Tech talk: Smart speaker technology and the possibilities

Smart speakers

At a personal level I don’t really have an issue in buying and using technology for the sake of technology. I love the innovation and the thought processes and creativity that is involved in creating a product from an idea. I am the first to admit though that some of the original ideas are not great – hence the product at the end of the process is not necessarily that practical.

One of the hottest areas of new technology on the market at the moment is the smart speaker category. I want to spend some time looking at what these speakers are capable of and possibly answer the question of practicality. There are three brands competing for your dollar in what the technology industry is touting as the hottest new category since…the last hottest new category. The Amazon Echo was released on 6 November 2014. The Echo had a two-year period with a monopoly before the Google Home was released on 4 November last year. In June this year, the Apple HomePod was announced but it won’t be available for almost three months.

Amazon Echo: Had a monopoly on the smart speaker category until Google realease something similar a year later and now Apple is joining them.

Amazon Echo: Had a monopoly on the smart speaker category until Google realease something similar a year later and now Apple is joining them.

At the most basic level, a Smart Speaker is a high-quality audio device that connects to the Internet to allow you to stream music direct from an Internet music provider to your speaker. But they are so much more. The real competition is with their digital assistants and what you can ask your Smart Speaker to do for you. And that list is growing. You know it is becoming mainstream when Hollywood starts including the technology in movies like Why Him? which featured the all-listening all-caring digital house assistant called Justine (voiced by Penny from The Big Bang Theory) who could attend to a vast variety of needs for house guests including the analysis of the psychological state of the visitors.

We aren’t quite at that level yet but we are progressing. As much as all three companies boast about their beam-forming tweeter array and honed acoustic speakers using materials mined from the hidden lands of a foreign country, they all sound great.

The competition is at the artificial intelligence level and the integration with other devices. Alexa; Hi Google and Hey Siri will wake up each device and allow you to ask a command. You can ask for the weather or the latest news or to play a song. The voice recognition accuracy is impressive and asking a question that can easily be answered via the internet will deliver good results. Ask for the meaning of life or for a joke and it will deliver a variety of fun results.

So far all of this is good fun but it doesn’t enhance the practical task of going about your day. Integration is the key and will determine the ultimate winner in this category. Ask your assistant to add an item to your shopping list or add an appointment to your calendar or call your Mum and you are starting to see some advantages.

These all integrate with other software but what about asking for your garage door to open or your lights to be turned off or to change the channel on your TV? Now we are talking about the control of physical items in your home. It may sound a little Jetsonesque but all of this is possible right now. All of the items that you control electronically in your home are possible targets for voice control by your Smart Speaker. Some may call this technology for the sake of technology, I call it cool, but I can also see that as the integration improves and homes are built with more electronic controls, it will become a standard part of the home landscape.

To answer the first question of practicality, I would say the category is getting there but it is still more in the novelty camp at the moment. At the prices that are being asked for the devices, it is possible to buy one as a good portable speaker and play with the technology.

I know it will really have made it when I can ask Alexa to write my Fairfax technology column for this week. Make it unique, interesting and informative whilst featuring the latest in the world of technology – and to keep the editor happy stick to the word limit because I always say too much! We aren’t quite at that level yet…