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Why it’s no longer strange to talk to your home appliances

Nanoleaf technology allows users to control the colour and intensity of their lights by speaking verbal commands to Siri, Alexa or Google assistants on a nearby phone, tablet or speaker.

Nanoleaf

Voice control has quickly gone from a quirky-but-barely-working technology to an eerily-accurate must-have capability in gadgets and appliances. As a result, this year a wave of manufacturers have announced incorporating Amazon's Alexa, Apple's Siri and the Google Assistant into everything from refrigerators and vacuum cleaners to televisions and even cars.

In many cases, these voice assistants add new conveniences to electronics or make them easier to use. But they're also requiring more design and support resources from appliance makers, which can translate into longer development times and potentially higher prices for the end consumer.

"It becomes a huge pain to translate for all three of these platforms," says Gimmy Chu, co-founder and chief executive officer of connected light maker Nanoleaf. "Unless you're going to choose sides, you're going to have to do three times the development work."

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Toronto-based Nanoleaf added Siri support in 2015, then Alexa and Google Assistant this year. Users are able to control the colour and intensity of their lights by speaking verbal commands to any of the three assistants on a nearby phone, tablet or speaker.

Adding voice control was a no-brainer, Mr. Chu says, since it solves a few problems for users.

Because of their additional functionality, connected lights require more than a just simple wall switch to control. Prior to voice, users had to access those functions through an app on their phone or tablet, which can be an annoyance and is impractical for house guests to use.

Voice control, easily usable by anyone, gets around those issues.

The problem now is that Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant are different enough from each other that they create more work for Nanoleaf's programmers.

The situation mirrors the early days of smartphones, when companies were faced with the challenge of designing disparate apps for a number of different operating systems.

"If everything was standardized, you do the work once and your product is voice-enabled," Mr. Chu says.

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The dilemma extends beyond light bulbs to almost every connected appliance and stands to get worse as more companies vie to get a piece of the voice-controlled smart home.

Samsung, for example, began rolling out its own voice assistant, Bixby, this year while Microsoft is also in the fray with Cortana. Globally focused appliance makers must also contend with a growing number of Asia-specific assistants, such as Baidu's Duer and Alibaba's Tmall Genie in China and Giga Genie in South Korea.

For its part, smartphone app development has become easier in recent years as the field has winnowed from a number of competing operating systems to just Apple's iOS and Google's Android. But, given its early days, industry observers believe it's going to be a while before there's a similar consolidation in voice control.

"You're multiplying your effort by many times and you're having to be compatible with a bunch of stuff and having to keep up with multiple changes," says Daniel Moneta, executive vice-president of development at MMB Networks, a connectivity consultancy in Toronto.

Aside from adding software to handle voice interaction, appliance makers are also facing the new challenges of incorporating microphones and speakers into the products so that users can communicate with them.

That's not something many of these companies – especially the smaller ones – have had to deal with before.

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"It adds to the design considerations," says Alexander Wong, co-director of Vision and Image Processing Research Group at the University of Waterloo. "It's forcing them to think about how to use it and where to use it – how do you incorporate voice control without being tacky? That's one consideration a lot of people are struggling with."

Still, analysts believe voice control is more than just a gimmick.

The technology has been around for years and got its first real buzz in 2011 with Apple's launch of Siri, but it has since improved in accuracy. Influential venture capitalist Mary Meeker this year estimated Google's voice recognition accuracy to be at 95 per cent, or equal to human language understanding.

The company's entry into the home speaker market last year with its Google Home product is thus being seen as a major catalyst for the whole field, with Amazon, Apple and others now being forced to improve their products as well.

As a result, U.S.-based analyst firm Gartner expects more than two billion people will use conversational artificial intelligence, or the algorithms that drive voice assistants, to converse with connected devices on a regular basis by next year. More than 60 million voice-controlled speakers, such as Google Home, Amazon Echo and Apple's coming HomePod, will also be in use by 2020, with spending hitting $3.5-billion (U.S.) by 2021.

The field is about to go enterprise, too, with Gartner expecting the hospitality and health-care industries to begin specialized adoption by 2019.

Despite the new challenges they're facing, appliance makers are viewing these trends as proof that voice control is here to stay. "I see it as being the future of controlling devices within your home," Mr. Chu says.

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About the Author

Peter Nowak has been writing about technology for 20 years, with a focus on trends and how they affect the world. He worked at The Globe and Mail between 1997 and 2004 before moving to China and then New Zealand, where he won the award for best technology reporter at the New Zealand Herald. More

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