Voice-driven home assistant platforms Archive

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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Lenovo launches the first smart display to compete with Amazon Echo Show

Lenovo Smart Display press picture courtesy of Lenovo USA

Lenovo Smart Displays now available in the USA (press picture courtesy of Lenovo USA)

Articles

Lenovo delivers the first Google Assistant smart display | Engadget

Google and Lenovo’s Smart Display Trounces Amazon’s in Every Way | Gizmodo

First of the Google Assistant-Powered Smart Displays Arrives This Week From Lenovo | Droid Life

From the horse’s mouth

Google

The first Smart Displays with the Google Assistant are now available in stores (Blog Post)

Lenovo

Smart Display (Product Page, Blog Post)

Video – Click or tap to play

My Comments

Google premiered the idea of smart displays based on their Google Assistant (Home) platform at the Consumer Electronics Show in January 2018. This is seen as an intent by Google to answer Amazon’s Echo Show smart display and they had Lenovo and JBL register their intent by presenting prototype products at that trade show. Lenovo even exhibited two models – a baseline unit with an 8” display and a premium unit with a 10” display.

Now Lenovo have made these Smart Displays available to the US market. Here, they will be made available through most of the well-known online and bricks-and-mortar stores who sell household technology like Walmart, Best Buy, Amazon, Costco and Sams Club, as well as being available direct through Lenovo.com.

The baseline model has an 8” screen with a 1280×800 resolution and a single full-range 10-watt speaker and being sold for USD$199.99. The premium model has a 10” display with a 1920×1200 resolution, two full-range speakers and a bamboo finish on the back for USD$249.99. Here, even the baseline model offers a larger display than what the Amazon Echo Show is equipped with.

There is the access to Google’s online services including YouTube, Duo and Maps. Users can even sign up to YouTube TV to receive most of the USA’s over-the-air and cable TV networks on this device via the Internet for USD$40 per month. As well, users also have access to Spotify, Pandora, iHeartRadio, TuneIn Radio along with most of the other popular content services available to the US market. They can also engage in videocalls using the Google Duo “over-the-top” IP-telephony platform thanks to an integrated video camera. Google Photos also allows these Smart Displays to become electronic picture frames as well.

Like other devices based on the Google Assistant (Home) platform, these Lenovo Smart Displays support the Google Assistant Routines which are effectively like “macros” or “scripts” that run a user-determined series of actions under one command. There is also the ability for these smart displays to interlink with “smart home” devices that work with the Google Assistant (Home) platform and can run video from compatible devices like the Nest Cam.

Individual privacy has been taken care of properly with a mechanical shutter that is slid over the camera along with a switch to mute the microphone. That feature is also important to prevent Google Assistant acting on “wake words” or other commands that may be said in normal conversation or uttered by a device.

From what I have seen of the photos posted online of this device, there is a clear concise graphically-rich user experience offered on the screen. It is rather than having a second-rate text-based display offered on the Amazon Echo Show devices. This is because the visual component of Google Assistant (Home) is based on the Android variant of the Google Assistant and it makes it easier to achieve a visual user interface across both Android devices and these Smart Displays.

But there is limited portrait-mode support amongst the app based offered for this platform. It is a sign that the visual-aid functionality for Google Assistant (Home) is still a “rough diamond” and Google and third parties will be needing to refine this functionality further.

I would see some of the other makes like JBL launch at least one Smart Display product for the Google Assistant (Home) ecosystem over the next few months, if not by year’s end.

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You can find out what Cortana has recorded

Article

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

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

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

My Comments

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

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

Windows 10 Settings - Accounts - Manage My Microsoft Account

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

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

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

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

Privacy dashboard on your Microsoft Account management Website

Privacy dashboard on your Microsoft Account management Website

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

Microsoft Account Privacy Dashboard - Cortana Interactions highlighted

Click here for your Cortana Voice interaction history

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

Details of your voice interactions with Cortana

Details of your voice interactions with Cortana

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

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

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