Last week I went to San Diego to visit Qualcomm and to attend CEDIA, a trade show for professional AV and home automation installers. The narrative flowing through both events was that the internet of things as it relates to the smart home is a jumbled mess. (It’s a jumbled mess elsewhere, but that wasn’t the focus of last week.)
Unfortunately the response to this mess hasn’t been a turn toward standards or soul-searching among the major technology companies, who are seeking to divide things further with incompatible systems such as HomeKit or proprietary radios. Instead, the response as seen from CEDIA was this idea of bringing in installers and experts to pull together a smart home for users and then let homeowners control it from their smart phone.
People call this the Do-It-For-Me model. Companies have adapted to it with things like Best Buy’s Geek Squad, Amazon’s launch of expert installers and even the introduction of products like the Ring doorbells and August locks for the professional installer channel. The smart home market is essentially shrugging its shoulders and saying, “Yes, this is hard, so just pay some money and someone will handle the rough bits.”
The business models will still have to change for custom installers, and consumers will likely find themselves paying more, but these changes will result in the gradual move of home automation down market.
Up the road from the San Diego Convention Center, Qualcomm is solving similar issues with two pieces of technology. The first is a highly integrated system on a chip (SOC) that combines three radios on one board called the QCA4020. The QCA4020 was launched in February, and the promise is that if someone puts this into their connected product then the user doesn’t have to worry if their stuff has Wi-Fi, ZigBee/Thread or Bluetooth. The device will connect to anything using those radios.
This is already happening in some cases, thanks to the Amazon Echo. It acts as an aggregator of radios and controls devices that work in a variety of systems, but even voice interfaces are frustratingly bifurcated. This is where Qualcomm shows off something so compelling that I want it now.
The company showed a demo of its audio processing technology using the Amazon Echo, Google Home and Apple’s Siri. What was compelling is you could ask one named entity, such as Alexa, a question but then determine which voice assistant actually responded. (This happened in the demo by manually selecting which platform would respond.) So I might say “Alexa, can you put mangos in the fridge?” while selecting Google to actually answer the question.
I’d do this because Amazon’s Alexa isn’t very good at answering these types of questions, but Google assistant is. Unless you have two assistants side-by-side in your home, getting the best response can be hard. Qualcomm’s software appears to mitigate this. I’d love to see the ability to assign specific tasks to Google, Alexa or Siri in an app so I don’t have to do it every time I ask a question.
Amazon clearly sees a need to broaden its capabilities, hence its agreement to integrate with Microsoft’s Cortana. However, it’s not clear if Apple or Google will happily join this cause. That’s where efforts like Qualcomm’s come in. However, the timing for any such help and the form factor remain to be seen. Qualcomm didn’t have an anticipated date for this voice assistant bridging software.
Sadly, we’re at the point in a technology cycle where the tech isn’t holding us back, so much as the power and jockeying of the major tech companies that don’t want things to work together. To bridge disparate radio standards, devices and even assistants will require a commitment among tech players to create a flexible user interface built around an AI that can talk to everything.
Historically, you could get away with a commitment to one computing platform (Mac or PC, iOS or Android) but when we’re embedding tech into everything that model makes less sense. Your choices in home appliances, light bulbs, vehicles and watches shouldn’t be limited by the phone you carry or the personal assistant in your smart speaker. Those will all change over the life of some of these larger products.
Ideally, the same benefits our smartphone apps have gained through cloud APIs could be applied to our assistants. Everything we want connected is connected, and we can use the invisible interface of voice with any service we want, regardless of device choice.