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The Real Smart Home Devices Are Coming

The smart speaker has been a stepping stone to a true home hub

2Oct

At the Channels, we’ve been writing about the smart home for some time. The Internet of Things (IoT) exploded onto the tech scene not all that long ago, and has experienced the full force of the hype cycle. Billed as the third wave of the internet, the IoT promises to (among myriad other uses) connect our home devices on a centralized hub to make life run that much more smoothly.

As expected, the major tech companies rushed to get smart home devices onto the market. Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Home, for example, are speakers with digital voice assistants inbuilt, and both can perform a wide variety of tasks. However, with other devices in the home lagging slightly behind - smart fridges and smart thermostats are yet to become commonplace in US homes - we are still some way from an entire home controlled by one central digital assistant.

In fact, if there has been one criticism of ‘smart home’ devices thus far it is that they have been disappointingly limited in their capabilities, at least for users without a great deal of technical nous. This is where the next wave of smart home devices looks to take a leap forward. Each of Google, Facebook, and Amazon have revealed that they are working on tabletop ‘smart screens’, small computers that will build on the smart speaker with functions like video calling and visual reminders.

Amazon has been first to the party with Echo Show, a device with all the capabilities of the rest of the Echo products but with a 7-inch screen to add visuals to the mix. And what a difference the visuals make to the product as a whole. Echo Show can display photographs, it can video call friends, and it can relay footage from a front door camera, to name just a few examples. Having a screen also enhances existing Echo capabilities, too, with Alexa being able to simply display information like the day’s weather in its entirety rather than having to read it out. The in-built touch screen also saves users the effort of having to speak every request aloud.

The fact that Amazon’s major competitors have followed the move means that there is consensus that smart hubs with screens are the future. According to TechCrunch, Google is working on a similar device with the internal codename ‘Manhattan’. The report suggests that the device will have a similar-sized screen to that of Echo Show and will offer ‘YouTube, Google Assistant, Google Photos, and video calling, as well as the ability to control Nest and other smart home devices.’ As is the case with Amazon’s Alexa, Google is clearly attempting to put its virtual Assistant in front of as many users as possible. The incredible potential of artificial intelligence has made it perhaps the biggest battleground for major tech companies today, given how important AI may well become in people’s lives as it develops and more devices become integrated.

Perhaps most interestingly of all, Facebook has thrown its hat into the ring with what DigiTimes claim will be a 15-inch touch screen smart speaker called Aloha. Competing directly with the likes of Echo Show and whatever ‘Manhattan’ becomes, it seems as though Facebook’s device will display friends’ pictures and posts when inactive. According to Business Insider, ‘the magic of Aloha lies in its camera, which one source described as an ‘AI cameraman.’ Facebook has hired top computer vision and AI experts to make the camera automatically frame shots and recognize objects in view.’ How this will affect the functionality of the product remains to be seen. The AI will likely be a development of M, the chat bot assistant Facebook has developed for Messenger.

Aloha will be Facebook’s first mass-market consumer hardware product. Oculus Rift, its high-end VR offering, went on sale in January of last year but it is likely that Aloha will have far greater mainstream appeal. Last year, Facebook opened its Area 404 hardware lab, signalling a move into hardware production that will include drones, satelites, lasers, and servers. It’ll be interesting to see how well Facebook fares against companies that have a significant headstart in terms of hardware production, though its scope to include an easily accessible messenger service will make it an interesting prospect.

The smart home is some way from affecting the lives of most ordinary people. Currently, only the tech-savvy will have their thermostat connecting to a central device, or their garage door able to be opened by their voice alone. As the major tech companies pile resources into smart home and the IoT more generally, though, the devices will reach a wider audience. If the impressively functional smart speakers were the beginning, adding screens is simply the next logical step in the progression of the smart hub - it just remains to be seen which tech behemoth will come out on top in producing them. 

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