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Echo Show

Echo Show

Echo Show

The day after Microsoft announces their Alexa and Google Home competitor called “Invoke” based on Cortana’s voice engine, Amazon releases Echo Show as the latest member of the Alexa Echo Family.

Echo Show has a touch screen and also includes now a calling feature. You can not only control all your smart home devices with your voice as before, but now you are able to watch videos with your voice, place calls and send messages to other Echo member devices (Alexa, Dot) and everybody who has the free Alexa app on their Android or IOS phone.

Powered by Dolby, Echo Show is fine-tuned to deliver crisp vocals with dynamic bass response and expansive sound. Watch as the display comes alive to show song lyrics, custom stations, curated playlists, and album art with Amazon Music. Echo Show also connects to Spotify, Pandora, iHeartRadio, and TuneIn—giving you voice control for all of your music. Echo Show is Bluetooth-enabled so you can stream other popular music services like Apple Music from your phone or tablet

Introducing a new way to be together more with the people who matter most. Make hands-free video calls to friends and family who have an Echo Show or the Alexa App. When you’re busy making dinner, just ask Alexa to place a call from your Echo Show to anyone with a supported Echo device or the Alexa App. You can also enable a new feature called Drop In for the special cases when you want to connect with your closest friends and family. For example, you can drop in to let the family know it’s time for dinner, see the baby’s nursery, or check in with a close relative.

With the Alexa App, conversations and contacts go where you go. When you’re away from home, use the app to make a quick call or send a message to your family’s Echo. Alexa calling and messaging is free.

For news and information you can see and hear, just ask Alexa for your video flash briefing from CNN, Bloomberg, and more. Curious about the latest movie trailers or a need a how-to video from YouTube? Just ask.

Echo Show helps keep you organized at home. Start a timer in the kitchen and watch as it counts down, or easily see and manage your family’s calendar. Sign in to the Alexa App to take your to-do and shopping lists with you. Just add an item to the list from home, and whoever is out shopping will see it added instantly on their Alexa App.

Equipped with eight microphones, beam-forming technology, and noise cancellation, Echo Show hears you from any direction–even while music is playing.

Echo Show Internals
Smart Home support
Microsoft trying to compete with Amazon Alexa and Google Home

Microsoft trying to compete with Amazon Alexa and Google Home

Invoke

Microsoft is entering the voice assistant market by combining Harman Kardon speaker with the Cortana engine and calling it Invoke. Microsoft has confirmed the release of their Invoke series this fall 2017. No pricing has been published yet, but it is expected that Microsoft will announce pricing or the price range at the Microsoft Build conference.

Being this late to the party, Microsoft can claim targeting the home automation market. The reality is, that Microsoft is roughly 2.5 years behind and even Google Home is still trying to catch up by embedding more and more home automation skills/integration points.

 

In a nutshell Invoke is copying Amazon Alexa and Google Home with some additional features to set this new device apart from their competitors.

  1. Skype voice calling
  2. The speaker has 3 tweeters (Harman quality)
  3. The device has 7 array microphones

 

Microsoft’s investment in their engine Cortana has not provided the return on investment (ROI) yet. Their cell phone release didn’t work as expected and embedding Cortana in Windows 10 did not deliver any of the expected results. Now Cortana has to live in the Invoke speaker device.

Microsoft didn’t announce any partners yet, but they are probably planning on releasing the Cortana API to the public for more partners to integrate with Invoke.

We will soon see, how fast Microsoft will be adding home automation and other skills to their portfolio trying to compete with Amazon and Google. One interesting move from Microsoft is their bot framework allowing developers to copy over Amazon Alexa Skills.

Connected Home vs Smart Home

Connected Home vs Smart Home

People believe “smart homes” and “connected homes” are the same. You might even see terms like “true smart home”, where companies try to bring their point across of having a home, which is more than an assembly of connected devices. Let’s look into those terms and define, what a “smart home” really is.

Let’s start with the official definition outlined by Wikipedia. Smart House on Wikipedia refers to Home Automation. Within Home Automation you will find the following definition.

“Home automation or smart home (also known as domotics or domotica) is the residential extension of building automation. It involves the control and automation of lighting, heating (such as smart thermostats), ventilation, air conditioning (HVAC), and security, as well as home appliances such as washer/dryers, ovens or refrigerators/freezers. They use Wi-Fi for remote monitoring and are a part of the Internet of things. Modern systems generally consist of switches and sensors connected to a central hub sometimes called a “gateway” from which the system is controlled with a user interface that is interacted either with a wall-mounted terminal, mobile phone software, tablet computer or a web interface, often but not always via internet cloud services.

The key word here is “automation”. Putting so called “smart devices” into a home doesn’t make the home smart. The industry is using the term “smart” for devices, which can be controlled by a smart phone, tablet or nowadays voice control devices like Amazon Echo or Google Home. Another example would be the trend of smart doorbells. Just because a doorbell will notify you on your cell phone, emails or texts you or allows you to speak to your visitor from your cell phone with two-way audio, doesn’t mean you have a smart home.

I created the following picture to demonstrate one example home with smart devices and then I will go into the details with real life use cases/examples of what would make this home a “smart home”.

Smart Home

You can see a lot of devices within this “smart home” ranging from thermostats, speakers, media and entertainment, etc. Most or all of those devices can be controlled from a smart phone, tablet or Alex Echo / Google Home with individual apps or skills (as Amazon calls them). They don’t have to be necessarily have to controlled by a single home automation hub/controller/gateway.

With that said, let’s provide some examples, where the true benefit of having a home automation hub/controller/gateway will showcase, what a “smart home” should look like, otherwise this home would simply be a “connected home”.

Geo Fencing

The most common use case is GEO fencing. GEO fencing is the term for location aware reaction of your home automation system.

geo fence In this example you create either one or two virtual fences around your home. The first fence is very close proximity e.g. 100 to 200 feet to capture if you leave your home. The second fence could be a couple of miles.

Most people go with one fence only but others go with a second one to e.g. set the temperature of the home to a more comfortable setting so by the time they get home, the house is nice and cool or warm and cozy and if it is night, turn on the lights in certain areas of your home and open the garage door, when you approach the inner perimeter.

Yes, you could use your cell phone and open your Nest or Ecobee app, while you are driving, and set the temperature to the desired level. You could press the button in your car to open the garage door, when you are in front of it. The Geo fencing feature does all that for you based on logic you defined and if any delay occurs like traffic jam on the highway, you wouldn’t have to worry about opening your app and changing states of your smart devices.

Disaster Prevention

Less known, but very efficient and effective example is the combination of water shut-off valves and water leak sensors. In the old days you could buy a system, which connected to a telephone line and if the water leak sensor detected a leak, it called out and notified specific people. Those systems were expensive in up front cost and in some cases they charged monthly fees for that service.

In addition to that, the sensors were limited in terms of how many of those sensors could be installed and how long those wires could have been. Those costs and limitations prohibited a wide deployment of such notification systems.

With today’s technology, the picture has changed drastically and situations like on the picture should be a thing of the past. As many wireless water leak sensors you need communicating with your central hub/controller/gateway and in case of a flood the “smart home” will take action, which can be a simply notification via email or text, announcement within the house over all speakers, alarm sirens, etc the options of actions is very long.

This example doesn’t prevent any flooding, but it will take action at the slightest amount of water reaching the water leak sensors, which can prevent coming home to a completely flooded basement. Those costs will run in the thousands of dollars and the best of this whole example is: “Insurance companies will give you a discount, if you install water leak detection systems in your home”. Simply ask your insurance and they will tell you what discount you will receive, if you chose to implement this example.

This applies to home owners and landlords. The investment of having such a system implemented can be recovered after several months or years. Example would be a 10% discount for a home owner insurance of $1,500 per year. Those savings of $150/year would give you a break even point from your investment of 2 or 3 years, not to mention the cost savings of not having to repair a flooded basement or laundry room, which typically range in the area of $3,000 to $5,000 or more.

Energy Control

Another example would be energy control of your home. You could have remote controlled blinds, fans and thermostats in your home. You could use your cell phone, smart tablet or voice to turn those “connected devices” on as needed. A true “smart home” would do the following and this is just one example, which can be adjusted to any need or location…

IF summer AND IF morning AND IF temperature reaches 75 degrees –> THEN lower blinds

IF summer AND IF morning AND IF temperature reaches 75 degrees AND blinds lowered –> THEN turn on ceiling fan

IF summer AND IF morning AND IF temperature reaches 75 degrees AND blinds lowered AND ceiling fan is ON –> THEN power on air condition

In simplified text, this logic does the following. In the morning, when the sun rises, the temperature in your house rises as well. Most households have their thermostat set to a certain temperature, before the air condition kicks in. Even if they have smart thermostats, they will get trigger by a certain temperature.

The example logic above delays the air conditioning kicking in by using the alternative methods of blocking out sun or using ceiling fans first before the more power hungry and costly air conditioning system kicks in. The “smart home” will try to block the sun first by lowering the blinds. If the temperature still rises, then the “smart home” will turn on the ceiling fan. Only if all that isn’t enough, then it will turn on the air condition.

Security and Fire Alarm

The top rated reason for people adopting “smart home technology” is security. The security industry has been around for many years and alarm systems have evolved in many directions over the years. Security systems today include not only window/door sensors, glass break and motion sensors, but also fire alarm detectors and cameras with motion alarm.

Having those notifications going to a service provider, who will call the authorities is a good thing. However, nobody has thought about the actual home owner in those situations. To be more specific, image a fire alarm going off in your home. The sirens will go off, you might get a call from your service provider and the whole family will be up in no time. What is not considered is, how to make this situation easier and less stressful.

Imagine the same scenario, but in this case once the alarm goes off, the lights in the whole house will go on or change color to e.g. red, the blinds will open allowing a clear view from the outside into the house for the firemen, the alarm system will disarm after the authorities have been notified (last thing you need is your alarm system sirens going off just because you or your family opened the door and you forgot to enter the code to disarm the alarm system), the door locks will unlock allowing easy exit of the house, the speakers throughout the whole will announce that there is fire and with the right equipment it can also announce, where in the house fire has been detected. If nobody is home, the home owner will get notified via email, text or phone call from the service provider and from the smart home and having the doors unlocked will allow easy entry into the home for the firemen.

In summary, there is nothing wrong with having a “connected home”. As a matter of fact a connected home is the first step towards a smart home. Yes, it requires some adjustment and logic to be put in place, before a connected home becomes a smart home. The time is worthwhile investing, as the return of the investment will be worth it.

The additional cost of making a connected home to become a smart is much lower compared to making a regular home to become a connected home or smart home. The only challenge with this transformation from connected home to smart home will be the interoperability between the smart devices and the hub/controller/gateway, as not all vendors will support all smart devices.

In some cases workarounds are available and yes, you could use something like IFTTT (If this then that) to create logic for your connected home. IFTTT has a wide variety of supported devices (channels), but you should consider always the worst case, which is when your home might not have any internet connection. Some home automation hub/controller/gateway vendors require an internet connection to be available to conduct any actions in your home, which might not be a good thing in some of the use cases and examples outlined above including IFTTT.

The smart home adoption is at an all-time high and I encourage everybody to invest the time to find the most suitable technology for their homes and families and aim for a true “smart home”.

 

 

C by GE

C by GE

C by GE

GE announced on December 6th 2016 a new line up complementing their C by GE products. GE Lighting already released Bluetooth controller bulbs earlier this year, but now they claim, that they redefined smart living with their new product line.

This new product line is a light with embedded Amazon Alexa functionality. Amazon released their integration options for Alexa Voice services and GE integrated that functionality into their new lighting product.

C by GE Smart Living

“We’re really inspired by voice as an incredible new user interface. We’re giving people an alternative by having this combination for the first time,” Jeff Patton, GE Lighting’s GM for Connected Home Products.

The exact launch date has not been determined yet but according to Jeff Patton, GE is targeting Quarter 1 in 2017. He didn’t reveal the price point either, but he did hint that it will be below $180 dollars.

This new product is already published on the C by GE website https://www.cbyge.com/ and a video has been released as well, highlighting the combination of Alexa Voice services and GE lighting. In addition to that, you can download the C by GE app in the Play Store for Android phones and looking deeper into their app, you can find circadian rhythm and follow the sun concepts.

GE is claiming that “almost” all Alexa services will be available on this new product line. The assumption here would be, that GE did not sign up for the music services of the Alexa Voice service, as this product is a lighting product and not a speaker for playing music.

On the other hand having the Smart Home functionality in Alexa embedded in this lighting product would make sense. So rather making assumptions, let’s wait for the official release.

 

Disclaimer: This blog and tweets represent my own view points and not of my employer, Amazon Web Services.

Amazon to the rescue with TTS

Amazon to the rescue with TTS

2 weeks ago I published a blog post about Microsoft shutting down their Data Market place with a deadline of March 25th 2017, leaving many smart home owners with almost no options for having a somehow decent quality Text-to-Speech (TTS) event notification and announcement offering for their smart homes.

To make things worse, Microsoft is now redirecting all customers from http://datamarket.azure.com to their standard azure website. As an existing user of their Translation to Text engine you will try to find your existing service and your authorization keys with no luck. All their links on their azure website will try to make you sign up for a new Azure account with a $200 credit… unless you have the old URL/Link available for your service, which is https://datamarket.azure.com/dataset/bing/microsofttranslator or alternatively you can use https://datamarket.azure.com/account/.

As an end user I have to say, that this kind of customer handling is unacceptable especially after Microsoft emailed every customer, that their access will be available until March 25th 2017 and this was even stated on their old data market place website in a top banner. I posted screenshots about those in my previous blog here http://homeautomation.expert/azure-datamarket-shutdown.

With all this uncertainty about the future of Text-to-Speech (TTS) for smart home owners Amazon announced yesterday the release of their new service called “Amazon Polly” https://aws.amazon.com/polly/.

“Amazon Polly is a service that turns text into lifelike speech. Polly lets you create applications that talk, enabling you to build entirely new categories of speech-enabled products. Polly is an Amazon AI service that uses advanced deep learning technologies to synthesize speech that sounds like a human voice. Polly includes 47 lifelike voices spread across 24 languages, so you can select the ideal voice and build speech-enabled applications that work in many different countries.”

Here is an example of the quality of Amazon Polly.

Amazon Polly is offered under the Amazon Free Tier concept for 12 months free of charge, from the day an end user creates his/her AWS account. Under the Free Tier account an end user can submit up to 5.000.000 characters per month. After the Free Tier trial period has ended the end user receives 1.000.000 characters per month for the price of $4.00 per month.

Let’s compare the currently active Microsoft TTS and the Amazon Polly service, despite Microsoft is shutting down their Data Market place and moving this feature under their “Cognitive Services accounts” category in Azure, currently available under preview only with no pricing information ,unless you sign up for an Azure account:

Microsoft TTS 2M

$0/month
  • 2.000.000 characters per month
  • choice between 60 languages
  • no option to choose male or female voice

Microsoft TTS 4M

$40/month
  • 4.000.000 characters per month
  • choice between 60 languages
  • no option to choose male or female voice

Amazon Polly 4M

$16/month
  • 1.000.000 characters per month for $4 x 4 = 4.000.000 characters for $16/month
  • choice between 47 life like voices
  • choice between 24 languages
  • choice between male and female voice

Microsoft TTS 8M

$80/month
  • 8.000.000 characters per month
  • choice between 60 languages
  • no option to choose male or female voice

Amazon Polly 8M

$32/month
  • 1.000.000 characters per month for $4 x 8 = 4.000.000 characters for $32/month
  • choice between 47 life like voices
  • choice between 24 languages
  • choice between male and female voice

Amazon also provides example use cases enabling end users to estimate, how many characters certain voice tasks will consume. The examples range from number of requests with number of characters per request, emails, book examples and news articles. For this exercise, I examined a typical standard smart home usage using the following formula:

~50 characters per request x 14 requests per hour x 24 hours per day x 30 days per month = 504.000 characters / month

Those numbers are average numbers over the duration of 1 year normalized. A smart home owner would have to double the amount of requests or the length of the announcements to overcome the 1.000.000 character barrier into the next price range of Amazon Polly.

Efficiency

The other important aspect of comparing those two Text-to-Speech (TTS) services is their efficiency. By efficiency the aspect of file size and transfer time is important.

The example voice output above consumes 48kb using Amazon Polly. The same text synthesized using the Microsoft TTS engine consumes 142kb. Taking into account the time to upload the text to be synthesized, the amount of time it takes to actually synthesize this text into a voice output and then pushing it back to the end user, will be impacted by the file size and amount of characters.

Both engines allow the output to be defined in terms of the file format, while the most commonly used output is and will continue to be .mp3 in terms of smart home usage from a compatibility perspective.

Amazon offers a comprehensive tutorial about Polly and code examples using Python, IOS and Android. Microsoft offers examples for Ajax, Soap and HTTP. For both TTS services the end user has to create credentials to use the actual service. For Microsoft the end user creates a client ID and a client secret, which will be used to authenticate the application/end user.

With Amazon the security model is much more sophisticated. Identity and Access Management (IAM) is being used with Amazon, where the end user has a root account, which can be and should be protected with multi-factor authentication. From there the end user can create various users and groups, which can actually use the Amazon Polly service.

The actual Polly service offers two groups per default. The Full access and Read Only access group policies and those can be assigned to user accounts to user the Amazon Polly service utilizing the signature version 4 Test Suite from Amazon for the signing process.

One more important item to mention is that Amazon Polly supports Speech Synthesis Markup Language (SSML). Amazon Polly generates speech from both plain text input and Speech Synthesis Markup Language (SSML) documents that conform to SSML version 1.1. Using SSML tags, you can customize and control aspects of speech such as pronunciation, volume, and speech rate as defined in the W3C recommendation https://www.w3.org/TR/2010/REC-speech-synthesis11-20100907/.

In summary… Amazon released their Text-to-Speech (TTS) service Amazon Polly at the right time, offering superior efficiency in terms of response time and file size, while being 2.5x more cost efficient than Microsoft’s Text-to-Speech (TTS) service today.

First integration attempts into smart home hubs are already in progress e.g. LUA code sharing within 48 hours of Amazon releasing Polly.

HomeAutomation.Expert

Disclaimer: This blog and tweets represent my own view points and not of my employer, Amazon Web Services.

Chinese Alexa or Chinese Google Home

Chinese Alexa or Chinese Google Home

With Google Home entering the VCD (Voice Command Device) market, people assumed that there will be a rivalry between Google and Amazon. Out of the blue a third competitor entered the stage out of China. This device named “Ling Long Ding Dong” (name is for real) will address the Chinese VCD market.

The DingDong, which costs the equivalent of $118, provides news, weather, and stock updates. It answers questions, manages schedules, provides directions, and plays music and audiobooks. It is the first product from Beijing LingLong Co., a $25 million joint venture between JD.com, China’s largest online retailer, and voice recognition powerhouse iFlytek.

The gadget weighs about 3 pounds and stands 9.5 inches tall. It is circular at the top and square on the bottom, and available in white, red, black, and purple. The shape symbolizes tiānyuán dìfāng—the notion that “heaven is round, Earth is square,” a concept that Liu says is central to LingLong’s design language. The colors also are imbued with meaning; white is associated with purity, and red with prosperity.

Three commands wake the device: DingDong DingDong, Xiaowei Xiaowei (a girl’s nickname), and BaiLing BaiLing(skylark). The DingDong comes in Mandarin and Cantonese versions (the engines required to understand the languages are too complex to include them both in one device). Most people speak Mandarin, and the myriad accents and dialects present a Herculean challenge. Still, the company claims the DingDong understands roughly 95 percent of the population.

The company will have their own skill market place, which will include applications and skills for home automation.

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