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Voice Power

As tech giants integrate voice assistants with third-party hardware, one can enjoy these smart services without spending a fortune.

The concept of always-present, always-connected smart speakers that respond to voice commands and carry out all kinds of tasks sounds fascinating mostly because they tend to simplify our life.

Powered by AI software, they fetch relevant information, play music, book a cab, buy flight tickets, order food, control home appliances and do much more. In India, Amazon's Echo family is leading the race, thanks to its early-mover advantage, but Google is catching up fast with its Home speakers. Apple, too, has jumped on the bandwagon.

Here is a catch, though. Their compelling hardware stands nowhere without the 'brain' or the virtual assistant software, which triggers all activities. Both Amazon and Google know better than restricting consumers to proprietary hardware and allow Alexa and Google Assistant to be integrated with third-party devices to push growth.

It does not mean their hardware offerings are on the wane. Amazon, for instance, offers several Echo gadgets, including the Echo Dot (second and third-generation devices priced between Rs 3,499 and Rs 4,499) and the second-generation Echo Plus at Rs 14,999. The company is planning to launch a 10.1 inch-screen Echo Show in India early next year. But as voice assistants become increasingly ubiquitous, efforts are on to push Alexa via third-party integration.

The Alexa Voice Service (AVS) gives developers access to a suite of resources such as APIs, hardware and software development kits, and documentation procedures that will help build Alexa-enabled products quickly and easily. Using AVS, device-makers can add an Amazon-tested intelligent interface to their products and offer their customers access to a growing number of Alexa features and smart-home integration options.

"The model we have is based on our fundamental belief in customer choice. AVS is not only royalty-free, but we also provide a lot of technical and engineering support, introduce them (developers) to our ecosystem integrators and provide reference designs while our code can be downloaded for free. Moreover, developers can implement multiple AIs alongside Alexa," says Adam Berns, Director of Business Development at AVS.

Let us delve deeper to understand if customers benefit from Alexa support in third-party devices. The Echo Dot from Amazon's stable is an affordable but wired device. What if someone wants to buy a smart wireless speaker without burning a hole in her pocket? This is where players like Sirena Technologies and Boat Audio come in. Sirena Technologies' Vood is the smallest Alexa-enabled digital speaker (costs Rs 2,699) that will respond to your voice commands to play music, answer queries and control smart devices. The Boat Stone 700A portable speaker is a waterproof, shock-proof and dust-proof smart speaker with built-in Alexa and the ability to communicate with smart home devices. For audiophiles, Alexa-enabled speakers are available from Harman Kardon and Bose, but these are priced on the higher side.

Alexa-enabled speakers can do almost everything an Echo device does except for a couple of things. One is the Multi-Room Music that enables playing and controlling music across supported Echo devices and compatible speakers at the same time. And the second is Alexa-to-Alexa calling.

Developers are also looking at ways to enable Alexa on existing hardware. Mybox Technologies has come out with an Alexa Kit (Rs 1,999) that can be plugged into an existing set-top box (STB) of the company. When connected, users will be able to access all Alexa features from the mic button on their STB remotes. The new middleware and the Alexa Kit are capable of installing AVS to homes serviced by multisystem operators such as E-infrastructure and Entertainment in Bengaluru and Sri Sai Communications in Hyderabad. Then there are infrared voice remotes with Alexa built-in for converting home appliances into smart gadgets which can receive voice commands.

A wide range of Google Home hardware has also hit the market, including Mini, Home, Max and Google Home Hub. Late last year, Google announced its plan to bring the Assistant on tablets. However, you will not be restricted to Google hardware for accessing Google Assistant. There are voice-activated speakers from brands such as Altec Lansing, Anker Innovations, Bang & Olufsen, Braven, iHome, JBL, Jensen, LG, Klipsch, Knit Audio, Memorex, Riva Audio and more which are available abroad. As Smart Displays, a new breed of smart speakers with built-in screens, are gaining popularity globally, Google has started working with JBL, Sony, Lenovo and LG for the same.

The smart speaker market in India is growing fast, recording a 43 per cent sequential growth in the second quarter of the current financial year, as per IDC India. But before long, there could be major issues around multiple proprietary platforms and cross-device communications. In such a scenario, software integration with all types of hardware, both affordable and high-end, will be required to build an inclusive ecosystem around voice-control and connected-home experience. The sooner it happens, the better for consumers who can take advantage of superior AI from the realm of affordability.


Published on: Oct 29, 2018, 9:14 AM IST
Posted by: Jatin Kumar, Oct 29, 2018, 9:14 AM IST