A Clear Path for Voice Control

A Clear Path for Voice Control

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Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past year, you know that voice controlled Smart Home technology is taking over the tech industry and consumer electronics scene. This past January, the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) was chock-full of stainless steel refrigerators and high tech washing machines, all with Amazon’s voice-activated AI software, Alexa, built in. CES 2017 was dubbed by some as “The Year of the Amazon Takeover,” however, Amazon isn’t the only tech giant to venture into the realm of voice-activation: Google launched the Google Home smart speaker in late 2016, exactly two years after the Amazon Echo speaker (featuring Alexa) made its debut. Even later to the party, Microsoft just announced partnerships with HP and Harman Kardon to support Cortana (Microsoft’s version of Siri) in their speakers. Speaking of Siri, Apple just announced a Siri-enabled smart speaker, called HomePod, which will be available this December.

These “smart” speakers have proven themselves to be cool technology, but, for the most part, were  trading more on novelty value than utility. Until recently, Amazon’s Alexa enabled Dot and Echo speakers excelled at only three things: purchasing items off Amazon; playing music from a long list of streaming services or Internet radio stations; and pranking your roommate by setting it’s alarm for 3:00 am, 3:10 am, 3:20 am, and 3:30 am. A pretty solid list of features, sure, but it’s by no means the “Smart Home of the Future” we were promised.

That’s why CES 2017’s “Amazon Takeover” was actually a pretty significant breakthrough for Smart Home enthusiasts. Until recently, Smart Home gadgets such as smart thermostats and security systems were seen as standalone items. What Amazon is attempting to do this year (and succeeding at it, thus far) is to position its Alexa voice-activated speakers as the Smart Home’s “Central Hub,” from which, all of the individual smart devices in your home can connect, and be controlled. (Hence, the influx of gadgets and appliances with Alexa capabilities.)

And this isn’t an unwelcomed shift: according to new market data from Parks Associates, 55% of U.S. broadband households want to use their voice to control their Smart Home and entertainment devices. Moreover, they expect products to work together through “their entertainment systems, including automated voice assistant products like the Amazon Echo and Google Home.”

Additionally, at their annual “CONNECTIONS: The Premier Connected Home Conference,” Parks Associates announced a comprehensive IoT forecast that predicts 442 million connected consumer devices (entertainment, mobile, health, and smart home) will be sold in the U.S. in 2020. The fastest growing category in IoT, and the top trend of 2017, is, unsurprisingly, speakers with voice control (like the Amazon Alexa and Google Home), with a CAGR of 78.3% in 2015-2020. According to Elizabeth Parks, SVP, Parks Associates: “Parks Associates research shows U.S. consumers will buy more than 2.3 billion connected devices between 2015 and 2020, and they are showing strong preferences for voice as the interface for their devices. Companies in the smart home, entertainment, and connected car ecosystems are pursuing partnerships that can add voice control to a variety of solutions in the connected home.”

But developing Alexa or Google Home enabled smart products is only the first step. In order to achieve true, whole home connectivity, these products need to be able to work wirelessly through a reliable platform to communicate with each other. The truth is, Smart Home technology in its current form doesn’t lend itself to whole home, or even multi-room systems. Conventional WiFi uses TCP (Transmission Control Protocol) which was designed in the 1960’s for transferring files down wired Ethernet lines, not connecting Smart Home products or streaming real-time wireless audio (or video) throughout the home. (For more on why your WiFi sucks, read my last blog, titled “Why your WiFi sucks and what you can do about it”).

Here’s an interesting tidbit from Rob Conant, CEO, Cirrent: “Wi-Fi is by far the dominant technology for connected products – the vast majority of broadband homes have Wi-Fi. However, historically it has been too complex to get headless products connected to Wi-Fi. Nearly 40% of the negative reviews of smart home products are the result of connectivity and setup issues. Making it easy for end users to connect products is critical to the success of the industry.”

But the dream of a whole-home, voice-controlled, Smart Home isn’t impossible: using low-latency and high-accuracy sync, Blackfire has developed a software solution that successfully integrates voice AI into a multi-room system. We call it Blackfire Real-time Entertainment Distribution (RED), the industry’s only wireless streaming software framework built from the ground up to overcome the limitations commonly associated with conventional wireless products, truly enabling a whole-home voice-control system. Blackfire RED delivers high-performance multichannel, multipoint and multi-room 5.1 audio wireless streaming across multiple devices over standard Wi-Fi, so you can tell Alexa or your Google Home in your living room to read out a recipe to you when you are in the kitchen, or to play music from Spotify Connect in the bedroom.

As demand for voice-activated smart devices continues to grow and home audio manufacturers develop products to meet the demand, Blackfire will be the key to enhanced performance for today’s consumers and Smart Home dwellers of the future.

The CES Wrap Up

The CES Wrap Up

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Blackfire Research kicked off 2017 in Viva Las Vegas to participate in the world’s largest, annual consumer electronics trade show, CES. At the start of each year, CES (and roughly 4,000 exhibiting companies) takes over the Las Vegas Strip, showcasing the latest in hi-tech innovations and prototypes for technology of the future. The exhibition floors were abuzz with the soon-to-be year’s hottest trends: unbelievably thin TVs, autonomous vehicles, multi-screen gaming laptops, Virtual Reality headsets, and – in what tech bloggers are dubbing “The Amazon Home Takeover,” – a wide range of smart home appliances, such as toasters, washer & dryer units, refrigerators, security systems, fans, and more, all aided by Amazon’s voice-activated speaker – Alexa.

As exciting and eye-catching as the exhibition floors were, we at Blackfire couldn’t get too distracted, for we were on a mission to present the industry’s best wireless audio solutions for a wide variety of home entertainment systems and applications.

Over the course of four days, Blackfire held meetings at a suite in the luxurious Venetian, with global industry leaders, partners, investors, and old friends, to demonstrate why we are setting the standard for wireless home entertainment. Among those who visited our suite was Arabian Prince, founding member of the rap group NWA, and driving force behind INNOV8 NEXT. As you may recall, this past November, Arabian and Blackfire’s founder and CEO, Ravi Rajapakse, sat together on a panel to discuss innovation in the music industry at the annual Web Summit in Lisbon, Portugal.

This year at CES, Blackfire had plenty to boast, unveiling not one, but three wireless solutions ready for product integration: Blackfire MA – a cost-effective wireless audio solution for smartphones and multiroom music systems; Blackfire MXD – delivering high-resolution multiroom music with native GoogleCast Audio and Spotify Connect support; and Blackfire IXD – the industry’s first low-latency Wi-Fi surround sound solution enabling smart TVs and set top boxes to deliver the ultimate home theater experience. Blackfire IXD also supports multiroom media streaming, transforming the smart TV or set top box into a whole home media center.

In addition to presenting our audio solutions upstairs at the Venetian, we had the opportunity to visit products with Blackfire’s patented streaming technology on display downstairs at the Onkyo/Pioneer booth. The Onkyo SBT-A500 Network Surround Sound Bar System, The Pioneer SC-LX701 Network A/V Receiver, and the Pioneer MRX-3 Wireless Speaker all proudly displayed the Blackfire Logo. CES also revealed a new, Blackfire enabled 6.1-Channel A/V Receiver and Object-Based Surround Sound Bar from luxury consumer audio company, Integra.

At the Harman/Kardon floor in the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, we caught a glimpse of the wireless HD Audio line, The Omni+ Series, featuring Blackfire’s patented streaming technology. Recently, the Omni 10+ and the Omni 20+ were joined by the Omni Soundbar System, a 2.1 channel soundbar with a wireless subwoofer, powered by Blackfire wireless streaming technology.
So, at the end of a long, but successful conference, the Blackfire Team had plenty to celebrate (over margaritas) before packing up “The Beast” and heading back to San Francisco. Here’s to a great start to 2017!