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Voice-activated smart homes booming, but texting could become interface of choice

2017 is expected to be the year that “voice-first” devices, which combine speech recognition with artificial intelligence (AI), will hit the mainstream.

The consultancy Voice Labs says it expects 24.5 million voice-first devices to ship this year, in comparison to just 6.5 million in 2016.

Other big tech firms have their own plans: Apple is taking its Siri voice assistant beyond its mobile devices to PCs, cars and the home; Baidu last month bought Raven, billed as China’s answer to Amazon’s Alexa intelligent personal assistant; and Samsung plans to incorporate Viv, its newly acquired virtual assistant, into its phones and home appliances.

However, not everyone thinks the future of communicating with the Internet of Things needs to be vocal.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, for example, was working on Jarvis - his own voice-powered AI home automation - and found he preferred communicating by text because, he wrote, “mostly it feels less disturbing to people around me.” 

Several major appliance makers have turned to a small Singapore firm, Unified Inbox, which offers a service that can handle ordinary text messages and pass them on to appliances.

With your home added to the contacts list on, say, WhatsApp, a quick text message can “Start the coffee machine”, “Turn on the vacuum cleaner at 5pm” or “Preheat the oven to 200 degrees at 6.30pm”.

“Think of it as a universal translator between the languages that machines speak and us humans,” said Toby Ruckert, a German former concert pianist and now Unified Inbox’s CEO.

The company is just a small player, funded by private investors, but Ruckert says its technology is patent-backed, has been several years in the making and has customers that include half of the world’s smart appliance makers, such as Bosch.

Unified Inbox connects the devices on behalf of the manufacturer, while the consumer can add their appliance by messaging its serial number to a special user account or phone number. So far, it supports more than 20 of the most popular messaging apps, as well as SMS and Twitter, and controls appliances from ovens to kettles. Other home appliances being tested include locks, garage openers, window blinds, toasters and garden sprinklers, says Ruckert.

“People aren’t going to want a different interface for all the different appliances in their home,” says Jason Jameson, of IBM, which is pairing its Watson AI supercomputer with Unified Inbox to better understand user messages. They will this week demonstrate the service working with a Samsung Robot Cleaner.

“The common denominator is the smartphone and even more common is the messaging app,” Jameson notes.

There’s another reason, Ruckert says, why more than half of the world’s smart appliance manufacturers have signed up: they’re worried the big tech companies’ one-appliance-controls-all approach will relegate them to commodity players, connecting to Alexa or another dominant platform or being cast aside if Amazon moves into making its own household appliances.

E&T recently looked at how the Echo is increasingly encroaching on the smart home space. 

“Our customers are quite afraid of the likes of Amazon,” Ruckert said. “Having a Trojan horse in a customer’s home, like Echo, that they must integrate with to stay competitive is a nightmare for them.”

An Amazon spokesperson said the company was “excited by the early response by smart home device manufacturers and even more excited by the customer response,” but declined to speculate about future plans.

A spokesperson for Bosch said no single company can knit the Internet of Things together, so “there is a need to collaborate and establish ecosystems,” such as working with Unified Inbox.

Already the race is on to incorporate other services into these home hubs.

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