Genie in a speaker!
Personal Assistants play a very important role in our workplace and are in many cases the linchpin of our professional lives. On a similar note, technological evolution has led to the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in our day to day settings, powering what we now call as AI powered Personal Assistants. We have been already using these highly cognizant and intelligent AI powered personal assistants baked right into our smartphones. For example: ‘Siri on iphones or ipads’ or ‘Google Assistant on Android phones’ or ‘Cortana on Windows based phones or personal computers’ or ‘Alexa on Amazon Kindle tablets’.
Now these AI assistants are finding a place in newer firm-factors and devices such as speakers, making those passive sound machines, conversational and smarter. Soon we will have our homes equipped with at least one of these AI powered smart speakers. This all started with the launch of Amazon’s AI ‘Alexa’ powered smart speaker called ‘Amazon Echo’ followed by Google with its own version of Amazon Echo known as Google Home – powered by Google Assistant. Microsoft also soon followed leveraging its own AI assistant Cortana integrated into a Harman-kardon speaker. All three tech giants now tout their AI prowess. Recently, Apple also announced its entry into this space with its Siri powered smart speaker called ‘Homepod’, designed primarily to drive its Apple Music service, shipping by the year end in USA, UK and Australia. While most of these smart speakers are at a nascent stage and available in select countries, the pace with which India is growing with hundreds of millions of smartphones users, some of these smart speakers should launch in India sooner rather than later. Let’s deep dive into some of these AI powered smart speakers and figure out why they are revolutionary:
Amazon Echo is a nine-inch tall cylindrical shaped hands-free speaker which one can control with one’s voice and is always connected to the internet via Wi-fi. Echo’s design is nothing short of an engineering feat. It sports Amazon’s “far-field” voice recognition technology with an array of seven microphones with enhanced noise-cancellation picking up your voice from all directions even while playing music or answering your question. The vertical cylindrical design hosts a 2.5inch woofer at the center with a reflex port above promising deepest bass and a 2.0-inch tweeter below to deliver crisp
and clear higher notes filling the room with immersive 360 degrees Omnidirectional audio.
Amazon Echo is connected to the highly intelligent and knowledgeable Alexa voice service residing in Amazon’s cloud. Alexa within Echo can be controlled with your voice as well as a companion app on your phone or tablet.
Echo incorporates what is known as “skills” and can answer most of your questions, read news, podcasts, sports scores and audiobooks, integrate, control and play different music streaming services such as Spotify, report weather and even control your light fans, thermostats and more with compatible Smart Home devices from Philips, Nest, Samsung Smartthings, Wemo and more. Since operating Echo requires an Amazon Prime subscription, Alexa is perfectly geared to also do ‘voice-shopping’ over Amazon’s ecommerce platform. Alexa gets smarter with every interaction in terms of speech patterns, accent, vocabulary and more. Amazon is working with a plethora of app developers to bring more and more skills into Amazon Echo, making it an AI powerhouse. For example: you can now book an Uber by just saying – “Alexa, Ask Uber to request a ride” or can order a pizza from Domino’s by simply saying – “Alexa, open Domino’s and ask for my Easy Order” or “Alexa, play Jeopardy” or control your car “Alexa, tell Blue Link to lock my Sonata.”
Amazon Echo powered Alexa now incorporates more than 10,000 skills and continues to grow every day. The skills categories vary from education and reference to news, shopping, smart home, movies, sports, active lifestyle to transportation and more. Amazon Echo retails around USD180 and its newest variant with a touchscreen called Echo Show retails around USD230. Furthermore, Amazon also sells a smaller version of the Echo Speaker but without a speaker called “echo dot” for USD40 which can connect to any speaker of your choice via Bluetooth or a 3.5mm audio jack via cable to function same as the original Echo. This is the future of smart homes with a voice controlled personal assistant to enhance your lifestyle.
Google Home is another smart speaker which is integrated with Google’s AI powered Google Assistant, taking the helm from you. Google Home, like Amazon Echo, is also a voice activated speaker and has a better ability to answer your questions as you say the magic words: “Ok Google, who was the 42nd President of the Unites States? or Ok Google, What is the currency of Nicaragua?” leveraging Google’s huge database of knowledge due to its internet search engine prowess.
The hands-free Google Home links to your Google account and hence is highly personalized and can sync closely with different apps on your Google Android powered smartphone. Like Echo, Google gives you real-time answers to all your questions on sports, weather, traffic, finance, news or local businesses. It also can play different music streaming services from Spotify to Google Music to Youtube Music and more. It also perfectly syncs with your Google Calendar and Google Now on your phone to set reminders, alarms and retrieve your flight information. Google has been working its huge pool of Android app developers to add new capabilities from controlling Smart Home devices to programs on your Smart TV.
Google Home also incorporates a far-field voice recognition technology to pick up your voice from far in your room and features a set of hi-fidelity speakers to produce the brilliant sound you expect from a good speaker. In my experience, Google Home speaker sound trumps Amazon Echo by a bit with a deeper punch and a wider frequency range. However, in terms of skills and capabilities, Amazon Echo has made headway and outbeats Google Home by a fair margin. Also, Google Home lacks “voice-shopping’ as Amazon is a premier ecommerce platform and has indexed its platform well to the Alexa voice service for one command shopping using the Amazon Prime subscription.
Google Home retails at USD130 and is a good alternative to Amazon Echo if you are deeply entrenched into Google’s ecosystem of apps and services.
While Amazon Echo has higher chances to reach Indian shores as Amazon continues to grow in the India market with its ecommerce platform and services ecosystem, Google Home and Apple Homepod reaching Indian shores officially looks a bit distant at this point as they are very US centric devices. However, the Google Home speaker
works well in terms of some Google services plus answering queries, except for US centric third-party content services which won’t play if the speaker is acquired in USA and brought to Indian shores.
In summary, we are on the cusp of a true smart home revolution in getting ourselves a highly intelligent personal assistant – a Genie – leveraging the giant strides in Artificial Intelligence technology to enrich our lives like what smartphones have been able to.