They can be the heart of your budding smart home and your willing digital assistant, writes Scott Bartley. However, there is a sting in the tail with the new AI-powered smart speakers

The age of the voice-activated, artificial intelligence-packed smart speaker has arrived. And, like it or not, this market is only going to get bigger if the efforts of Google and Amazon are anything to go by.

According to one report, the smart speaker segment – of which these two American tech giants own some 92 percent of – is set to flourish. Current estimates of its worth range from US$2.7 billion to a hefty US$11.8 billion, over the next five years. And, as if to add an exclamation mark to this, Apple has joined the fray with a smart speaker of its own. To say that smart speakers are all the rage is, quite clearly, a massive understatement.

So what’s the big deal with them then? What are they and why are they so important all of a sudden? Let’s start by defining exactly what a smart speaker is.

 

What is a smart speaker?

Technically, any standalone, internet-connected, wireless speaker that accepts voice commands can be called a smart speaker. However, it’s the ones that are powered by one of the artificial intelligences that are causing all the fuss. These include speakers made by Google (Google Assistant) Amazon (Alexa) and, to a lesser extent, Apple (Siri) as well as Microsoft (Cortana – although, given Microsoft still hasn’t officially launched a New Zealand version of Cortana, it’s safe to say this is a non-starter in this country). These internet-powered digital assistants let people get whatever they want done using voice commands.

The intelligence behind Google Home, for instance, has been quietly infiltrating Android mobile phones for years now, through its Google Assistant technology. If you’ve ever tried an “OK, Google…” command on your phone, congratulations, you’re ahead of the pack. Smart speakers bundle this kind of functionality into a compact, all-in-one device designed to sit around the home waiting to attend to the whims of the humans that live there.

 

What’s in the box?

Out of the box, smart speakers tend to be used mainly for playing music, podcasts, internet radio and audio-books. They are also able to perform internet searches, responding in kind once the appropriate search result has been found.

The devices themselves range from proper grunty audiophile-level speakers (check out Apple’s HomePod) down to diminutive wee devices (think Amazon Echo Dot and Google Home Mini) which provide a basic speaker but are backed by the same smarts as their bigger siblings.

Smart speakers depend entirely on the internet to work and as such come packed with a built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connection. From there, they will need only a power socket or their own battery power to work.

 

What’s the big deal?

It’s the sheer convenience of them that’s making these smart speakers so valuable to their owners. People seem to love the way they can get basic work done simply by talking.

How often have you been in the middle of some task at home, your hands are full or covered in muck, and you realise you need to do a quick Google search. Now, imagine being able to simply ask. Or, with a little smart-home integration (more on this below), you can have the lights turn on when you come home after work in the dark with arms full of bags and shopping. For people with disabilities, smart speakers can be a life-changing addition to the home.

Of course, for the likes of Google and Amazon, their value lies in all the usual areas from which these companies famously profit – selling advertisements, goods and services.

 

Privacy problems?

One possible fly in the ointment is that smart speakers are always listening. That sounds a little George Orwell 1984. However, they need to be able to do this to respond to their human overlords’ various needs. The companies making the devices say the microphones only send the audio to the company servers once they hear the “wake word” (think “OK Google” or “Alexa,” for Amazon Echo). However, there are genuine privacy concerns. Cory Doctorow, of online tech magazine Boing Boing, has called smart speakers the “normalisation of surveillance”. Certainly, in a post-Facebook world, it can be difficult to know how much faith one can put in these companies when it comes to protecting your private data.

And even if privacy doesn’t factor into your thinking, the whole “talking to the house” carry-on isn’t going to be to everyone’s taste. Nor is every Google search you might want to make necessarily one you want to announce out loud.

 

Picking the right speaker

Moving swiftly on, and assuming such things aren’t a cause for concern, there are untold choices for the potential smart speaker buyer. While Google and Amazon make their own hardware, both allow, and, indeed, encourage other speaker-makers to build their own flavour of smart speaker and then load them up with the AI brains Google and Amazon can provide for them. For the user this provides a common platform and consistency of experience, while still being able to choose the hardware that best suits the user’s needs.

 

Do they play well with others?

More than how it looks and sounds, perhaps the most important consideration is how well a speaker will play with existing devices in the home. Unsurprisingly, Google Assistant works rather well with Android phones and other Google products (like Chromecast), as does Alexa. Apple, as ever, is a mixed bag when it comes to compatibility, but will obviously work better with iOS devices than any others. The point is, before jumping in and buying a smart speaker, do ensure it will actually work with everything else you have. Here’s a quick primer on some of what’s available:

 

Google Home

The Google Home range of speakers includes three units of varying size – the Google Home, which looks something like a small desk lamp; the tiny and inconspicuous Google Home Mini; and the larger, more powerful Google Home Max. While none of these are officially available in New Zealand, they can be bought from Australia and also in some local stores as an import.

 

Amazon

Amazon is a prolific manufacturer of smart speakers and its Echo branded line has grown to fill almost every home-audio niche imaginable, though not all are available in New Zealand. The original Amazon Echo still persists ($179) albeit now in its second generation. It’s now accompanied by a plethora of other speakers, some of which even come with little screens.

The $229 Echo Spot (which is now available in New Zealand) is one such device. About the size of an alarm clock (incidentally, one of its uses), the Spot has a 2.5-inch colour display that can be used for video-calls, displaying weather updates or watching the news. Then there is the bare minimum $89 Echo Dot. Amazon clearly hopes we will all put one of these in every room.

 

Apple HomePod

Apple has just the one smart speaker: the HomePod. By all accounts, this device produces some of the finest audio on the market. Of course, it doesn’t play nicely with other devices, so it helps to be fully immersed in the Apple universe if you want to make the best use of it. Oh, and Apple hasn’t decided when it will start selling the HomePod in New Zealand. The story of our lives here.

 

Sonos

Sonos has a long history in the wireless, smart speaker business. However, until very recently none of the company’s speakers worked with Google Assistant or Amazon’s Alexa. Some DIY workarounds allowed for a little compatibility, but nothing worked smoothly out of the box. The brand-new, although, here it comes, not yet available in New Zealand Sonos One changes all this – it supports both Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant.

 

Going ‘full smart home’

Amazon and Google know there is value in encouraging third-party vendors to build devices that work with Alexa and Google Assistant, so they produce an API (application programming interface) to make the task easier. It’s these third-party devices that transform a smart speaker from a fancy music player into a true smart-home hub.

For example, throw in a set of smart lights such as the Philips Hue (get a three-bulb starter kit for around $280) along with a $199 Ring Video Doorbell or a $549 Nest Cam IQ security camera and suddenly it’s possible to have lights that turn on automatically as people enter a room.

 

Here to stay

Smart speakers look like they are here to stay – Amazon and Google will see to that. And, even if the thought of having a voice-controlled smart home makes you feel cold, there is no doubt that the ability to easily stream music around the home, without having to run wires everywhere or clutter up the place with bulky speaker systems, will be a drawcard in itself. As long as these companies take our privacy seriously, a smart speaker can make a great addition and will be the beating heart of any budding smart home.