The Evolution of Smart Speakers

It seemed as if it was just yesterday that Bluetooth speakers were all the buzz. Now, speakers have evolved into so much more, ingraining itself into our daily lives in as much as becoming the new tech gadget that is being lauded as the next big thing. Truly, smart speakers are no longer a novelty, as it is capable of a myriad of uses, not just for playing that next song on Spotify or asking about the final score of your favorite sporting event.

Speakers have come a long way from the wired and clunky things of yesteryears. However, in order to truly understand just how far smart speakers have evolved, we must first go back to where it all started, and how the voice command evolution really began.

How it All Began

In the early days of computing, input was done either through the keyboard or the mouse. Strangely, voice recognition preceded these input medium, albeit in a more primitive form. The IBM Shoebox was created in 1961 and can recognize 16 words as well as the digits 0 to 9. However, the machine can only react to the input by lighting up specific bulbs attached to it, and there was no real computing being done. Still, the IBM Shoebox is considered as the foundation by which speed recognition and, ultimately, voice input controls were developed.

In 1997, Dragon Dictate was sold to the public with a hefty six-thousand dollar price tag. Initially designed for Windows 95, users were forced to dictate each word clearly and with a clear pause between each word to allow the system to determine the word being spoken.

The first true voice assistant was Siri, which was developed by the SRI International Artificial Intelligence Center, which is from where the name Siri was derived. Originally a separate app that is available from the Apple Store, Apple bought Siri and integrated it with the iPhone 4S which was released in October of 2011.

The earliest version of Siri can make calls, read and send emails, set alarms, or search for nearby establishments, among others. It was also the first to respond to commands via voice, as well, making it quite a novelty at the time.

The First Smart Speakers

The first smart speaker was the Amazon Echo which was released in March of 2014. The technology was the result of three years’ development, with the device originally known as Project D. Unlike Siri, the Amazon Echo can be activated through the wake word “Alexa”, which is also the name of the Artificial Intelligence used to power the device. This gives users a truly hands-free experience that improved over time.

Along with the usual features like making calls, answering queries, and playing music for a 360 degree, surround sound experience, the Amazon Echo and succeeding devices became the template for the development and popularity of smart home automation. With Amazon and Alexa, consumers can now connect external appliances such as light bulbs, fans, stoves, refrigerators, and even TV sets and other mobile devices for a whole new level of convenience and interconnectivity. Getting the Alexa Skills Kit will allow users to further extend the functionality of these devices.

Google Home was the next prominent component in the smart speaker market. Launched in November 2016, Google Home runs the company’s proprietary AI-powered virtual assistant aptly named Google Assistant. Like the Amazon Echo, Google Home allows interaction with different devices through voice commands. It can also connect multiple speakers together so that all can play the same music even when placed in different rooms. Subsequent versions of the brand include the Nest Mini, Home Max, and the Nest Hub, among others.

Current Applications for Smart Speakers

From smart speakers such as the Harman Kardon Onyx Studio 4 that occupy a lot of space to the smaller Apple HomePod and minuscule Amazon Echo Dot, these devices have a lot of power under the hood which allows it to perform different tasks. The Apple Homepod is not only an incredible gadget and strong shrewd speaker alternative, yet it speaks to the changing focal point of the tech big gun over the previous decade from the brilliant age of the notable iPod straight up the best in class models of iPhone. Since its release, Apple has declared a progression of refreshed to the HomePod. In September 2018, it reported a HomePod update that in addition have a method to scan for music verses, extra Siri dialects (Spanish and Canadian French) and a component that enables you to set clocks. You can likewise now make calls legitimately from the HomePod.

Aside from the usual playback via Bluetooth or wireless, some smart speakers can also connect to one or more supported speaker devices and synchronize playback across them. Some, like the aforementioned Harman Kardon Onyx Studio 4, do not have built-in AI but can connect to Alexa or Google-enabled devices so that you can get voice assistant features while still enjoying bigger and better sound.

Aside from this basic functionality, smart speakers can do a lot more. A brief list of tasks that some of the best smart speakers can do include:

  • Work as a Personal Assistant

Before voice assistants and smart speakers, users would need to manually open their calendar app to create a reminder, or their clock app to set an alarm. With smart speakers, you can simply speak it and the device will do it for you. Functions that can be done include but are not limited to adding events, creating a to-do list, getting traffic or weather updates, or even ping your phone in case it gets lost.

  • SMS and Emails

Smart speakers allow users to call people on their contacts without having to be within the vicinity of their phones. Sending messages and emails can also be done in this way. Speech recognition technology has improved so much that it can determine different languages and accents up to a certain extent.

Smart speakers may also read back texts and emails received, with additional voice commands allowing users to let the device read from select messages only. Deletion through voice commands can also be accomplished through the device. Notifications for incoming messages or calls may also be done.

  • Access the Internet

By accessing Google, Wikipedia, the Alexa app, and other services, smart speakers can provide results through inquiries through voice. Smart speakers can provide information based on search results such as the latest NBA score, information about a certain topic, establishments near you, or conversion rates.

  • Display Videos

Some smart speakers, such as the Amazon Echo Show, have a built-in display that allows for both audio and video output. This is best for the automation of video apps such as Netflix or Youtube. For others without displays, integration with smart TVs is possible as well, all done without wires to connect.

  • Have a Conversation

Owners of smart speakers know how entertaining it is to ask personal questions to Siri, Alexa, or even the Google Assistant. You can ask them about their religion, political choices, or even their favorite color. While not that useful, the AI has been developed to be responsive and can even provide humorous answers to conversations. Next time, you can try asking for a joke or which voice assistant is better.

  • Shopping Assistant

Amazon smart speakers have the ability to allow users to make purchases through voice commands. Linking to the Amazon marketplace has been available for about a year now, and you can expect others to follow suit. Searching for a particular item or making re-orders can be done through voice prompts, and added security can be added to only recognize authorized voices in order to ensure that only valid orders would be purchased.

  • Building a Smart Home

The highlight of smart speakers is that it allows for specific devices to be connected and to respond to your commands. You can set a command to turn on your air conditioning once you arrive from your home, or you can automatically turn off the lights outside after 4 AM. The possibilities are currently only limited by the functionalities provided by smart appliances, and the coverage of the IoT revolution, or the Internet of Things, is only expanding as the days go by.

Advantages of Smart Speakers

The main selling point of smart speakers is the convenience that they are capable of providing. Gone are the days of large speakers with long wires that can get broken or tripped over. With these devices, users can now have high-quality audio coming from literally anywhere at home. Battery life and charging hours will vary from device to device, but with the previous rise of Bluetooth speakers and other wireless devices that require charging, we have already adapted to this minor inconvenience.

With smart speakers, the bulk of the day’s chores can be done even before you get up in the morning or get home from work. Stoves can be pre-heat, or the morning coffee can be brewed by setting events or telling your voice assistant to do so with a simple command. You can also easily monitor the status of your smart appliances from your phone. Getting up from the couch to turn on appliances or turn them off, and even changing the channels on your TV with a standard remote, will now be a thing of the past as everything can be done with just your voice.

Perhaps most importantly, smart speakers allow for information to be in the palm of your hands, at least metaphorically. As both input and output are primarily through voice, users can multitask and get the information that they need without needing to have a tablet or smartphone in their hands. This is advantageous also for those with limited mobility or those with disabilities. Smart speakers, thus, are capable of interacting with a much wider audience than the traditional method.

Disadvantages of Smart Speakers

The primary concern with smart speakers is related to privacy. As modern smart speakers constantly listen to wake words, and with information being sent to cloud servers for processing, one of the main arguments against smart speakers is what companies are capable of doing with whatever information is being heard. Much like push notifications are often customized towards the browsing history or location of the user, smart speakers can, theoretically, do more and using far more sensitive data.

Legal issues may also arise based on the use of smart speakers, especially when it comes to incriminating evidence that can be gathered from the cloud. Can information acquired from the cloud server be used against you in a criminal case? This is currently a gray area in the court of law, as it conflicts with both the right to free speech and the right to remain silent, as well as a big privacy issue in addition to the one mentioned above.

Another big concern is how these conveniences would most likely affect its users in the long run. As convenience increases, so will reliance. Concerns that this over-reliance will turn people into lazy couch potatoes that will feel a certain handicap without access to these devices are absolutely valid. What will happen if the Internet or the servers go down? Can a person still function productively and at the same level even without a device that caters to their every whim? These are questions that still do not have concrete answers due to the relative youth of the technology, but are nevertheless issues that should be pondered upon.

Some current limitations

Despite the technological advancements made in smart speaker technology, there are still certain limitations that challenge the full potential of these devices. The most prominent of these is the limitation of voice input. While Natural Language Processing has improved by leaps and bounds, there are still bound to be a large percentage of users that get wrong results from smart speakers due to wrong interpretation of the input against the intended result. This can be due to very thick accents, wrong grammar or pronunciation, and even the usage of a language or dialect not yet fully understood by the software.

Challenges can also arise due to the limitations of the hardware or software itself. While AI such as Alexa and Google Assistant can perform thousands of tasks, and smart appliances often come with a ton of features that can integrate with your device, there are simply things that can’t be done as the system would need more computing power and more complex algorithms to process these commands. The hardware of smart appliances may also not support commands given, which can lead to frustrations.

Reliance on the Internet is also a huge limitation. Without Internet access, there is no way for the device to gain access to the cloud and to translate input into an instruction that it can understand. As such, a smart speaker that is not connected will basically just become a glorified speaker. While some smart speakers can still respond to voice prompts independently, getting this type of device without being able to connect to the Internet or the wireless network is impractical and costly.

Even the most advanced smart speaker today cannot perform anything without a wake word, otherwise, users should be prepared to have your device complete commands that they do not want to be done. It is also currently impossible for smart speakers to fully understand all types of commands due to the multiple variations that these can be done. Of course, AI is continuously evolving and being improved upon, and newer and better peripherals and supporting appliances are being launched. As such, users can expect interactions between smart speakers and users to improve, and for these limitations to be minimized or eliminated altogether.

What’s Next?

As smart speaker technology is continuously being developed, the public can expect breakthroughs that will further add to the things that these devices can do. Improvements in the current infrastructure of these systems will also be done, improving security as well as customized interactivity between each device and their respective users.

We have only scratched the surface on what smart speakers can really do. Currently, voice assistants for cars are being done, with functions such as unlocking doors or finding the best route towards an intended destination being made available. Future plans may also include integrating voice assistants in the retail and service industry such as supermarkets, restaurants, and hotels. We see the future of smart speakers as serving customers in a way that a butler, salesperson, or customer service representative could. This allows for less human interaction, faster response times, and less costly for businesses that are willing to invest in technology over manpower.

Smart speakers can also help tremendously in the fields of medicine, military, gaming, and other areas where fast response time is critical. Integrating these devices with other peripherals such as heads-up displays can provide users with up to the minute information that they can use to be more productive and effective. Lastly, users can expect a more natural conversation with smart speakers, allowing devices to be activated with minimal use of wake words and even understanding a wider range of instructions despite language barriers and the variety of commands available.

Today, one in six Americans have a smart speaker in their home, with a 78% growth in sales when compared to the previous year. As such consumers can expect companies to exploit this ongoing trend by continuously developing both hardware and software that will provide bigger and better features. Smart speaker technology will definitely still evolve in use and functionalities across different areas through the months and years, and while there will still be some huge challenges to address as well as social and legal hurdles to go over, the paradigm shift that the use of these devices has promoted is far from over.

At this moment different companies, including the greatest names in tech, are likewise taking a shot at their own savvy home sound items. Regardless of whether they shake-up the existing market or end up being a heap of tourists remains to be seen.

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