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Alexa now supports Multi-room audio

Alexa now supports Multi-room audio

Amazon announced and released today multi-room audio functionality for the Amazon Alexa family devices. This functionality allows you to synchronize music across devices and across rooms by grouping them. Such functionality has been available from other vendors for some time e.g. Sonos.

Amazon also announced the release of their SDK developer tools later this year for speaker companies like Sonos, Bose, Sound United and Samsung. Especially the last vendor will be interesting to watch as they just announced their own smart speaker to come out under the Samsung brand and they announced that it will be unique to differentiate the Samsung smart speaker against Amazon Alexa/Echo and Google Home or even the upcoming Apple Home Pod speaker later to be released this year.

 

You can now create groups to play music synchronized across multiple echo devices. When you create groups it will shortly stop playing music to synchronize those devices. Any connected Bluetooth speakers should synchronize as well so in theory you could have many speakers playing in total harmony. I will certainly test this functionality.

I am also waiting for the Sonos support for Alexa which now has a date. October 4th 2017 is when the support will be released assuming you accept the new Terms and Conditions from Sonos. That is a story by itself as outraged users express their frustration about privacy violations and Sonos expressing their view of providing clear rules and guidance of what data will get shared and no sensitive data will get shared with any 3rd party partner or vendor.

Anyhow… the good news is that multi-room audio is coming on multiple devices, support for Alexa/Echo is being added to more and more speakers giving the end users the benefit of better audio experiences in their homes.

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:

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.

Azure DataMarket shutdown

Azure DataMarket shutdown

Website screenshot
Shutdown Email

Microsoft announced the shutdown of their datamarket place as you can see in that email. One of their services being used in smart home deployment is their TTS (Text to Speech) service allowing smart homes to announce events using voice options in different languages and genders.

This service was free of charge for up to 2.000.000 characters, which was more than enough for the most common smart homes. Anything beyond 2M was reasonably priced, if needed.

This Microsoft TTS service became very popular when Google implemented CAPTCHA (a program or system intended to distinguish human from machine input, typically as a way of thwarting spam and automated extraction of data from websites) resulting in no longer having the capability to announce events using voice in smart homes from Google.

There are other options like Mary TTS, FreeTTS, Acapela, etc, where you can install a local TTS server at your home to replace a cloud based TTS service. However, not everybody has the skills and knowledge to install and maintain a local TTS server. The benefits of having a local TTS server are being independent and even if your internet connectivity is down, you still get voice announcements for your smart home events.

VoiceRSS is another cloud based option offering up to 350 requests per day at no cost. With an average of ~45 characters per request x 350 requests per day x 30 days per month = ~500.000 characters compared to Microsoft’s 2.000.000 characters per month service.

However, quality of voice is another aspect to consider. There are plenty of TTS services out there and THE biggest complaint about those is the robotic sound of those voices or even worse not being able to understand sentences, while understanding single words. This is a huge challenge, as you want a smart home to sound like a smart home and not like a robot from the 70s.

This will be an interesting market to watch and more options will arise in the future, but for now people are looking for alternatives to Microsoft’s TTS service given that it is being shut down March 31st 2017.

The Haus is closing its doors

The Haus is closing its doors

Some sad news from the Home Automation market… After not even one year of opening its doors, the home automation university “The Haus” based in Denver is closing its doors for good. The company assets are being auctioned online.

The company Xssentials offering their Ebode home automation solution started “The Haus” at the end of 2015. When I visited them in March 2016, they had just opened their doors to integrators and dealers of home automation systems. Top of the line classrooms, wide open spaces, top notch kitchen and food areas, etc did provide the right atmosphere.

The Haus specialized in training companies on home automation equipment using Savant’s home automation system in conjunction with Sonos speakers, Nest Thermostats and Audio/Video solution for Home Theaters. They did not offer any other smart home controller or hubs as part of their training and their focus was more on training the companies on the market, selling techniques, forecast and lead generation.

Savant is not a market leader in home automation and with their limited set of functionality compared to all the other vendors, the adoption from customers of Savant was most likely very limited. Having talked to a couple of people, who had been approached by integrators, the main focus of those integrators was to sell the ease of use of the Savant system. The most common question I received asking me for my personal opinion and advice, was about comparing Savant with the Logitech Harmony system.

Logitech’s Harmony system with different remote controls and their new POP home switch offering is very similar to Savant’s system. The Logitech system supports A/V components, Sonos speakers and Philips Hue bulbs. The Savant system also offers Lamp modules for $99 in addition to the items listed before. Those modules are proprietary light switches from Savant and given that those are simple WiFi controlled on/off switches, people are questioning the value compared to other remote controlled light switches talking Z-wave or Zigbee.

In either case both of those solutions are considered smart home solutions, but their range of functionality is very limited and their interoperability with other protocols and/or vendors and/or devices is non-existent or extremely limited.

The POP system is very comparable to the new Fibaro “Button” product enabling one smart skill e.g. turn lights on, start playing Sonos music, etc. Neither the Savant system or the Logitech Harmony system are offering whole house home automation. They do offer a great consolidation of multiple remotes especially with surround systems and having the option to turn lights on/off and play Sonos music are nice, but is this a true smart home? At least the Comcast XR11 remote has a sophisticated voice recognition implementation.

Rather than speculating, facts are that “The Haus” is closing its doors. Not enough demand or interest, a portfolio which wasn’t deep enough, their company added value wasn’t high enough compared to the investment required in terms of time and/or money and many other ideas come to mind. Regardless of all those ideas, one home automation company is closing its doors and that is sad.

I wish all “The Haus” members the best going forward and hopefully other opportunities will come up, allowing those members to continue having a career in the Home Automation market, which is still a massively booming market.

CEDIA 2016 Part1

CEDIA 2016 Part1

Fibaro Portfolio

Water leak, smoke detector, motion sensors, dimmers, the buttons, swipe and wall plugs.

Fibaro Hubs

Fibaro Home Center 2 and Fibaro Home Center Light

Fibaro Light Controller

The new Fibaro Light controller hub launching in October 2016!

Fibaro Systems from Poland has officially launched their controller hub in US. The distributor homecontrols.com is reselling the Fibaro Home Center 2 hub and will soon be offering the new upcoming Fibaro Home Center Light controller. I was able to get pictures of that new mini hub at the Cedia conference.

The new Fibaro Home Center Lite (HCL) is a complete Z-Wave home automation gateway. Don’t let its tiny size fool you – Home Center Lite is all you need to run your entire home – communicating with sensors, activating lights, appliances and heating, and even alerting you if it detects threats such as fire, flood or break-in. The Fibaro HCL is tiny – measuring just 90 x 90 x 33mm. It uses a new ARM Cortex-A8 processor to deliver high-speed performance while using very little power. HCL is the smallest Z-Wave controller available and still packs a punch big enough to manage any Z-Wave system with up to 230 devices.

The differences between Fibaro Z-Wave Controllers – HC2 and HCL The Fibaro Home Center Lite (HCL) is a very powerful Z-Wave controller packed into a tiny size. It is capable of running your entire home, but does have some import ant differences compared to the Home Center 2 (HC2). The main differences between the Fibaro HCL and the HC2 are:

Plastic casing (HC2’s has an Alloy Case)

  • No LUA
  • No LiLi
  • No VoIP
  • No Satel integration

Also notable are the Fibaro swipe product line and their latest button product line. Swipe has been available in US for some time now and there are plenty of use cases especially the hidden implementation ones, which did create a lot of attention. The button is a nice product line for places, where a physical switch or a physical scene controller doesn’t exist.

Fibaro Button
Fibaro Doorbell

Last but not least Fibaro showcased their prototype of their doorbell aka intercom system at the Cedia conference. The size of their doorbell was a little bit bigger than Skybell and their software had some minor glitches but it was working well for a prototype. No details were shared about features and functions e.g. ONVIF support, Area masking, cloud recording, etc.

Ring Doorbell

Skybell

August Doorbell

Yale Doorbell

Last but not least Fibaro showcased their prototype of their doorbell aka intercom system at the Cedia conference. The size of their doorbell was a little bit bigger than Skybell and their software had some minor glitches but it was working well for a prototype. No details were shared about features and functions e.g. ONVIF support, Area masking, cloud recording, etc.

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Ring Doorbell

Ring Doorbell showcased their 3 models. The standard Ring, their Pro version and their flush mount doorbell.

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Skybell

Skybell showcased their new slim look which reminds everybody of the Ring Pro from a Look & Fell perspective.

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August Doorbell

August showcased their doorbell in conjunction with their door locks and their integration and collaboration between their product lines.

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Yale Doorbell

Yale showcased their different approach by using the peephole of the door for a doorbell system. Optional Z-wave modules for this doorbell will ship approx. in November 2016.

Nest Products

Nest showcased their product lines which consisted of their Nest Gen 3 Thermostat, their Nest Smoke detector and their Nest cameras. Their latest product line is their outdoor camera, which is only available with a hardwired connection.

Sonos Products

Sonos showcased their existing product lines with no new products.

A different company showcased an enclosure for in-wall installs for Sonos speakers, where the enclosure was almost as expensive as the speaker itself.

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