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.

Featured Music Friday: Strength of a Woman

Featured Music Friday: Strength of a Woman

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The Queen of Hip Hop Soul, Mary J. Blige, is back with her 13th studio album: a tour-de-force, power-ballad brimmed, luscious autobiography that journeys through heartbreak, self-love, and redemption. Blige has never shied away from using her personal life as source material for her music. On “Strength of a Woman,” she pulls inspiration from her recent separation from longtime manager and husband, Kendu Issacs. Each track is better than the last: opener “Love Yourself,” featuring Kanye West, is not only an instant classic, but will be a staple of Spotify Breakup Playlists for years to come. Other standout guest artists include Quavo, DJ Khaled and Missy Elliott on “Glow Up,” a slow jam, hip hop track with biting lyrics. On “Strength of a Woman,” Blige may be down, but she sure as hell ain’t out. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. Featured Music Friday is brought to you by Blackfire Research.

 

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On this Day in Music History: June 22, 1963

On this Day in Music History: June 22, 1963

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Brought to you by Blackfire Research….On this day in 1963, a 13-year old Stevie Wonder (then known as Little Stevie Wonder) made his US singles chart debut with “Fingertips Parts One and Two.” Born blind, Wonder was a musical prodigy, mastering the harmonica, the drums, and piano by the age of eight. A Detroit native, Wonder was signed to Motown Records in 1961 at the age of eleven. “Fingertips Parts One and Two” was recorded during a live Motor Town Revue performance and features a young Marvin Gaye on drums. It was the first live, non-studio recording to reach Number 1 on the singles chart in the US since 1952.

Why your WiFi sucks and what you can do about it

Why your WiFi sucks and what you can do about it

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Imagine your perfect Smart Home. Would it have facial recognition locks so you wouldn’t have to worry about ever losing your keys? Or how about tinted windows that adjust to the amount of sunlight coming in, maintaining a perfect temperature inside at all times? If you’re anything like me, your perfect Smart Home would have a completely wireless, multi-room entertainment system, capable of streaming 4K video and 5.1 channels of discrete audio to speakers and screens placed throughout the home. That idea isn’t impossible today, however, it’s not being done. At the moment, the vast majority of home entertainment systems are wired, and their placement is dictated by cable lengths. And TVs are limited to soundbars that may reduce movies and music into a garbled monophonic fizz. This means that multi-room entertainment systems, a staple for Smart Home Entertainment, aren’t all that common or attractive, unless you’re into the whole tangled-wired-mess vibe.

The most cutting-edge technology for TV today is 4K, or Ultra High Definition (UHD). 4K TVs give flicker-free pictures at 60 frames per second, and up to 10 bit color. To send a 4K TV signal and 5.1 audio signal wirelessly, you’d need to transmit data at just over 80 Megabits per second (MB/s) to avoid any obvious visible artifacts. The newest WiFi routers you can buy use the 802.11ac standard to send data at a 5GHz frequency, which is a theoretical max data rate of 1.3 Gigabits per second (Mb/s).

So, if wireless, multi-room entertainment systems capable of streaming 4K video and 5.1 channels are possible, why isn’t it being done? The problem is in your WiFi. Conventional WiFi runs on TCP (Transmission Control Protocol) which was designed in the 1960’s for transferring files down wired Ethernet lines, not streaming real-time video and wireless audio for the Smart Home.

 

TCP is outdated.

Let’s take a closer look at TCP. TCP was originally designed to break a file into smaller packets of data, and send it piece by piece down a twisted-pair wired network connection to a router. The goal was for all the packets to eventually get to the router, no matter how long it took the file to get there. This is called “asynchronous.” Remember back in the day when you’d download music from Napster or LimeWire and it took an entire afternoon to get just a few songs? Yeah, that’s basically it.

Routers in those days could only handle so many packets at a time before choking.The lost packets were retransmitted, and so each file could only be sent to one destination on the network at a time. And if packets were getting lost, TCP would not only retransmit the lost packets, but also send the packets at a slower rate allowing the router to digest all the packets it was being sent to prevent further data loss.

 

TCP is wasting your precious bandwidth.

Today, in a 5GHz wireless network, it is much more likely that packets are lost through interference (transmission loss) than the router getting choked (continuous data congestion at the router). So, TCP’s approach of throttling back the data rate makes bandwidth congestion worse, not better. Tom’s Hardware site did a benchmark test of TCP vs the raw data transmission without all it’s throttling back. With TCP, they measured between 114 and 180 MB/s across five top router brands. Without TCP re-transmission they could reach 606 to 637MB/s with those same five routers.

Another important thing to keep in mind is that using wireless streaming services like Spotify or Netflix is not like sending an email. Music and video streaming have much higher demands than file transfer: packets of a streamed audio or video file have to arrive and be processed at a speed that allows a constant stream of packets to arrive reliably so there are no dropouts in the music or movie. And, if you just so happen to have multiple wireless TVs and speakers, they each have to receive the same data simultaneously.

Network interference can come from intentional transmitters, like other routers and WiFi devices on the same or adjacent channel, a cell phone or a nearby mesh-network music system, or unintentional transmitters, like a microwave oven. Noise changes by the microsecond, and with each millimeter of position- so perhaps think twice before opening that package of microwavable popcorn if you’re streaming a movie to multiple wireless speakers using a network built on TCP.

 

Enter Blackfire RED.

When it comes to creating your perfect Smart Home of the future, why not start today? Remember earlier when I mentioned that wireless, multi-room entertainment systems capable of streaming 4K video and 5.1 channels aren’t being done? Well, with Blackfire Realtime Entertainment Distribution (RED) protocol, it can be done, and easily. Blackfire RED can interpret all that network interference and identify where it is coming from. Blackfire RED is synchronous, multipoint, and has an intelligent adaptive algorithm for managing packet retransmission, resulting in improved signal reliability, tighter synchronization, and reduced latency. And the best part? Blackfire RED works completely wirelessly throughout your home.

The idea of your perfect Smart Home doesn’t have to remain a distant fantasy. Truly connected, wireless Smart Home Entertainment is possible today, but your current WiFi is built on an outdated protocol that can’t support the latest technology (or technology of the future). You don’t still walk around with a pager, do you? Why do we upgrade some technologies and not others? I know you’ve ditched the pager. Now go ahead, ditch TCP and say hello to twenty-first century Smart Home Entertainment.

Featured Music Friday: Pleasure

Featured Music Friday: Pleasure

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Canadian singer-songwriter and indie music darling, Feist, is back with her latest studio album, “Pleasure.” Best known for that upbeat ditty you couldn’t get out of your head back in 2007 (which was featured in an iPod Nano commercial), Feist could’ve been a one-hit wonder. Fortunately for her, “The Reminder,” the album that featured her smash-hit “1234,” was actually really, really good. So when listeners got sick of every variation or parody of “1234,” from late night TV skits to children’s educational programming, there was plenty of good music for fans to fall back on. That was 10 years ago. Now, Feist has released her fifth studio album. And although no mega-tech corporations have featured her music in their ads for over a decade, she’s doing just fine. “Pleasure,” Feist’s latest LP, is a bit more rock and roll than her previous work, but still delivers as a solid addition to the Feist canon. Feist’s tone and lyrics have gotten harder as she’s gotten older, and this new-found edge is an unexpected, welcome change. “I’m Not Running Away,” is the best example of Feist’s classic, easy, textured jazz style, while the album’s title track and a song titled “Century” carry out the most overtly rock and roll tones. You may not hear her music every time you turn on the TV like in ‘07, but this latest Feist album has proven, once again, that she’s not fading into obscurity anytime soon. Featured Music Friday is brought to you by Blackfire Research.

  

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