The Future of Voice Assistants is in Accessories

Just like last year, Google had a large presence and several announcements for Google Assistant which included a slew of new products. In some of them, a real solution for wide tech adoption, especially voice assistants, worked its way into more third-party accessories making dumb devices smart. As tech enthusiasts, influencers and even a few journalists walk the show floor looking for the next expensive toy

Price tag of new

The entire industry thrives on new hardware, especially if its owned top to bottom by a single company. Even though services are the future of most tech companies, all of them hide behind their new hardware announcements as the best way for customers to experience the product. Apple and Samsung have shown time and again the real money is owning the entire stack, both software and hardware. As these and other companies continue to develop their own hardware – including Google and Microsoft, two companies whose history is based on working with OEM’s – prices have kept pace as well.

Anyone who tries to pinch a few pennies and stay connected to the latest tech has felt the burn. With flagship phones now over the $1,000 mark it feels like the entire industry is taking advantage of the expectation of modern tech equals high prices. There are absolutely capable devices in affordable price ranges, however quality will vary significantly. People with tight budgets need to tread lightly, a $50 purchase that doesn’t live up to the hype is much more painful considering what was given up making the buy.

Both Amazon and Google have been on a spree, rolling out voice assistant integration to dozens if not hundreds of new devices over the last year. The trouble for me in that is its only for new devices. Buying a $200 Sonos One (the entry level product) to replace my home stereo is far from an option. This doesn’t include assistants coming to new TV’s, refrigerators and even an $80 Lenovo Smart Clock. I don’t need a new TV, fridge or a connected alarm clock that is only required to be exactly that… A reliable alarm clock.

Accessorize

What my hope is that we’ll see the continued development of the adapter/accessory market to make dumb devices smart. Instead of buying a new television that is hundreds or thousands of dollars, build the assistant directly into a Chromecast. Assistants have been announced for set top boxes plus full Alexa support in Fire TV’s, instead the opportunity is in sub-$50 adapters that don’t replace what I have and instead compliment it. Rather than replacing my Roku which doesn’t need to be upgraded, making an Alexa or Google Assistant universal remote who get the tech into more people’s hands.

Which is surprising most of these companies have taken the route of the high-end dedicated device first then rolling out cheaper options to the peasants later. Both the Amazon Echo and Google Assistant have benefited from offering mini speakers, often on sale and lowering the barrier to entry. It was so easy to spend $20-$30 here and there to outfit my home in Google Assistants than it was to drop $350 on an Apple Homepod.

Today, Anker announced the Roav Bolt, a $60 car accessory bringing the Google Assistant to cars without having to replace the entire audio system. This is the exact type of accessory I want. An adapter for my home stereo instead of a full Sonos system, a $35 Chromecast with the voice assistant for my TV and a $60 adapter for my car instantly turns me into feeling like I’m a full-blown futurist and I still have $200 left over from not buying a HomePod.

With Google Assistant coming to feature phones, such as the JioPhone in India, there’s a chance that basically anything with an internet or bluetooth connection can be made into a voice device with an update. Spending $40 to add a microphone to my existing alarm clock is much more palatable, knowing I can change the clock as many times as I like and still not lose functionality.

These are the times just how disconnected tech giants are from normal users of the products. Perhaps building and testing a smart speaker in the Bay Area makes $350 sound reasonable.

Open protocols

The real solution would be an open protocol that allows any assistant to interact with any device. A DIAL type service to act as a translator between smart assistants and devices could speed the development of competing assistants, giving users more options how and where their data is used. Yes, it would be nearly impossible for any company to catch Amazon or Google at this point. The real power of voice assistants is in accessibility. Giving any company an opportunity to build accessible tools while giving both the user and company control over privacy is a bonus. A company could integrate Google Assistant or Mozilla’s Common Voice or even create their own without losing compatibility is the future I want.

There have been attempts at making an open voice assistant, Mycroft the best example. Through all the controversy Mycroft never took off proving doing AI and machine learning today is hard. As the AI and ML progress and scale the cost to run these systems will become cheaper and therefore more accessible for developers. But voice isn’t the main problem. Much like open-source phone operating systems, the primary issue is integration with other popular applications and devices. There could be an amazing voice assistant that recognizes every word in dozens of languages (unlike my Google Assistant who thinks my sons name is “Meat Juice”) but if it doesn’t work with Hue light bulbs, Ring doorbells and other common IoT devices its dead in the water.

Final thoughts

If all we ever get is Google and Amazon dominating the digital assistant market my hope is we’ll continue to see cheap and easy licensing to the marketplace, allowing anyone and everyone to make accessories and adapters. Purchasing a TV every few years just to get new software is a ridiculous proposition. The same goes for standalone speakers, mini-displays, microwaves and wall clocks. The real value is in the adapters bringing smart functionality to dumb devices.

The bedside displays with voice support are interesting. Making any display into a smart display, that’s the real magic.

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To read more coverage about Google Assistant announcements at CES 2019, check out these links

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