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Voice – Rapidly Becoming the Home’s Primary User Interface

June 17, 2016Voice - Rapidly Becoming the Home's Primary User Interface

At the recent May Connections Conference in San Francisco I listened to Amazon’s David Isbitiski deliver a keynote talk on Accelerating Smart Home Adoption through Voice Control and Alexa.

Amazon Echo Can Control Your Home Using Voice Control

The main point of his talk was that voice control is breaking into the smart home market in a big way. Using voice as a device and application interface enables customers to interact with smart home devices in a more intuitive way than touch screen controls. David called this the dawn of the post-app era of consumer engagement. A couple of days after David gave his keynote talk Michael Wolf blogged in his Next Market website that the epicenter of new technology innovation has moved beyond mobile devices such as smartphones to the things and systems that surround us. This shift is bringing new interfaces which to access those things, and the AI and machine learning layers are being built into and around those things.

Mike goes on to say that Amazon saw the opportunity to layer voice into a device designed for the home, with important feature sets like advanced far-field listening capabilities. They also saw voice as the right interface to tap into a fairly open AI development platform in Alexa, with which they’ve actively been fostering a rapidly growing ecosystem of developers to build out the Skills library.

“Amazon has started to do with it’s voice and AI platform what Apple did with its apps. Apple helped us all think differently about apps and let us see the potential, and now Amazon is doing the same with voice and AI. The Alexa Skills marketplace is really just the first scaled app store for voice and AI.”

In my opinion that last sentence says it all. The overwhelming success of the Apple iOS platform is courtesy of all the developers that have enhanced the smart phone and tablets to do the thousands of tasks that we use everyday – and iOS based home control apps are critical to the success of almost all of the home solutions that custom integrators support. When Apple launched their app based iPad in 2010 it almost overnight become the de facto touch screen for home control – replacing the proprietary non-app based touch screens our industry had been deploying from the total home control companies. Today we are witnessing the same paradigm shift in primary user control preferences away from app based touch screens to voice becoming the primary user interface. But voice control has been around for a long time – so why now? – and why is it happening so quickly?

The Amazon Echo product launched in the summer of 2015 (developed inside its Lab126 offices in Silicon Valley and Cambridge, Mass. since at least 2010) has been a critical factor in the success of voice for home control. There are several key design factors that have contributed to its tremendous success, specifically:

  • It is always on and ready to listen to a voice command. No need to open an app or turn on a device – Amazon Alexa is always listening and ready to respond to a command.
  • Far field listening capabilities. This is more than just hype – Alexa can easily hear your commands from across the room. This is not push to talk – this is a very intuitive talk to talk.
  • Low latency response times. It is critical that Alexa be able to process home control requests quickly and accurately. Amazon has spent considerable R&D resources to make sure that requests that Alexa makes to its Amazon Web Services cloud are handled quickly and reliably.
  • A rapidly growing range of skill sets. This is the voice based skills store that Amazon has created. We have already seen the NEST thermostat, Lutron’s Caseta lighting, Simple Control for AV remote control, and Rachio’s sprinkler controls added to this rapidly growing list of Alexa skills. Expect those voice based control skills to be added to many of the manufacturers that we sell and support in our channel in the very near future.
  • Accurate speech recognition – while the AI speech recognition of Alexa is not perfect it is very, very good. And it can learn your speech patterns to improve it’s performance.

For all the benefits of voice control in the home there are still some significant limitations. In the ideal world the syntax of voice control would be as simple as being in the kitchen and saying “turn on the lights”. But in today’s far field listening world of Amazon Echo we still need to use the following command “Alexa, tell Lutron to turn on the lights in the kitchen”. Not exactly as intuitive as “turn on the lights” if we have to first give a name, than the manufacturer’s product name, and then the zone we are in. When I want to turn on the Rachio sprinklers by voice I have to say “Alexa, tell Rachio to turn Zone 3 on for 5 minutes”. Most of our clients would not know they have a Rachio IP based sprinkler system or what Zone 3 is referring to. Ideally we would be outside in the yard – see that the roses need water and say “water the roses for 5 minutes”.

But all of these limitations are being worked on. Josh.ai, for example, eliminates the need to start a command with Alexa (but natively uses a push to talk listening technique – not as versatile as far field listening). Additionally, Simple Control and Josh.ai (which will be launching later this summer), now have Echo supported voice enabled control for Lutron RadioRA2 and Sonos. Josh.ai will allow you to say multiple commands at once, such as saying “Turn off the lights in the kitchen, lower the shades in the living room, and play Adele throughout the house” all in one command. Amazon is also working on tying room information to the Amazon Echo microphones that we place around the home so that a command heard from the kitchen based Amazon Echo would assume the command was for a kitchen based action unless told otherwise.

There are other issues with voice based control as well. We wouldn’t want just anyone to say “Alexa, open the front door” and if other family members are trying to rest then using your voice to wake up Alexa would probably wake your other family members. And why would you use voice control to look at your security cameras when you need a screen in your hand to view them – you may as well use the app to initiate this action. Additionally, with the Amazon Echo implementation of voice control from the cloud – if your Internet is down so is your home control. There will still be a need for the brains of our home control systems to reside in the home for the foreseeable future. Their services will be mirrored to the cloud but not exclusively reside in the cloud. For all of these reasons, and probably many more, the screen based app world with local home control processing that we live in now is not going away soon. Nevertheless, touch screens will no longer be the primary user interface that we use in the home – it will be voice.

To date, the Amazon Echo product has over 37,000 reviews on the Amazon store and 1/3 of them have the word “love” in the review. How many of our clients “love” the products that we install for them? With this level of emotion attached to a technology product we have to be aware of its impact to our industry.

Are you prepared to provide the answers and the solutions for your clients when they ask what about voice control for their home?

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Smart Home Magazine – Inaugural Issue

March 15, 2016Smart Home Magazine - Inaugural Issue

We are very excited to launch our SMART HOME MAGAZINE. The goal of this magazine is to help our clients and builder partners better understand the connected home technologies that are available to enrich the way you live, work and play in your home using existing smart phones, tablets, smart watches or TVs.

The solutions and columns in this magazine are based on cyberManor’s experience with these app based solutions for the hundreds of clients that we have served for over the last twenty years. Our featured column showcases what we believe are the best of breed whole house audio, TV and movies, comfort and well being, security and access control solutions for the home. These are not total home control systems that require extensive and ongoing customized programming. They are systems and solutions that have a proven history of reliability, ease of use, and innovation to provide exceptional whole house audio, TV, lighting control, and security experiences. We also review the importance of planning and construction documentation for home technology solutions. At our new cyberManor Home Technology Center we will be reviewing the best of these new technologies and upgrading our own showroom home to give existing and potential clients the opportunity to experience these new entertainment, comfort, and security solutions.

It’s a very exciting time to be involved in home technology. We hope this issue of our SMART HOME MAGAZINE gives you some great new ideas on how to use these innovative app based products and solutions to enhance your new or existing home.

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Almost a century ago General Electric sent a magazine called the The HOME of a HUNDRED COMFORTS (as shown below) to homeowners in the 1920’s to describe the benefits of a well planned, whole house electrical wiring infrastructure for the early 20th century smart, modern home.

Today we discuss the benefits of a properly planned low voltage wiring infrastructure, one that allows networked devices to connect to a high speed network backbone and the internet cloud. Once again history repeats itself – but now whole house low voltage structured wiring is critically important in today’s smart, modern home. cyberManor’s one room schoolhouse (which in the 1920’s displayed the best of high voltage electronic solutions) is now a live showroom for the modern conveniences provided by networked low voltage products and solutions – we call it our 21st century HOME of a HUNDRED NETWORKED COMFORTS!

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Apps Control It All In Cybermanor Smart Home

June 23, 2015Apps Control It All In Cybermanor Smart Home

This column appeared in the San Jose Mercury News and the Los Gatos Weekly in January, 2015. The article gives a very good overview of cyberManor’s products and services and our “Tours by Appointment” SmartHome Experience Center in Los Gatos, California. Apps-Control-It-All-Article

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The Apple Watch: Initial Home Control Experiences

June 15, 2015The Apple Watch: Initial Home Control Experiences

2022 Column on the Apple Watch
In 2015 I wrote the column below about the potential for the newly introduced Apple Watch for the custom integration channel. It was a little premature. In April of 2022 I updated my thoughts using the latest version of the Apple Watch in this column for Residential Systems Magazine.

2015 Column on the Apple Watch
I have owned my new black sports band Apple Watch for a short time and have developed some first impressions on what I think its impact will be to our clients and the custom electronics industry. Unlike the Apple touchscreen products that preceded the watch, the phone and the iPad – the Watch’s immediate role in home control and automation is not nearly as clear. When the iPhone was introduced it was evident to most custom manufacturers in the residential home control space that this platform would have an immediate impact on how customers would want to control their home’s music, televisions, lighting, security systems, and heating and cooling systems. Over time, and with the growth of the Internet of things the iOS and Android smart phones also became a remote control point for sprinkler systems, door locks, and swimming pool and hot tub controls. When the iPad was introduced about three years after the smartphone it was also obvious that this high resolution, large real estate touchscreen could serve as a useful control interface in the home. When you want to see and control multiple home zones, multiple control systems, and add high resolution graphic images the added screen real estate of an iPad becomes very useful. Even the iPad mini found a niche for certain rooms and home control applications.

But the immediate impact of the Apple Watch on home control is not as evident. It is most likely the reason that some large players in our industry are still on the sidelines with respect to their Apple Watch software development. Crestron and Savant are committed to the new platform while we have not seen anything yet from Control4. Sonos and NEST are also conspicuously absent but Lutron does have Apple Watch control. Interestingly enough – when leading companies such as Sonos and NEST don’t provide smart watch control of their products enterprising third party companies are there to sell their Apple Watch control software to fill this void – even if it is a temporary one. ZonePlay and Kronos make a pretty good Apple Watch Sonos controller, NEST App and NestControl make an Apple Watch NEST controller and the Drip app allows you to view your Dropcams on the watch.

Apple Watch Screenshots - DropCam, ZonePlay, Lutron

One of the key considerations for using the Apple Watch for home and remote control is its usability compared to the smartphone interface. In the smartphone world we can get immediate access to our home control apps by launching one unified home controller app (like Savant, Crestron, or Control4) or by opening a home control folder that contains all the individual home control apps (like Sonos, Lutron, and NEST). We can access these apps quickly and interface with them intuitively. The watch interface needs to have this same (or better) level of interaction with our home systems to be useful over the long term. A key software feature of the Apple Watch OS that provides a level of seamless interaction for the control of home systems is a feature called Glances. With Glances you can easily sweep away the clock interface of the watch to view your front door camera, one more swipe and you can arm or disarm the home, one more swipe and you can control the Sonos whole house music system, and one more swipe lets you control your Apple TV. These swipe actions are very easy and intuitive to learn and invoke – Watch apps that support glances are great candidates for home control – those that do not are much more limiting. The problem is that opening an app on an Apple Watch requires a level of precision finger pointing in order to launch a very small app icon. If you miss the app you launch the wrong one. In addition the watch screen can become quickly crowded with app icons making them difficult to find. You can’t create folders for home control apps on the watch screen interface (but you can move them together to find them a little more easily).

My strong suggestion to our clients and custom integrators that are beginning to deploy Apple Watch home control applications is to select the top 4 or 5 control features you want to deploy and include them in the glance-able screens of the watch. All other secondary control features should be left as watch applications.

There is another factor that has inhibited our industry’s rapid embrace of the Apple Watch for control as well – specifically that most apps on the watch need to be wirelessly tethered to a nearby iPhone and the apps generally do not run that fast on the Watch. But that promises to change this fall as Apple recently announced at the June Developer Conference that the new Watch OS2 operating system will allow developers to write apps that can run native on the watch without the use of the phone – and run much more quickly.

I predict that many hardware manufacturers that have not yet released a watch app will do so now that Watch OS2 is available. And just as each iOS release gave clients a richer smartphone experience expect the same in the smart watch space. The Watch app wave will also continue to build momentum. When Apple first introduced the Watch they announced there were over 3000 apps already written for the watch. A few months later that number has crossed over 5000 – expect that by the end of the year this number will be over 10,000. Of those apps many will be in the home control space. (For a great overview of all the home control apps now available for the Apple Watch you please visit www.watchaware.com).

Its also important to note that the watch has some very unique experiences that will find their way into the home control experience. Haptic response is one of those experiences – if you forget to arm your home when you leave or close the garage door your Watch will vibrate on your wrist with this reminder. Siri and voice control will become a more important feature for home control. As products begin to roll out under the Apple HomeKit umbrella we can expect to see the Siri voice functionality of the Watch enable commands such as turning on and off lights or opening and closing door locks. As the Watch apps embrace location awareness expect their usefulness to increase as well. Imagine walking into a Sonos audio zone where the Watch knows that you are in the kitchen zone and you can immediately bring up the kitchen Sonos audio interface on your watch to adjust the volume and music content in this room – no more fumbling through rooms to figure out which one you are in.

Finally we need to understand how the Watch is beginning to replace the keys and wallet in your pocket. If we use its near field and bluetooth communications capability for financial payments (Apple Pay) and to open locked doors in our home, car, or even hotel rooms, then the watch will become a much more useful device on our wrist. And the more we use if for payment and key functions – the more we are likely to use it for home control functionality.

The Apple Watch will clearly have an impact on our clients and the custom electronics industry – but unlike the smart phone and tablet devices it will take some time before it becomes as ubiquitous as these devices are now for home control. But Apple will keep improving this platform, manufacturers will keep improving their watch software, and consumers will become increasingly comfortable with this new touchscreen interface. We sell custom integrated and control solutions to our clients – and the Apple Watch will become part of that solution.

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Rachio’s IRO – The “NEST” Equivalent for Intelligent Irrigation Control

January 2, 2015Rachio’s IRO – The “NEST” Equivalent for Intelligent Irrigation Control

Rachio Irrigation ControllerAt cyberManor we consider ourselves to be the digital consultants and curators for our client’s homes. One of the key values that we offer our customers is the ability to vet the products that we consider to be the best of breed in a given product category. In our multi-app solution strategy we look for vendor companies that have demonstrated that they are platform leaders in a given category – such as whole house music, TV, lighting control, or HVAC control. For years we have been looking for an equivalent leader in residential irrigation control and we strongly believe we have finally found that platform from a company called Rachio based in Denver, Colorado.

For cyberManor’s clients and my own home I have always wanted an intelligent irrigation controller that was easy to control from a browser and/or mobile controller. My home’s first irrigation controller, like almost everyone’s home, had to be programmed using an archaic rotary dial and push button keypad and would water our lawns rain or shine. With the broadband connection we had in our home 15 years ago and our company’s ability to connect intelligent devices to the home network and the internet – the search was on for an intelligent irrigation controller that would at least stop watering the lawn when the local weather forecast called for rain. I found one such intelligent system in the early 2000’s and while it accomplished the task of only watering our lawns on non-rainy days it was still very difficult to program since it was engineered as a commercial irrigation controller, not for the simpler needs of a residential irrigation system. And it cost over $2,000 – it would take a lot of water savings to justify this price point!

Over the years I replaced that early intelligent controller with two subsequent intelligent irrigation systems that got closer to my goal of intelligent irrigation control and an easy to use and program browser and mobile interface – but they still were relatively primitive. The controller apps were rudimentary and limited and the browser interface required a browser plug-in that was slow to load on most desktop or laptop computers. I had gone through this same iterative process with intelligent thermostats until the NEST came along and finally one company had got it right – a well-orchestrated blend of elegant hardware and software engineering. In my opinion, the NEST equivalent for engineering excellence has now arrived from a new company called Rachio and its IRO irrigation controller.

Rachio IRO controlled by an iPhone

Three months ago I installed the $249 eight zone IRO controller at our cyberManor Smart Home Experience Center to control our outdoor irrigation zones. It has lived up to, and exceeded, all my expectations as to what an intelligent irrigation controller should be – easy to control and program from the web or a mobile device, reliable, responsive, and local weather forecast intelligence. And they have gone several steps further – Rachio is a Works with NEST and IFTTT partner. If a NEST Protect is installed in the home and the IRO detects a heavy amount of smoke indicating a fire hazard the sprinklers will turn on. With IFTTT integration you can track IRO’s watering times in a Google Spreadsheet.

While the Rachio IRO product is a great leap forward compared to the smart irrigation residential controllers that are currently on the market there are a few items that I would like to see implemented in a future release of their product, as listed below:

  • Currently the mobile software only runs in portrait mode and we sometimes install iPad in-wall controllers in landscape mode. Our clients don’t like to look at apps with their heads rotated 90 degrees! We have solved this problem by installing the SmartThings sDock Pro rotatable iPad mount but the app should be viewable in both orientations.
  • There should be a “gardener friendly” interface for the controller. Gardeners are not walking around with iPhone and Android control devices so there needs to be some fundamental control interface on the IRO itself where a gardener can manually turn on and off a zone from the controller itself for repair and testing purposes. We now solve that problem by installing an iPod in a charging cradle next to the irrigation controller that is locked down to the IRO app. This iPod becomes the mobile controller for IRO irrigation unit and only operates this system.
Despite these minor limitations the team at Rachio has come out with a great residential irrigation controller and I expect that their early success will financially enable them to engineer significant enhancements to their product in the months and years to come. This is the definition of a great product platform for the home – one that actually improves over time with software updates from the cloud at no charge to the client. It is a formula that has worked exceptionally well for Sonos and NEST and I would expect the same for Rachio. Welcome Rachio to our custom integration world.
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