2016 smart home tech trend preview: Voice and gesture controls

2016 smart home tech trend preview: Voice and gesture controls
As the smart home gets smarter, can we find a more intuitive way to control the smart home other than swiping or tapping away on our smartphone or tablet?

More and more companies are now looking into using voice or gesture to control the home, hoping to make home control more intuitive and natural. These types of control can also help make life better and simpler for those with special needs such as the physically challenged or people with vision problems. With efforts directed towards developing products or applications that support voice control or gesture control, companies like Apple, Google, Amazon, Fibar Group, digitalSTROM and others are taking the smart home a step forward.

While interaction via voice or gesture control is not a completely new concept, as we have seen products like smartphone equipped with voice recognition, or gaming consoles capable of detecting users’movements, using voice or gesture to control the home has been relatively recent.

Voice control

Voice control is generally seen as a natural and intuitive way of controlling the home. It also provides the benefit of allowing users to control devices in a hands-free way. This is particularly useful in places like the kitchen, where people may have their hands tied to other household chores.

 “Voice control is a natural input, because it can generate activity when you are in another room or if your hands are already full with something else,” says Joe Gerber, president and COO of Insteon.

Amazon Echo is a popular voice command device designed for the smart home. The Echo is always listening for users’ commands. Companies like Insteon, Philips, Belkin, SmartThings and Wink have added voice control functionality to their devices through compatibility with Amazon Echo.

“From our perspective, we’ve seen a significant increase in the demand for voice control for home automation. With the arrival of Amazon Echo, Siri for HomeKit and Cortana, consumers are starting to acknowledge voice control as a normal input for automated control,” adds Gerber.

digitalSTROM, a German-Swiss smart home technology provider, has also demonstrated integration with Amazon Echo to support voice control.

“We think it makes sense to use voice control for giving overall commands in the house. You don’t switch on a light in a room using voice control because pressing the light switch is much faster. If you want to close all the shades, or if you forgot to switch off the light in the kitchen when sitting on the sofa, then you use voice control,” says Martin Vesper, CEO of digitalSTROM AG. “Voice control can also be used for timing events, where it involves a series of asks to be performed, and personalization – just say your name and the system will adjust to your personal settings.”

Another way for companies to add voice control to their products is through adoption of Apple HomeKit. With Apple HomeKit compatibility, devices can be controlled by users talking to Siri on iPhones, iPads, Apple Watches, or other devices that support it.

Philips is one example. The company has just announced the integration of Philips Hue with Apple HomeKit in early October. Besides Philips, many others like Insteon, Schlage, August, Lutron have also joined the ecosystem to add voice control functionality to at least some of their products. Integration with HomeKit allows these companies to leverage Apple’s voice control technology so they do not have to develop their own proprietary technologies.

Gesture control

digitalSTROM is at the forefront of presenting interesting use cases of gesture control or recognition in the home through integration with third party products. This year, the company demonstrated a new application scenario called “Smile for a coffee”, where users can just smile to give command to their coffeemaker to make a cup of coffee. The application uses the Intel RealSense 3-D camera to optically detect hand movements, facial expressions, or room entry to trigger commands. However, as explained by Vesper, for right now this scenario is only a showcase, and it is not until standalone RealSense 3-D cameras become available that the company will start developing this kind of application. According to Vesper, the RealSense 3-D cameras are currently only integrated in laptops and PCs.
The Fibar Group, a famous name in the smart home industry, introduced at CEDIA 2015 a new wireless control panel called “SWIPE”, which features gesture control.“Gesture control is a user-friendly way for controlling household appliances, also for younger users. Just look at how particular hand moves used to control touch screens were quickly adopted by people and even children. Gesture recognition technologies nowadays are based not only on images from cameras, but also on changes in electromagnetic field or Wi-Fi signals,” says Ewa Bujak, PR manager of Fibar Group.

SWIPE recognizes six simple gestures – up, down, left, right, circle to the left, and circle to the right. One distinguishing feature of SWIPE is that it can detect gestures through various materials. “Users can place SWIPE behind art work or even a drywall. Mounting SWIPE underneath a wooden countertop can allow users to control devices in the kitchen when they are in the middle of preparing dinner when their hands are dirty,” explains Bujak.

Challenges and limitations

While using voice or gesture for device control seems promising for the future smart home, there are still limitations and challenges that need to be overcome or addressed.

Bujak points out that one limitation of voice control might be that people are not used to this type of communication. From the technology point of view, she thinks that “there are also technical challenges like finding the best solution to capture the voice orders, differences between languages and accents. However, it is important that smart home platforms provide versatility and proper voice controlling integration.”

Vesper expresses a similar view. “We’re in the early stage of voice control, and adaptation takes a while. Although verbal communication is very natural, people don’t feel comfortable right away. If you look at how people talk to the system, it’s more like using a command language rather than natural sentences. However, the system is not designed for command language but for common human parlance. After a while, customers will become more relaxed about the technology, so it’s a question of adaptation and also habit.”

Antti Vihavainen, Business Development at Cozify, raises the issue that “both voice and gesture controls require the end user to be near a sensor, be it the microphone or camera. And this will be difficult to arrange in a large house.” He thinks that although using wearables, such as a smart watch, can solve the problem, the dependency on wearables would make family-wide acceptance much more difficult.

Looking to the future

As technologies continue to evolve, and people become more accustomed to the technologies, voice or gesture control may revolutionize the smart home experience by changing the way people interact with their smart homes. We also expect new use cases to emerge as the industry advances.

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