Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, and the Google Assistant – soon, one of these helpful voice assistants might just be the best way to control your smart devices, instead of pulling out your phone and tapping the screen. We think the future of the internet of things will be shaped by these three major assistants, and we’ve been testing all three in the lab and our own homes recently. In this post, we’ll talk about how they’ll be shaping the industry, and our thoughts on each offering.
There have been many voice-controlled user interfaces over the years, but it wasn’t until Siri was included on the iPhone 4S in 2011 that a voice assistant became part of our everyday life. At first, Siri was used for controlling functions of an iPhone – setting calendar events, creating timers and reminders, and answering simple questions. Now Siri can send text messages, tell you the next time your favorite team plays, and even hail you an Uber. On top of making it easier to use your phone, however, Siri (as well as Alexa and Google Assistant) can control your smart devices – it can turn off your lights, play music on your stereo, and adjust your thermostat – all just using your voice.
We love voice controllers, because they adhere to a zero UI (user interface) model – which we think is going to be incredibly important for the future of the smart home. Small digital screens, like a phone, can be hard to manipulate, especially for the old, young, or the disabled. A zero UI system means a system without reliance on a screen for controls; in the case of voice assistants, that interface is auditory, but there are systems that work with computer vision (the Microsoft Kinect, used mainly in gaming), haptics (touch controls, like the Logitech Pop Switch), and gestures (the Fibaro Swipe, a screen that uses hand gestures to control your smart home). These non-screen interfaces are great for addressing accessibility concerns; someone might not be able to easily navigate screens and get to their Philips Hue app, but asking their voice assistant to turn on the lights can be easy for them. All three major assistants – Alexa, Siri, and Google Assistant –can handle these tasks, but all three do handle them quite differently. They all can be activated by a trigger phrase, but how you speak to them differs depending on the assistant itself. We’ll take a look at all three below and discuss what’s great – and not so great – about each. These assistant all handle a wide variety of commands, but for purposes of this article, we want to talk about how well they control internet of things devices, such as smart home products.
First up is Siri, which a lot of people already have in their pockets. Siri is great because you don’t need any additional equipment. Amazon’s Alexa, for instance, requires one of their devices, while any iPhone user is already carrying Siri with them. Siri can be set up for the trigger phrase “Hey Siri,” or to only activate while pressing the Home button if you don’t want Siri to always be listening. Siri is probably the least conversational of the three, requiring almost exact phrases to be said in order to control a device. Apple’s Home, which is the app that acts as a hub for your smart devices, only works with a small number of devices; in order to work with Home, a company has to work directly with Apple to install a special chip in their device. While this limits the number of devices that Siri can control, it does mean that any product that claims to work with Home will have to work directly with Siri as well. Another interesting thing that Siri has that the other two devices don’t are Apple’s AirPods, which allow you to use the voice assistant by just tapping on your earphones. This could be interesting because you could have not only voice controls, but perhaps haptic controls as well by different taps of the earphone. We’re speculating with that, but the more ways to interact with a device, the better in our minds.
Amazon’s Alexa works with three of their products so far – the flagship Echo, Echo Dot, or Tap. Alexa is also by far the most open ecosystem when it comes to voice assistants (although we suspect that Google will not be far behind once they open their development kits up for third parties). Through the use of programmable skills, Alexa works with a wide variety of smart home devices. An Alexa device is always listening (unless you manually turn off the microphone), so it’s as easy as saying a trigger phrase to get started. You can choose from three phrases – “Alexa,” “Echo,” or “Amazon.” It’s a bit more conversational than Siri, with a variety of phrases that can trigger controls. Talking to Alexa isn’t a fluid conversation; right now, there’s no contextual conversations like there are with Google’s Assistant. We really love the ability to create your own skills if you’re programming-minded. Overall, the Alexa is the most customizable of the three. And the price-point can’t be beat. The Echo Dot is only $49.99, making it the least expensive option on the list compared to buying a new phone or the Google Home. Amazon just announced that they’ll be partnering with Intel to bring Alexa to more devices; we’ll be watching to see what this means for Amazon’s voice assistant.
Lastly, we have the Google Assistant, which comes on the Google Pixel phone or their Google Home speaker. We’ll be focusing on Google Assistant when it’s used on the Google Home for this article, but there might be a time where people are more commonly using a Google or Android phone just as they use Siri. Like an Alexa device, the Google Home is activated by a trigger phrase – “Ok, Google” or “Hey, Google.” It also is slightly ahead in terms of ease-of-conversation, and even allows for context when asking it questions. But being the newest of these three assistants, it falls flat right now in terms of what devices it can control. This, of course, will likely change as the Google Home stays on the market; soon, the software development kit will be available for third parties to begin using, meaning more products will start to integrate. We’re excited to see what the future is for the Google Assistant, because of the three companies behind these voice controllers, Google is the one who has spent the most time thinking about how we casually interact with its products – just think about how vague a Google search can be that still produces the correct results, and how that information will allow for the widest possible ranges of control phrases that can work with your smart home devices.
Fully voice-controlled homes, like what Tony Stark or the Enterprise might have, are still a thing of the future, but with the three biggest corporations in the world focusing on voice assistants, the future might not be so far off. We’re excited at the possibilities that zero UI voice controlled systems bring, and we’ll be keeping a close eye on how they can benefit your home.