PARIS — Whatever you call them — smart microphones, virtual digital assistant, personal home robots, The Control Voice or R2D2 — Amazon Echo-like products are on the rise.
Amazon's Echo (left), Dot
The second generation Echo Dot, whose price has been just dropped from $89.99 to $49.99 compared with its first generation version, will be on sale in the U.S. market next month.
Amazon’s Echo (and subsequent Dot) has opened a new market enabling device vendors to compete on better audio quality in voice capture, higher mic audio resolution, more sophisticated background noise filtering, better far field detection, and unflappable connectivity.
Companies like XMOS, although whose chips not designed in Echo, say they are geared up for the new voice interface market. Paul Neil, vice president and business development at XMOS, told EE Times last week, “[The] Internet of things are a bit of a movable feast right now. But to control these [IoT] devices, voice is the most natural user interface.”
With “a unique combination of conventional microcontroller performance, embedded DSP and flexible I/O,” Neil said, “We have the technology that’s an ideal match for voice interfaces.”
The battle among hardware devices, however, is only half the story that makes up the smart microphone/speaker market. “The real competitive variables come from the cloud side of the equation,” Paul Erickson, senior analyst of connected home at IHS Markit, told EE Times.
In pursuit of a smart microphone that’s even smarter (capable of handling complex queries and random questions), the race over competence in cloud services is accelerating. Google is expected to enter the market with Google Home and Google Assistant (successor to Google Now) late this year, Erickson explained. “And there are plenty of rumors that Apple will likely enter the market too in 2017, using Siri.”
One more reason why Amazon Echo, an IoT device, is hot is its potential to achieve one of the most important IoT virtues: Future-proofing.
Skip Ashton, vice president of software at Silicon Labs, last week told a media briefing in Germany that future-proofing means “ensuring that a device can continue to add more features as time goes on.” The Alexa voice service for the Echo was first launched with 70 skills, but it now has over 1700, said Ashton.
Echo can answer questions, read the news, give sports scores, control lights, order products from Amazon and set an alarm clock. Users also can use the device to order rides from Uber and pizza from Domino’s.
“The Echo is updated every 2 weeks in the cloud,” said Ashton. “Amazon sends a Friday e-mail to Echo users announcing new capabilities – ‘Here is what is new with Alexa this week!’” Ashton concluded that Echo users “have generally been delighted” as its uses have grown.
Tom Hackenberg, principal analyst, embedded processors at IHS Markit, articulated why Amazon Echo matters to the electronics industry – probably better than anyone. He told us that a smart microphone/smart speaker application is “extremely valuable to processor vendors.”
Such devices are not only crucial to providing “local intelligence.” The voice interface is proliferating everywhere -- across a broad market spectrum. Not only is the digital assistant market emerging as a consumer electronics device version of a smartphone app, said Hackenberg, “the speaker is not the only form factor.”
He explained, “There will likely be home automation hubs and digital assistance built into TVs, Set-top boxes, HVAC/environmental control hubs and more. It is also a significant application in automotive infotainment systems, especially because of its hands free benefits.”
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