Are You Ready for Your Home to Be Smarter Than You?

Prepare for the decade of the Intelligent Home

Winter scene with a home speaking technology.

 Lifewire / Michela Buttignol

Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant, to varying degrees, changed our lives.

However, as we round the final turn on the Decade of Voice, we may finally be cresting the hill of the long sought-after smart home. None of us will call it or our dwellings “smart homes” (fool us once), of course. We live with smart home technology every day, but the dream of a proactive home that anticipates your needs and acts on them is something more. It’s the Intelligent Home and the 2020s may be its decade.

George Jetson
We dream of a truly automated home. The Jetsons / Warner Bros.

If you want to talk about home smarts or intelligence, you really can’t do so in this decade (and maybe the next) without addressing the voice elephant in the room: Alexa. Amazon sells more smart speakers than any other company by an order of magnitude. According to Consumer Intelligence Research Partners (CIRP), Amazon accounts for 70% of the smart speaker market. Google Home accounts for roughly 25% and Apple is at a comparatively microscopic 6%.

A couple of months after Amazon’s firehose product event in Seattle, I finally had a chance for a more thoughtful, ruminative sit down with Daniel Rausch, vice president of Smart Home for Amazon. During our chat, Rausch reiterated many of the same points Amazon SVP of Product Dave Limp hammered home inside the Amazon’s iconic Spheres, but he also opened up about the future and painted a compelling picture of the 21st century George Jetson Home.

Not Smart Enough

“We're making investments in technology that let anyone developing a device that is powered, whether that's through battery or wall power, …that device will be able to connect to Alexa,” said Rausch, adding that the experience will be “as simple or easier than the analog world that preceded it.”

Amazon’s open-source Alexa voice assistant is already on thousands of third-party devices, but it’s clear Amazon is not completely satisfied with the experience consumers encounter on these products and maybe even some of its own.

“You're so jazzed because you get a new smart home sous vide connected doodad that's going to make the steak perfectly, but you wait for a 20-minute software download. If it's not good to use it's just not going to be in your kitchen anymore," he said.

Amazon’s vision for the intelligent home starts with initiatives that ask partners to reassess (as it’s done) everything from packaging to set-up and interaction. All of them are intended to avoid, as Rauch put it, “the traditional gotchas of smart products.” 

  • Frustration-free packaging
  • Certified for Humans
  • Frustration-free setup
  • Voice Interoperability Initiative
  • Transparency, Control, and Privacy

The packaging initiative is, by far, Amazon’s oldest product initiative in that Amazon launched it a decade ago, five years before Echo and Alexa and a couple of years after it launched the first Kindle e-reader. It’s a simple concept. Instead of bubble-wrap packaging and tie wraps that frustrate, injure, and fill landfills, Amazon’s packaging is simple (often cardboard and paper) and recyclable. It’s a small thing, but also an important part of the way Amazon prepares consumers for what they hope will be a frustration-free smart product experience.

Daniel Rausch
Amazon VP Smart Homes Daniel Rausch.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

However, even Amazon’s own studies with real people found that most consumers harbor phobia-level concerns about integrating smart home technologies into their house.

As Amazon was developing its Certified for Humans program, it invited some non-expert consumers and recorded their reactions.

“There's this moment in the video where we tell them that we're going to ask them to go ahead and set up a smart home product right now and they're like, I mean, you can see the anxiety on their faces,” recalled Rausch. One woman told the Amazon facilitators that her palms were sweating.

I don’t share that kind of anxiety, but have known boatloads of smart home device frustration, especially when I’m trying to activate Alexa control on a third-party device. Usually the setup begins on the third-party app and then, to activate Alexa, I have to authenticate in Amazon’s Alexa App and then go back to the third-party app and then maybe go back into the Alexa app one more time to enable the Alexa skill for that third-party product. Sometimes I lose my way and start over.

Dave Limp
Amazon Hardware SVP Dave Limp illustrated in September Amazon's commitment to privacy with this Echo circuitry schematic . It shows how pressing the mic button disconnects the mic from power.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

“As an industry we have to sort of get from surprise that it worked to surprise on the rare case that it fails,” said Rausch.

The goal with Certified for Humans and Frustration Free Setup is to remove all those setup steps. To end, for instance, the need to remember your Wi-Fi password and for a multitude of apps for control.

In every case, setup should be no more complicated than it was in the analog world. “We need you to remember “righty tighty, lefty loosey.” Basically, if you ever had that one [concept] down, you can get the [smart] bulb set up,” said Rausch.

A Truly Intelligent System

Amazon, though, has an even grander vision that goes beyond making the home smarter and it’s one that will require the assistance of partners and, ultimately, competitors.

An intelligent home takes all those disparate smart home devices and spins them up into a true system. One that listens for your call, but also understands your needs in a deep and meaningful way.

'None of us want to think about who made this or that particular product.'

“The home should just take care of itself,” said Rausch as he painted me a picture of a house that incorporates, for instance, its Alexa Guard system, which can currently listen for noises like breaking class or a smoke detector going off and alert the homeowner. However, with what Amazon is calling “Hunches,” it can mimic the sort of mental leaps humans make when they check on one thing, but that triggers a different thought and checklist task. In the case of Alexa and Hunches, Rauch explained, “If your connected door lock, let's say, isn't locked at the time you normally lock it, for example, at night. You say, ‘Alexa set an alarm for 6:00 a.m. tomorrow,” she says, ‘Okay, by the way, your front door is unlocked.’”

Obviously, your voice triggered the interaction, but nowhere in there did you ask about the door lock. Instead, a sort of system-level awareness allowed Alexa to let you know that something was amiss. This would be quite comforting to my wife who every night before bedtime checks and double checks things like the door locks, backyard lights, and the oven burners.

Joining Smart Hands

Creating this sort of stateless, screenless, Intelligent Home will require the cooperation of not only Amazon’s thousands of Alexa partners (many of which I think will comply), but voice competitors.

“None of us want to think about, well, who made this or that particular product,” said Rausch, though I wonder if he’d feel differently if Amazon’s Alexa did not hold such a commanding lead. He then added, “I would welcome the opportunity to have any maker of any smart home device integrate the ‘Frustration Free Setup’ experience and join in to the ‘Certified for Humans’ program.”

Based on my experiences with Google Assistant and even Apple’s Home, competitors are clearly embracing some of these interactive models, but on their own terms.

Amazon’s vision is a sort of smart home utopia and seems just about as realistic.

Alexa
Alexa inside the Alexa app—so meta.  Lifewire / lance Ulanoff

In September, Amazon quietly announced its Voice Interoperability Initiative, which would allow multiple voice assistants to easily function on the same devices, and proudly touted the 30 partners, including Microsoft (Cortana), that signed on.

“We do believe the mental model is like the internet and it's not some vertical walled garden world where customers interact with a single AI as the interface to everything,” said Rausch.

I would not mind easily switching between “Hey Google” and “Alexa” on all devices, and I have seen this on some products. However, it's mostly Alexa and some proprietary voice AI like Facebook’s Portal.

This "we're all friends here" initiative sounds nice, but then I asked Rausch if Apple is part of the voice initiative.

“They're not in that group.”

I asked if Google is that group.

“Also, not in that group,” admitted Rausch, and added, “We would love to have them join.”

So What

It won’t be easy, building this Intelligent home, but the next decade will be marked by smart device breakthroughs both at a device and AI-driven global-awareness level.

 Over time, more smart products will follow the Amazon’s simplification model because consumers will demand it, and not every voice assistant will survive if they do not learn how to talk to each other as well as humans do every day. Our homes will finally become intelligent, because it’s the smart thing to do.

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