Smart condo conundrum: Talk to appliances, or text them?

Sun Mar 12, 2017 9:20pm EDT
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By Jeremy Wagstaff

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - In today's so-called smart home, you can dim the lights, order more toothpaste or tell the kids to go to bed simply by talking to a small Wifi-connected speaker, such as Amazon's (AMZN.O: Quote) Echo or Google's (GOOGL.O: Quote) Home.

This voice-first market - combining voice with artificial intelligence (AI) - barely existed in 2014. This year, Voice Labs, a consultancy, expects 24.5 million appliances to be shipped.

Other big tech firms have their own plans: Apple (AAPL.O: Quote) is taking its Siri voice assistant beyond its mobile devices to PCs, cars, and the home; Baidu (BIDU.O: Quote) last month bought Raven, billed as China's answer to Amazon's Alexa intelligent personal assistant; and Samsung Electronics (005930.KS: Quote) plans to incorporate Viv, its newly acquired virtual assistant, into its phones and home appliances.

But not everyone thinks the future of communicating with the Internet of Things needs to be vocal.

Facebook (FB.O: Quote) founder Mark Zuckerberg, for example, was working on Jarvis, his own voice-powered AI home automation, and found he preferred communicating by text because, he wrote, "mostly it feels less disturbing to people around me."

And several major appliance makers have turned to a small Singapore firm, Unified Inbox, which offers a service that can handle ordinary text messages and pass them on to appliances.

With your home added to the contacts list on, say, WhatsApp, a quick text message can "start the coffee machine"; "turn on the vacuum cleaner at 5 p.m."; or "preheat the oven to 200 degrees at 6.30 p.m."

"Think of it as a universal translator between the languages that machines speak ... and us humans," said Toby Ruckert, a German former concert pianist and now Unified Inbox's CEO.   Continued...

CEO of Unified Inbox Toby Ruckert demonstrates how he uses his smartphone to control electrical appliances in a simulation software in Singapore March 3, 2017. REUTERS/Edgar Su