February 2019

Jamie Carter l technology journalist

Home appliances go hands-free: from toilets to sunglasses, everything will soon be operated by voice

Google Assistant Connect joined the fray at the Las Vegas Convention Center as January’s CES convention saw voice control get simpler


increasing breadth of voice control in the electronics industry, but think about it for a second and it’s often the crazy, out-there appliances that make the most sense to talk to rather than to touch.


That was definitely the case at CES where Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant were given the keys to the kingdom. Quite literally. Scores of smart locks and doorbells debuted with voice control, alongside thermostats, light bulbs, robot vacuum cleaners, smart clocks, a piano, and even a pair of sunglasses that checks the weather, reads text messages and connects to Alexa. As a popularity contest, voice control lacks a

reliable scorecard. Amazon says that it’s sold 100 million Echo devices, while Google insists that its voice assistant is now available on around a billion devices (though that includes all Google phones). Nobody knows how much voice control is being used on these platforms, but there’s no denying that consumers are excited about voice control. It’s also obvious that, for now, Alexa is the household name, and in more ways than one. Pride of place went to Kohler’s Numi 2.0 Intelligent Toilet, which had the word ‘bizarre’ inserted alongside it in many a headline during CES week. Why is it bizarre? Do people like touching toilets? Sure, most toilets in airports use motion sensors to flush, just as taps do. The appearance at CES of hands-free control for these same appliances for the home should be no surprise. Look closely and it’s hard not to warm to Kohler’s US$7,000 toilet, which also features night lighting, a heated seat and ‘personalized warm water cleansing’ (which includes a built-in air dryer). What’s way more bizarre than Alexa voice control is that hygienic features like that still haven’t caught-on in the West. Oh, and the fact the Numi 2.0’s heated seat doubles as a Bluetooth speaker.

Also in Kohler’s Konnect range at CES was a tap that you can tell to turn the water on and off, but also to dispense measured amounts of water. Nice idea, as is the Alexa-controlled U by Moen shower.

voice activated tap? Whatever next! Everything, that’s what. Some may continue to be incredulous at the ever

Other more mainstream voice-activated trends at CES were far more about convenience in the smart home, but there is still some confusion about exactly who we should all be talking to. Take LG, whose ThinQ fridges and washing machines have Alexa, complete with Amazon Dash for ordering supplies. However, not five yards away on LG’s booth was an impressive new soundbar that only worked with Google Assistant underneath a TV that only worked with Alexa. Similarly, Samsung TVs all work with Alexa. However, Samsung also used CES to big-up Bixby, its own voice assistant, on the saccharine-sounding Family Hub, suggesting that it could be asked to preheat the oven and to suggest recipes.

At some point the industry will need to coalesce

around one voice platform – either that or we’ll all get a personalised ‘gatekeeper’ voice assistant that keeps these commercial (and largely self-serving) platforms in-check – but for now it’s a race to see just how many devices and users each can claim. However, at CES the underlying message was about the simplicity – or otherwise – of voice control. For example, Whirlpool offered Alexa on an oven and a washing machine, but instead of saying “Alexa, ask Whirlpool to set the oven timer to 30 minutes” users can now merely utter “Alexa, set the oven timer to 30 minutes”. The former products were ‘Works with Alexa’ and

required the user to already have an Echo product in their home, whereas the new products are ‘Alexa

Built-in’, created using a certification scheme called Alexa Connect, an integrated approach that Amazon has been pushing to developers and manufacturers for some time.

Amazon was trying to get that message across at CES, renting a large hall at the Sands Hotel for Alexa and her ever-increasing tribe of third-party appliances.

The existence of ‘Alexa Connect’ has been a major advantage of Amazon’s in recent months, but that changed at CES with the announcement of Google Assistant Connect. Sure enough, Google used the walls of Las

Vegas for giant adverts; a sign reading ‘Hey Google’ draped across the LVCC, while billboards curving around Fashion Show Mall on The Strip flashed the same banal message. The Google Assistant Connect platform is similar to Alexa Connect; it eases the integration of voice into products, keeping sentences short and simple for consumers. However, what Google didn’t do was put everything on display and explain the difference between ‘Google Assistant-compatible’ and Google Assistant Connect. Teasing-out the differences isn’t easy, but it’s

arguably one of sales staff’s most important jobs over the next few years. Expect ‘works with’ to quickly become the poor relation to ‘built-in’ in the world of voice control as consumers slowly figure- out the difference. As usual after CES, retailers will have a lot of explaining to do.

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