Voice-driven home assistant platforms Archive

Ultrasound being used as a way to measure user proximity to gadgets

Article – From the horse’s mouth

Google Nest

How ultrasound sensing makes Nest displays more accessible {The Keyword blog post)

My Comments

Google is implementing in their Nest Hub smart-display products an automatic display-optimisation technology that is based on technology that has been used for a very long time.

Ultrasonic technology has been used in various ways by nature and humans to measure distance. In nature, bats and dolphins which don’t have good vision use this approach to “see” their way. It is used extensively in military and civillian marine applications to see what is underneath a boat or around a submarine and is also used as a common medical-imaging technique.

As well, in the late 1970s, Polaroid implemented ultrasound as part of their active autofocus system, which ended up as a feature for their value-priced and premium instant-picture cameras. Here, this was used to measure the distance between the camera and the subject in order to adjust the lens for proper focus. There were limitations associated with the technology like not being able to work when you photograph through a window due to the ultrasonic waves not passing through the glass.

But Google has implemented this technology as a way to adjust the display on their Nest Hub smart displays for distant or close operation. The front of a Google Nest Hub has an ultrasonic sensor that works in a similar way to what was used in a Polaroid auto-focus instant-picture camera.

But rather than the Polaroid setup being about using the distance measurement from the ultrasonic sensor to adjust a camera’s lens, this application adjusts the display according to the user’s distance from the Nest Hub. If you are distant from the Nest Hub, you would see reduced information but the key details appear in a larger typeface. Then if you come closer to the Nest Hub, you would see more detail but at a smaller typeface.

Nest Hub Directions display press picture courtesy of Google

The Google blog article described this as being suitable for older users and those of us who have limited vision. The fact that you have the ability to see key information in a large typeface at a distance can make the Nest Hub accessible to this user group. But others can’t see deeper information unless they are very close to the device.

End-user privacy is still assured thanks to the use of a low-resolution distance-measurement technology whose results are kept within the device. As well, there is a menu option within the Google Home app’s Device Settings page to enable or disable the feature.

At the moment, it is initially being used for timer and current-time display as well as displaying travel time and traffic conditions for a planned journey that you set up with Google Maps. But Google and other software developers who develop for the Google Home ecosystem will add distance-sensitive display functionality to more applications like appointments and alerts.

Some people could see this technology not just for optimising the readout on a smart display but could even be used to ascertain whether people are actually using these devices. This could then be used for such functionality like energy-saving behaviour where the display turns off if no-one’s near it.

But what Google has to do is to license out this technology to allow others to implement it it to other fixed-display-based devices. Here, it could become of more use to many who don’t go for a Google Nest Hub.

but to add more functionality like appointments, alerts, reminders

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Amazon starts Voice Interoperability Initiative for voice-driven assistant technology

Articles

Amazon Echo on kitchen bench press photo courtesy of Amazon USA

Devices like Amazon Echo could support multiple voice assistants

Amazon Creates A Huge Alliance To Demand Voice Assistant Compatibility | The Verge

Amazon launches Voice Interoperability Initiative — without Google, Apple or Samsung | ZDNet

Amazon enlists 30 companies to improve how voice assistants work together | Engadget

From the horse’s mouth

Amazon

Voice Interoperability Initiative (Product Page)

Amazon and Leading Technology Companies Announce the Voice Interoperability Initiative (Press Release)

My Comments

Amazon have instigated the Voice Interoperability Initiative which, at the moment, allows a hardware or software device to work with multiple compatible voice-driven AI assistants. It also includes the ability for someone to develop a voice-driven assistant platform that can serve a niche yet have it run on commonly-available smart-speaker hardware alongside a broad-based voice-driven assistant platform.

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

Freebox Delta as an example of a European voice-driven home assistant that could support multiple voice assistant platforms

An example they called out was to run the Salesforce Einstein voice-driven assistant that works with Salesforce’s customer-relationship-management software on the Amazon Echo smart speaker alongside the Alexa voice assistant. Similarly, a person who lives in France and is taking advantage of the highly-competitive telecommunications and Internet landscape there by buying the Freebox Delta smart speaker / router and have it use Free.fr’s voice assistant platform or Amazon Alexa on that same device.

Microsoft, BMW, Free.fr, Baidu, Bose, Harman and Sony are behind this initiative while Google, Apple and Samsung are definitely absent. This is most likely because Google, Apple and Samsung have their own broad-based voice-driven assistant platforms that are part of their hardware or operating-system platforms with Apple placing more emphasis on vertically-integrating some of their products. It is although Samsung’s Android phones are set up to be able to work with their Bixby voice assistant or Google’s Assistant service.

Intel and Qualcomm are also behind this effort by offering silicon that provides the power to effectively understand the different wake words and direct a session’s focus towards a particular voice assistant.

The same hardware device or software gateway can recognise assistant-specific wake words and react to them on a session-specific basis. There will be the ability to assure customer privacy through measures like encrypted tunnelling for each assistant session along with an effort to be power-efficient which is important for battery-operated devices.

Personally I see this as an ability for companies to place emphasis on niche voice-assistant platforms like what Salesforce is doing with their Einstein product or Microsoft with its refocused Cortana product.  It can even make the concept of these voice assistants more relevant to the enterprise market and business customers.

Similarly, telcos and ISPs could create their own voice-driven assistants for use by their customers, typically with functionality that answers what they want out of the telco’s offerings. It can also extend to the hotel and allied sectors that wants to use voice-driven assistants for providing access to functions of benefit to hotel guests like room service, facility booking and knowledge about the local area. Let’s not forget vehicle builders who implement voice-driven assistants as part of their infotainment technology so that the drive has both hands on the wheel and eyes on the road.

This kind of offering can open up a market for the creation of “white-label” voice-assistant platforms that can be “branded” by their customers. As well, some of these assistants can be developed with a focus towards a local market’s needs like high proficiency in a local language and support for local values.

For hardware, the Amazon Voice Interoperability Initiative can open up paths for innovative devices. This can lead towards ideas like automotive applications, smart TVs, build-in use cases like intercom / entryphone or thermostat setups, software-only assistant gateways that work with computers or telephone systems amongst other things.

With the Amazon Voice Interoperability Alliance, there will be increased room for innovation in the voice-driven assistant sector.

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Ambient Computing–a new trend

Article

Smart speakers like the Google Home are the baseline for the new concept of ambient computing

Lenovo see smart displays as a foundation for ambient computing | PC World

My Comments

A trend that is appearing in our online life is “ambient computing” or “ubiquitous computing”. This is where the use of computing technology is effective part of our daily lives without us having to do something specific about it.

One driver that is facilitating it is the use of voice-driven assistant technology like Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s Assistant or Microsoft’s Cortana. It has manifested initially in mobile operating systems like Android or iOS but has come about more so with smart speakers of the Amazon Echo, Google Home or Apple HomePod kind along with Microsoft and Apple putting this functionality in to desktop operating systems like MacOS and Windows.

Lenovo Smart Display press picture courtesy of Lenovo USA

as are smart displays of the Lenovo Smart Display kind

As well, Amazon and Google have licensed out front-end software for their voice-driven home assistants so that third-party equipment manufacturers can integrate this functionality in their consumer-electronics products. It also includes the availability of devices that connect to larger-screen TVs or higher-quality sound systems to use them as display or audio surfaces for these voice-driven assistants, even simply just to play audio or video content pulled up at the command of the user.

Lenovo underscored this with their current Smart Display products and the up-and-coming Smart Display products including a Lenovo Yoga Smart Tab which was premiered at IFA 2019 in Berlin. These are based on the Google Home platform and they were underscoring the role of these displays in ambient computing.

Another key driving factor is the Internet of Things which may be seen in the home context as lights, appliances and other devices connected to the home network and Internet. It doesn’t matter whether they connect to the IP-based home network directly or via a “home hub” device. These work with the various voice-driven home-assistant platforms as sensors or controlled devices or, in some cases, alternate control surfaces.

It extends beyond the home through interaction with various building-wide or city-wide services that relate to energy use, transport, personal security amongst other things.

The other key driver that is highlighted is the use of distributed computing or “the cloud” where the data is processed or presented in a manner that is made available via the Internet on any device. It can also include online services that present information or content at your fingertips from anywhere in the world. In some cases, there is the use of data aggregation to create a wider picture of what is going on.

What this all adds up to is the concept of an “information butler” that responds with information or content as you need it. This is underscored with ambient or ubiquitous computing that is not just a Silicon Valley buzzword but a real concept.

What does the concept of ambient or ubiquitous computing underscore?

Here it is the use of information technology in a manner that blends in with your lifestyle rather than being a separate activity. You interact with one or more of the endpoints while you undertake a regular daily task and this can be about showing up information you need or setting up the environment for that activity. It relies less on active participation by the end-user.

Ambient computing is adaptive in that it fits in and adapts to your changing needs. It is also anticipatory because it can anticipate future needs like, for example, changing the heating setting to cope with a change in the weather. It also demonstrates context awareness by recognising users and the context of their activity.

But ambient computing still has its issues. One key issue that is called out frequently is end-user privacy including protection of minor children when users interact with these systems. An article published by Intel underscores this in the context of simplifying the management of our privacy wishes with the various devices and online services through the use of “agent” software.

This also relates to data security for the infrastructure along with data sovereignty (which country the data resides in) due to issues like information theft and use of information by foreign governments.

Similarly, allowing ambient-computing environments to determine activities like what content you enjoy can be of concern. This is more important because you may choose particular content based on your values and what others who have similar tastes and values recommend. It can also lead to avoiding addiction to content that can be socially harmful or enforcing the consumption of a particular kind of content upon people at the expense of other content.

Another factor that can creep up if common data-interchange standards aren’t implemented is the existence of data “silos”. This is where an ambient computing environment is limited to hardware and software provided by particular vendors. It can limit competition in the provision of these services which can restrict the ability to innovate when it comes to developing these systems further.

But what is now being seen as important for our online life is the trend towards ubiquitous ambient computing that simply is part of our lives.

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You can manage your Google Home’s lighting and volume for night-time use

Article

You can use the Google Home app to manage how your Google Home smart speaker works during the evening and night hours for a better night’s sleep

Google Home Has A Hidden Night Mode (And We Love It) | Lifehacker

From the horse’s mouth

Google

Manage volume and LED brightness with Night mode (Instruction sheet)

My Comments

Some of you may want to interact with a Google Home smart speaker during the wee hours of the day such as to ask for the time or weather. Or you may touch the device and work it as a night-light. But it can be too bright or loud at these times in a way that people can be woken up at odd hours. Here, some users have to adjust the volume to avoid this risk of disturbance.

But Google has a “Night Mode” feature that allows you to determine the maximum volume and device lighting brightness during times when you don’t want to be disturbed.

Here, you have to use the Google Home mobile-platform app on your smartphone or tablet. As well, your mobile device has be on the same logical network as the Google Home device, which would typically be the same Wi-Fi network when you are thinking of your home network.

When you open the Google Home app, tap on the gear-shape Settings icon and you will see the “Night Mode” setting in the list of settings. There is a toggle switch to enable or disable this mode, and when you enable this mode, the LEDs on the top of your Google Home device will dim while the maximum speaker volume will be softer.

There is an option to schedule the times and days of the week when the Night Mode feature will be active. This may be of importance if you want to make sure it comes in to play on weeknights for example.

There are settings to determine the maximum speaker volume and lighting brightness that will apply to your Google Home smart speaker while it is in the “Night Mode” condition.

The Do Not Disturb option on the Night Mode settings page mutes any notification or system sounds that your Google Home smart speaker makes. But timer or alarm signals will “break through” this setting so you don’t miss that extra alarm you set to wake you up so you can pick up that loved one from the airport as they come off that late flight.

But I am not sure whether these settings can be configured for individual devices or all of the devices bound to the same account. This may be of importance if you want to reduce the volume and lighting brightness on units installed in the bedrooms while one or more units installed in the common living areas are maintained at bright levels; or you want to maintain a common setting across your home.

A feature that can improve on this would be to have the LEDs on top of a Google Home device stay alight but at the maximum brightness to allow you to use the device as a night light. This is more so for those of us who would keep one of these devices in the corridor near the main bathroom or within that bathroom to serve as a “beacon” night-light to enable use of the bathroom at night.

At least Google has provided an option to allow the Google Home device family to work properly without disturbing other people’s sleep at night.

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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 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

Amazon Music rolls out a lossless streaming tier that Spotify and Apple can’t match | The Verge

From the horse’s mouth

Amazon

Amazon Music HD (Product Page – Sign up here)

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 the HD and Ultra HD service tiers which are the hi-fi-grade premium service tiers for their Amazon Music Unlimited 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 offers the high-quality service as two tiers – the HD one that is equivalent to CD quality and the Ultra HD one that is equivalent to “master quality”. These use the FLAC codec to trasfer the music to your equipment and you may find that the HD tier is similar to what you get if you are “ripping” a CD to FLAC files with, perhaps, Windows Media Player in Windows 10.  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.

UPDATE

19 September 2019 – Amazon formally launches the HD and Ultra HD hi-fi-quality service tiers for their Music Unlimited streaming service.

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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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Orange to launch their own smart speaker platform in Europe

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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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