi-fi system rather than an experience similar to FM radio.

TiDAL and Deezer based their music-streaming service on listeners who value high-quality sound for a long time. You may have heard music streamed from one or both of these services if you have recently attended a hi-fi show like any of the Chester Group hi-fi shows where I have heard TiDAL in action, or visited a boutique hi-fi or home-AV store.

Amazon aren’t taking this lightly and are offering a hi-fi-grade premium service tier for their streaming-music service. This is priced at US$15 per month with a view to undercut TiDAL and Deezer and is also targeted towards people who use Alexa-platform audio devices with their hi-fi system or use an Alexa-based network multiroom setup.

The Amazon service will offer the music at CD quality at least, if not with some tracks offered at “master quality”. They are working with the record labels to license their music libraries to this service in order to have more high-grade content.

What is this to lead to

I see this opening up the floodgates for a highly-volatile streaming-music service market with companies wanting to cut in with entry-level free tiers driven by advertising or premium hi-fi-grade subscription tiers for those who value high-quality sound. Here, I would see at most of these companies running a three-tier music service for consumers – an ad-supported limited-content free service, a standard package with the whole library delivered ad-free and a premium package that has access to the whole library with CD-grade or master-grade audio.

There will be some factors that will allow each streaming-music service to differentiate themselves in a crowded market. They will become more important as a way to attract new subscribers or retain their existing subscriber base. It will also become important in encouraging people who have subscriptions with all of the services to focus their attention to a particular service.

One of these would be the quantity and quality of music playlists, especially curated playlists. Another would be the richness of information available to the user about the performers, composers, genres and other factors regarding the music library.

There will also be whether the music library contains underrepresented content and how much of this content is available to the users. This includes whether they offer a classical-music service with the expectations of such a service like composer-based searching.

Another issue that will show up is the provision of client-side support in standalone audio equipment so you aren’t running extra software on a computer or mobile device to get the music from that service to the speakers. This will also include having software for these services integrated in your car’s dashboard.

There will be the issue of what kind of partnerships the streaming-music service provider can have with the business community. It ranges from  “business music” service tiers with music properly licensed for public-performance on business premises to advertising and sponsorship arrangements like what Spotify has achieved.

As far as the creative team behind the music is concerned, a differentiation factor that will come about is how each streaming-music service renumerates these teams. It is whether they are the composers, arrangers, lyricists or music publishers behind the songs or the performers and record labels behind the recordings.

There will also be the issue of encouraging other vendors to tie-in streaming-music subscription as part of a package deal. This could be through an ISP or telco providing this service as part of an Internet or mobile-telephony service plan. Or buying a piece of equipment like an Internet radio could have you benefit from reduced subscription costs for a particular streaming-music service.

What I see of the online music-streaming market is something that will be very volatile and competitive.

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Yale uses modules to extend smart-lock functionality

Article

Use of a user-installable module allows these Yale smart locks to work with different connected-home systems

Yale Expands Assure Lock Line With New Smart Lever Lock | Z-Wave Alliance

My Comments

Yale have implemented the smart-lock approach in a very interesting way ever since that company released their Real Living Connected Deadbolt in to the North-American market.

Here, they designed an electronic lock as a basic platform device but built an expansion-interface arrangement in to this lock’s design. Here, users could install a retrofit module in to the battery compartment on the door’s inside to add on Zigbee, Z-Wave or August smart-lock connectivity to their lockset.

This approach has been rolled out to the Assure range of electronic deadbolt locks and lever locksets with the use of the same module type for the whole range. It also applies to the Lockwood Secure Connect product range offered in Australia which is based on the Yale designs.

A similar approach has been implemented in the UK for some of the Yale electronic door locks sold in that market. But the modules used with the UK locksets are different to the North-American modules due to the regional differences that affect how Z-Wave and Zigbee operate and the country’s preferred building-hardware form factors. One of these units is infact designed to replace the outside cylinder on a rim-mounted nightlatch or deadlatch to enable “smart lock” functionality to this common class of door lock.

All these modules are expected to be installed in a “plug-and-play” fashion where they simply add the extra functionality to the lock or bridge it to the smart-home ecosystem once you install the module. After you install these modules in the lockset, the only thing you need to do is to pair them with the smart-home or integrated-security ecosystem.

Even within the same form-factor, the electrical interface for these modules may be varied for later products which can raise compatibility issues. Similarly, some of the home-automation integrators tend to presume that a particular module will only work with their system.

They also work on a particular “Internet-of-Things” wireless interconnection rather than an IP-based home network, requiring them to use a network bridge to work with an online service. This bridge is typically provided as part of a security-and-home-automation ecosystem whether offered by a telco, security services firm or similar company.

What have I liked about this approach is the use of user-installable modules that are designed to work across a particular Yale smart-lock range. Here, these modules interlink with Yale or third-party smart-home setups with the ability to be replaced should you decide to move to a better home-automation system that uses a different Internet-of-Things interface.

It underscores the fact that, once installed, a door lock is expected to be in service for a very long time and this same requirement will be placed upon smart locks. This is even though new smart-home or smart-building technologies will appear on the horizon.

It is similar to how central-heating systems are being enabled for smart-home operation through the use of a room thermostat that has the “smarts” built in to it. These thermostats are designed to be powered by the host HVAC system and connect to that system according to industry-standard wiring practices that have been determined and evolved over a long time.

This approach can be taken further with other devices like major appliances that are expected to serve us for a long time. Even if a manufacturer wants to create an ecosystem around its products and accessories, it needs to keep the specifications for interlinking these products and accessories the same to allow users to implement newer devices in to the system.

It can also work properly with a self-install approach where the customer installs the necessary aftermarket modules themselves or a professional-install approach which involves a technician installing and commissioning these modules. The latter approach can also work well with manufacturers who offer “functionality” or “upgrade” kits that enable the use of these modules.

The ASSA Abloy approach to making sure your smart lock works with the smart-home system by using user-replaceable modules makes sense for this class of product. Here, you are never worried about the smart-lock ability being “out of date” just because you install a home-automation setup that suits newer needs.

What needs to happen with the retrofit approach is that the physical and electrical interface for add-on modules has to be consistent across the product range or device class for the long haul. There also has be be some form of compatibility should any design revisions take place. Similarly, using a common application-level standard can work well with allowing the same device and retrofit module to work with newer systems that adhere to the relevant standards.

These expectations may not really work well with system integrators, telcos and the like who prefer to be the only source for products that work with a smart-home system.

Here, it is the first time I have noticed a smart-home device designed to be upgraded over its long service life.

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Gigaset Alexa smart speaker is a cordless phone

Articles

Gigaset L800HX Alexa DECT smart speaker press picture courtesy of Gigaset AG

This Gigaset smart speaker works as a DECT handset for fixed-line telephony services

Gigaset reinvents the landline phone – Gigaset smart speaker L800HX | Business Insider

German language / Deutsche Sprache

Gigaset L800HX: Smart Speaker mit DECT- und Amazon-Alexa-Anbindung | Caschy’s Blog | Stadt.Bremerhaven.de

Gigaset L800HX: Alexa-Lautsprecher mit Festnetztelefonie | Computerbild.de

Gigasets Smart Speaker ist auch ein Telefon | Netzwoche (Schweiz / Switzerland)

From the horse’s mouth

Gigaset Communications

L800HX Smart Speaker

German language / Deutsche Sprache

Product Page

Press Release

Blog Post

My Comments

Amazon effectively licensed the Alexa client software that is part of the Echo smart speakers that they sell for third parties to use. This opens up a path for these third-party companies to design smart speakers and similar products to work with the Alexa voice-driven assistant ecosystem.

This kind of licensing opens up paths towards innovation and one of the first fruits of this innovation was Sonos offering a smart speaker that worked with multiple voice-driven home assistant platforms that they licensed. But I will be talking about another approach that links the traditional fixed-line telephone to the smart speaker.

Amazon Echo Connect adaptor press picture courtesy of Amazon

The Amazon Echo Connect box enables your Amazon Echo speakers to be your traditional household telephone

When faced with Google offering telephony functionality in their Home speaker, Amazon one-upped them with the Echo Connect box. This box connects to your home network and your fixed telephone line so you can make and take telephone calls through the traditional fixed telephone service or its VoIP equivalent using an Echo smart speaker or similar device. The device had to connect to the telephone socket you would connect the traditional telephone to as though it was an extension telephone and if you implemented a VoIP setup using a VoIP-enabled router, you would connect it to the telephone-handset port on this device.

Now Gigaset Communications, a German telecommunications company who is making innovative telephony devices for the European market, has approached this problem in a different way. Here, they have premiered the Gigaset L800HX smart speaker that works on the Alexa ecosystem. But this uses functionality similar to the Amazon Echo Connect box but by working as a DECT cordless handset.

The Gigaset L800HX can be paired up with any DECT base station or DECT-capable VoIP router to become a telephony-capable smart speaker. It is exploiting the fact that in competitive telecommunications markets in Continental Europe, the telcos and ISPs are offering multiple-play residential telecommunications packages involving voice telephony, broadband Internet and multiple-channel TV service on fixed and/or mobile connection.

Increasingly the fixed-line telephony component is provided in a VoIP manner with the carrier-supplied home-network router having VoIP functionality and an integrated DECT base station along with one or two FXS (telephone handset) connections for this service. This is due to use of dry-loop xDSL, cable-modem or fibre-optic technology  to provide this service to the customer and a drift away from the traditional circuit-based telephony service.

Onboarding this speaker requires you to interlink it to your Wi-Fi home network and your DECT-based cordless base station or VoIP router. Then you also set it up to work with the Amazon Alexa ecosystem using the Amazon app or Webpage associated with this ecosystem. A separate Gigaset mobile-platform app provides further functionality for managing this device like synchronising contacts from your mobile or DECT base-station contacts list to the Amazon Alexa Calling And Messaging service. It provides all the other expectations that this service offers like the Drop In intercom function. Let’s not forget that this device can do all the other tricks that the standard Echo can do like play music or manage your smart home under command equally as well.

The German-speaking tech press were raving about this device more as tying in with the current state of play for residential and small-business telecommunications in the German-speaking part of Europe. They also see it as a cutting-edge device combining the telephony functionality and the smart-speaker functionality in one box that fits in with the Continental-Europe ecosystem tightly.

Here, it is another example of what the licensing approach can do for an ecosystem like Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant. This is where there is an incitement for innovation to take place regarding how the products are designed.

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Celebrity voices to become a new option for voice assistants

Article

How to Make John Legend Your Google Assistant Voice | Tom’s Guide

Google Assistant launches first celebrity cameo with John Legend | CNet

How to make John Legend sing to you as your new Google Assistant voice | CNet

From the horse’s mouth

Google

Hey Google, talk like a Legend {Blog Post)

Video – Click or tap to play

My Comments

Google is trying out a product-differentiating idea of using celebrity voices as an optional voice that answers you when you use their Google Assistant.

This practice of using celebrity voices as part of consumer electronics and communications devices dates back to the era of telephone answering machines. Here, people could buy “phone funnies” or “ape tapes” which featured one-liners or funny messages typically recorded by famous voices such as some of radio’s and TV’s household names. It was replaced through the 90s with downloadable quotes that you can use for your computer’s audio prompts or, eventually, for your mobile phone’s ringtone.

Now Google has worked on the idea of creating what I would call a “voice font” which uses a particular voice to annunciate text provided in a text-to-speech context. This is equivalent to the use of a typeface to determine how printed text looks. It also encompasses the use of pre-recorded responses that are used for certain questions, typically underscoring the particular voice’s character.

The technology Google is using is called WaveNet which implements the neural-network and machine-learning concept to synthesise the various voices in a highly-accurate way. But to acquire the framework that describes a particular voice, the actor would have to record predefined scripts which bring out the nuances in their voices. It is part of an effort to provide a natural-sounding voice-driven user experience for applications where the speech output is varied programmatically such as voice-driven assistants or interactive voice response.

At the moment, this approach can only happen with actors who are alive and can come in to a studio. But I would see WaveNet and similar technologies eventually set up to work from extant recordings where the actor isn’t working to a special script used for capturing their voice’s attributes, including where the talent’s voice competes with other sounds like background music or sound effects . By working from these recordings, it could be about using the voices of evergreen talent that had passed on or using the voices that the talent used while performing in particular roles that underscored their fame. A good example of this application are the actors who performed in those classic British TV sitcoms of the 1970s or using Peter Sellers’, Spike Milligan’s, Harry Secombe’s and Michael Bentine’s voices as they sounded in the Goon Show radio comedy.

Google is presenting this in the form of a special-issue “voice font” representing John Legend, an actor and singer-songwriter who sung alongside the likes of Alicia Keys and Janet Jackson. Here, it is being used as a voice that one can implement on their Google Home, Android phone or other Google-Assistant device, responding to particular questions you ask of that assistant.

Amazon and others won’t take this lying down especially where the voice-driven assistant market is very competitive. As well, there will be the market pressure for third parties to implement this kind of technology in their voice-driven applications such as navigation systems in order to improve and customise the user experience.

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HID Global uses Bluetooth for emergency signalling in the health sector

Article – From the horse’s mouth

Ekahau Wi-Fi Pager Tag panic button

Bluetooth 4.1 now becoming a connection path for newer wearable emergency-alert devices

HID Global

HID Global Helps Hospitals Keep Doctors, Nurses and Staff Safe from Workplace Violence with New IoT-Based Duress Badge (Press Release)

Product Page with Healthcare use case (PDF)

My Comments

A key use case for Internet-of-Everything technology are wearable devices that have an emergency-signalling function. In the workplace, they are intended to be used by lone workers to signal for help from a security team in an emergency situation, with use cases being focused towards situations where they are at risk of being attacked. In the home, the primary use case is for elderly or disabled people who need to summon help, but it may also be applied to people at risk of falling victim to family violence or similar situations.

They are also being integrated in indoor-navigation technology so it is feasible to quickly locate the person who is at risk and provide help to them. There was a device offered by Ekahau that worked on multiple-access-point Wi-Fi networks and used the access points as a location means.

But HID Global have taken a different path with devices pitched to this use case. Here, their new Bluevision BEEKs Duress Badge Beacon, which is in a staff-badge form, is based on the same Bluetooth Smart 4.1 Low Energy technology as Bluetooth beacons. This device can also be integrated with building-access-control systems at the card level. Pressing the back of the badge can allow them to seek help from security who would know where they are in pre-defined areas thanks to the beacon-based technology.

It could be feasible to implement this technology with the badges as peripherals for smartphones, answering the needs of mobile workers for example. In this case, the device takes advantage of the phone linking to either a Wi-Fi LAN or a mobile broadband network.

As far as the home network is concerned, the Bluevision BEEKs badge would have to work with Wi-Fi to Bluetooth bridge devices. This could be a function that could be asked of with smart speakers or home AV that supports Wi-Fi (or Ethernet) and Bluetooth functionality, especially if the device is about working with peripherals including remote controls. But there could be the imperative to have Bluetooth 4.1 or 5 technology within Wi-Fi access points that are part of a distributed Wi-Fi system, typically to court IoT use cases.

This could lead to wearable emergency-call devices like this one that are pitched to workplace use being pitched towards home use especially with “ageing at home”  which would be the main use case.

I also see the possibility of this kind of emergency-call functionality being integrated within smartwatches and other wearables, whether the wearable uses a Bluetooth link to the smartphone or has its own mobile-broadband connection. This can easily be delivered in a software form for platform-based wearables like watchOS (Apple Watch) or WearOS (Android Wear) or Fitbit Versa.

Here, it may encourage the user to have this kind of functionality always available without needing to wear other items, encouraging you to wear it more. Also having emergency / duress call functionality in a smartwatch or similar wearable allows you to signal for help without doing something obvious, something that may be of importance in a highly-charged situation.

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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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