Smart home assistants: Now Vs. The Way Ahead

Credits to Vraj Patel

Home automation and smart home products are quickly gaining traction in the market. Among these are products like the Google Home and Amazon Echo which are smart speakers. But they are not just speakers as we have known them to be. By providing an interface to virtual assistants like the Google Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa these products end up being smart home assistants.

When home automation is carried out by using various products like smart lights, WiFi-equipped smart thermostats, and various DIY solutions you end up with the need for an interface to control and monitor these. While the device manufacturers do provide such interfaces, they don’t feel as connected as the controls for different aspects will be spread across different apps. These smart speakers can take care of this by making the process for controlling your house simpler. They enable the use of simple and intuitive voice commands for interactions rather than cumbersome touch input. This makes your experience more seamless and meaningful. These smart speakers can also do other useful tasks like reading your daily news feed while you have breakfast, give quick weather updates for the day before you leave for work, set a reminder for an important task, or order groceries. Basically, you have a personal assistant at your disposal 24×7.

While these smart assistants are very capable and versatile and able to give very precise answers to your queries, sometimes they just fail to understand you. You need to be specific about what you want. Also, they are unable to parse the queries if they get slightly complicated. Then there is the issue of compatibility and lack of support with certain home automation hardware. These are some of the technical issues faced. But, there are also other non-technical issues to deal with which relate to the experience.

While using these smart devices, when you call them, they respond by simply lighting up. This doesn’t give us the sense that they are truly listening. Nor does it quell the fear that they are spying on us while they are inactive. Also all the interaction with these devices are mostly all business and no fun. The approach taken by Jibo is a good precursor to what the future smart assistants must be capable of in addition to what they do today. Jibo is a humanoid looking bot which is aimed at being a companion rather than a home appliance. The Jibo is made to look cute with the voice of a 10-year-old to make people feel at ease rather than threatened by it. When you say “Hey Jibo!”, he immediately turns to look at you and responds to you. You get a feeling that he is speaking to you than speaking at you and it makes all the difference. He can hold conversations and has a very definite personality. This is the way a smart assistant should be. Not just an assistant but a companion. Not just an appliance but a part of the family. The coming of these smart assistants is not just augmenting our lifestyle but also of changing it fundamentally. Children are now being exposed to technology at an early age an this can affect their social development. For example there is the concern that when a kid orders a smart assistant to do something and it always does what the kid wants, the kid might develop a bossy attitude. There are initiatives being taken by companies in this direction like Google’s Pretty Please which urges and encourages children to add a please to their queries so that they learn to make a request rather than give a command.

The devices and options available for smart assistants is evolving quickly due to fierce competition to take over this market segment. We should expect to see positive changes in the experience, enabling us to connect better with the technology in the coming years. Objectively the experience will always be the sum of its parts. But if the experience is meaningful and fulfilling for the user, then it will transcend that limit. Figuring out the form and modality of interaction that is the most natural will take a lot of time and effort. Let us wait and see how it all shapes up.