Raising the IQ of Multiroom Smart Speakers

Raising the IQ of Multiroom Smart Speakers


At CES this year, many products on the show floor, from microwaves to automobiles, had either Alexa or Google Assistant (or both!) built in. And from what we saw, multiroom, Wi-Fi speakers were no exception. Since Amazon unveiled their flagship voice-activated smart speaker, Echo, in 2014, the audio industry has been drastically shaken. Although they don’t generally produce the best sound quality, smart speakers have become hugely popular. And now, many smart speakers are gaining hi-res audio abilities, like Google Home Max and Apple’s HomePod. And that’s got audio manufacturers worried. In a market dominated by smart speakers (in addition to the roll-out of smart speakers with enhanced audio abilities) CE companies have no choice but “to stay relevant in a Wi-Fi speaker market dominated by Amazon- and Google-branded smart speakers” by designing products that “feature microphones to detect voice commands and come with either Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant built in” (Sound and Vision).


While most audio manufacturers begin to launch multiroom Wi-Fi smart speakers that either incorporate or compete with Google and Amazon’s technology, here are a few key concepts to keep in mind:


Buffering Bummer

Most popular wireless speakers run on conventional Wi-Fi protocols which have to queue the data. This means that it takes several seconds for the first song to fill the buffer before it begins to play. While the first song plays, the system is already buffering the next song to minimize gaps. This is fine until you change the queue before the system can re-buffer. This certainly poses a problem for folks who want to use these wireless, smart speakers in a multiroom set up. Enter Real-Time Packet Management (RPM): the Blackfire solution to buffering. RPM uses a special multipoint, real-time feedback signal from each speaker to monitor the effects of noise on the audio data stream, which allows a much shorter queue and much less buffering.


Get In Sync

Regardless of how “smart” a Wi-Fi speaker is, problems will always arise when it comes to synchronizing multiple speakers in a multiroom set up. Problems facing a standard method of synchronization include: 1) performance that is tied to the performance of the network environment and 2) the more devices you have on a given network, the slower it runs, producing an extended lag between speakers and between your TV and the speakers – even total dropouts. Traffic Independant Synchronization (TIS) is Blackfire’s patented synchronization technology that can be used to sync any number of wireless devices, from multi speaker 5.1 audio systems, stereo systems, smart speakers, and even your entire home theater. Blackfire’s TIS technology always maintains latency between audio and video pairings and among the speakers themselves. And with TIS, the sync of the speakers will remain undisturbed by heavy network traffic.


Interfere Interference

Wireless, multi-speaker systems that use conventional Wi-Fi protocols are more susceptible to interference and heavy network traffic, which causes music to break up and for speakers to go out of sync. Dynamic Stream Balancing (DSB) is the way Blackfire makes the best use of the available Wi-Fi bandwidth. DSB monitors special multipoint, real-time feedback signals from each speaker to identify the effect of noise on the audio data stream. By precisely identifying which packets are statistically most likely to be affected, DSB uses the available Wi-Fi bandwidth to selectively, and predictively, resend data to the most vulnerable speaker before interference can cause any audible drop out.


The Blackfire Realtime Entertainment Distribution (RED) framework

Combining individual entertainment systems to work together (to create a truly connected smart home) is non trivial – it requires precise synchronization, low latency for lip sync and a general reliability over standard Wi-Fi (the best and most commonly used communication protocol for the home.) With The Blackfire Realtime Entertainment Distribution (RED) framework embedded into wireless smart speakers, users can finally enjoy a truly connected home. With voice commands, you can ask any Blackfire enabled device to play music, wirelessly and synchronously throughout the home, in groups, and on multiple devices. The Blackfire RED framework also supports low latency and multi-channel, which other wireless solutions do not.


Voice service solutions require a high performance, multi-room solution like the Blackfire RED framework, which can allow multiple devices to respond to voice commands, simultaneously, and can be integrated into a broad spectrum of high quality voice service applications.


The Blackfire RED framework enhances the performance of smart speakers and does what no other solution has done before. Our partners have already stepped into the future, leveraging Blackfire’s technology in their products. Now is your chance, too. Join the Blackfire revolution today.

Revenge of the Smart TV

Revenge of the Smart TV


According to research firm Parks Associates, 45% of U.S. broadband households own a Smart TV, “making it the most commonly used platform for streaming video content among this group.” Additionally, roughly 60% of the those surveyed said that the device display on a Smart TV is easier to navigate and easier to find content than other connected devices, such as a set top box (STB).


Despite the high praise from devoted users, overall sales of Smart TVs, including those with 4K/Ultra HD resolution, have plateaued in recent years. “As a result, we are seeing new partnerships among device manufacturers focused on ways to improve or refresh the UI [user interface] of the smart TV, to make the device easy to use and a single point of content in the living room,” says Jennifer Kent, Director of research quality and product development at Parks Associates.


Additionally, streaming services are only gaining in popularity. Thanks to engaging, original content and an abundance of mainstay classics, streaming services like Netflix and Hulu are gradually killing cable. Data from financial services company Raymond James “shows that 31 percent of Internet users polled in November cited a streaming service such as Netflix or Hulu as their primary source of video content, up from 24 percent a year ago and only a few percent behind the 35 percent of survey respondents who named cable as their primary video source.” (Sound and Vision) That means, now, more than ever, entertainment device manufacturers need to start designing their products with streaming at the forefront.


Another feature that has been gaining traction over the last few years is voice control, and we should expect to see more entertainment devices, such as Smart TVs, unveil voice control functionality in 2018. Research from Parks Associates shows that “consumer demand is pushing voice control into the connected entertainment area” fueling it’s growth in the market.


This study proves that instead of having many disparate devices that play media throughout the home, consumers want to have access to all their entertainment content – such as music and video streaming services – from one central place. And what better place than the living room TV? Establishing the living room TV as a central hub from which all entertainment content can be easily accessed (and sent out to other devices in a multi-room setup) cuts down on the confusion for what can be played from which device. It’s time the TV stepped into the 21st century…

Implemented into the home’s central Smart TV, Blackfire’s revolutionary new protocol, The Blackfire Realtime Entertainment Distribution (RED) framework, allows users to to create a wireless, whole home entertainment system. With the Blackfire RED framework embedded in wireless speakers and the Smart TV, users can finally enjoy a truly wireless, connected home. The Blackfire RED framework is the most synchronous, reliable, and cost effective wireless solution on the market, and can be integrated into a broad spectrum of high quality voice service applications as well. Many companies have already stepped into the future by leveraging Blackfire’s technology. Now is your chance. Join the Blackfire Revolution today.

Smart Speakers are for More Than Just Music

Smart Speakers are for More Than Just Music


As smart speakers like the Amazon Echo and Google Home gain popularity, users are discovering more and more use cases for the technology in their homes. Besides the obvious music listening, what else are smart speaker owners using the technology for? The answer may (not) surprise you.

NPR and Edison Research conducted a study called The Smart Audio Report, which was based on a national online survey of 1,620 American adults. Out of the 800 respondents who said that they owned at least one smart speaker, 709 had an Alexa-enabled device, 160 owned a Google Home, and 69 owned both. No surprises, Amazon is dominating the smart speaker market.

52% of smart speaker owners responded that they keep their primary smart speaker in the living room, with the kitchen being the next highest placement for the smart speaker at 24%. This indicates that the living room is still being used as the main entertainment space, even as technology changes over time. Therefore, CE manufacturers should still view the living room as the epicenter for home entertainment systems. In terms of whole-home entertainment systems such as wireless speakers, the living room serves as great placement for a central hub that can control wireless speakers positioned throughout the house.

If you don’t have a smart speaker yet, you may be asking yourself, what’s the draw? What’s the main reason for even wanting a smart speaker in the first place? According to the report, respondents did not list listening to music as their number one reason for wanting a smart speaker, but rather, the top reason was to have the ability to ask questions or look up information without needing to type it into a phone or computer. This is pretty big news in favor of expanding voice control technology across various entertainment and service devices. Currently, we live in a tactile, app-based technological age: the modern smartphone was designed for viewing, touching, and engaging with a multitude of apps. But that may shift considerably within the next few years. Even though voice AI and voice control are still in their infancy, this study proves that many people want the ability to interact with their devices through their voice.

To the delight of Amazon, surely, 57% of respondents indicated that they have ordered an item through their smart speaker. Considering that retail is the driving force behind smart home innovations like Amazon’s Echo smart speakers powered by their voice AI, Alexa, we consider this a huge win for Amazon.

Overall, the study found that all types of smart speaker users (ranging from “heavy,” “medium,” and “light”), use their voice activated smart speakers regularly to play music, find out the weather, ask general questions, and set timers or alarms. As popularity for smart speakers increase, functionality will as well, and the smart speaker will likely become the central hub for the smart home of the future.

The Best Way to Avoid Buffering

The Best Way to Avoid Buffering


A new neural network AI from MIT CSAIL has been making headlines recently for using machine learning to solve some issues associated with buffering. We’ve all experienced buffering before, either in the form of pixilation, long wait times while loading a video or audio file, and everyone’s favorite nemesis: the spinning pinwheel of death. Buffering occurs because it’s impossible for your computer (or TV) to receive data all in one lump for immediate playback. Therefore, data is broken up into smaller packets and sent to its destination, sequentially. So while you’re enjoying your favorite Spotify playlist played to wireless speakers throughout your home, or streaming the latest episode of Game of Thrones in your living room, your entertainment media will always be sent bit by bit. If all goes well, you’ll never notice this is even happening. But more often than not, you’ll experience some sort of indication of file buffering. If there isn’t enough bandwidth, you’ll either experience pixilation, longer buffering times, or drop outs because your network can’t transmit data fast enough to maintain a sufficient “buffer.”


Essentially, what MIT CSAIL’s AI, dubbed the “Pensieve” neural network, does is use machine learning to switch between pixilation and buffering so your videos aren’t over buffering when they don’t need to, or pixelating when they don’t need to. According to MIT, the neural network will tune itself over time based on a system of rewards and penalties, allowing streaming services to customise this for their content—with priorities for buffering or resolution. If the streaming service is able to predict that a user watching a video on a handheld device is about to walk into a poor connectivity area, the system will be able to reduce the streaming resolution sufficiently, creating enough of a buffer for (potentially) stutter-free streaming (livemint). This is all fine and good, but it’s essentially like putting a Band-Aid on a festering wound: it may cover up the problem, but it by no way solves the underlying issue.


The real problem with buffering lies with your WiFi network. Conventional WiFi runs on TCP (Transmission Control Protocol), designed in the 1960’s for transferring files down wired Ethernet lines – certainly not for streaming real-time video and wireless audio throughout the Smart Home. (For more information on the shortcomings of TCP, check out this blog post). As long as your WiFi runs on this outdated protocol, it doesn’t matter what techniques are being innovated to combat the annoyance of buffering – the cause of the issue still needs to be addressed, not the symptoms.


Blackfire Research understands this. That is why we developed Real-Time Packet Management (RPM), the Blackfire Research solution to buffering. For whole home, wireless audio, RPM uses a special multipoint, real-time feedback signal from each speaker to monitor the effects of noise on the audio data stream, allowing for a much shorter queue and much less buffering. RPM is part of the Blackfire Realtime Entertainment Distribution (RED) framework, a revolutionary new protocol designed to stream both HD 5.1 audio and 4K video, simultaneously, across multiple devices around your home- all over the standard WiFi – with precise synchronization, low latency for lip sync, and overall reliability.


RPM can be found in any Blackfire powered device. Partnering with Blackfire Research means you’re ahead of the pack, and most of all, one step closer to defeating your nemesis: that darn spinning pinwheel of death.

Apple kills the iPod Nano and Shuffle. So, what’s next?

Apple kills the iPod Nano and Shuffle. So, what’s next?


With the announcement in late July that Apple is officially retiring the iPod Nano and the iPod Shuffle (the last of the pre iPhone iPods) we can safely say that “video killed the radio star” or rather, the rise of online/app-based streaming services like Spotify, Pandora, and Apple Music, have essentially wiped out the need for music file downloading on portable devices (and the products that were designed for that sole purpose.) When the iPod debuted in 2001, Steve Jobs promised 1,000 songs in your pocket. Today, through streaming, you can play almost any song in existence, instantaneously and fairly cheaply, without bogging down your smartphone or tablet’s storage. Thus, it’s not surprising that Apple is finally saying goodbye to the standalone MP3 player (although it does pierce a knife right into the heart of my childhood.)


With online/app-based streaming swiftly becoming the norm, home A/V and speaker manufacturers are adapting as well by offering products with built-in streaming services like Spotify Connect and Chromecast built-in, allowing music lovers to stream their music wirelessly from their phone or tablet to their speakers. But this shift comes at a price because they are exposing major flaws, not just in their products, but in the wireless protocols their products are built on.


Conventional Wi-Fi runs on TCP (Transmission Control Protocol) which was designed in the 1960’s for transferring files down wired Ethernet lines, not streaming real-time, wireless, audio. Unfortunately, most products out today that boast wireless streaming capabilities still use these outdated protocols and therefore, can’t properly support wireless streaming.


This has posed a huge problem for manufacturers who want to stay on trend, but are unwilling to invest in new, wireless infrastructures. As we’ve seen with Apple’s retirement of standalone MP3 players, products that support app-based streaming are the future. And yet, manufacturers continue to release products that are fundamentally unable to support the future of wireless home entertainment.


So what can be done? Well, Blackfire Research has an answer for that.


It’s called the Blackfire Realtime Entertainment Distribution (RED) framework, and it’s the industry’s only wireless and entertainment-centric infrastructure software framework built from the ground up to both overcome the limitations of Wi-Fi and meet the needs of wireless, entertainment-related apps and products. Top global audio brands, such as Harman Kardon, Onkyo, Pioneer, and Integra have already licensed the Blackfire RED framework, and are currently shipping products that leverage its capabilities: reliable multi-room, multi-channel, low latency, wireless audio and video over Wi-Fi. With the Blackfire RED framework in products such as home A/V systems, wireless speakers, smartphones, and TVs, home owners can finally become Smart Home owners – enjoying all of their digital streaming services wirelessly, synchronously and seamlessly throughout the home.

With the original iPod, you could carry 1,000 songs in your pocket. Today, the Spotify song collection alone boasts over 30 million. We’ve been adding more and more music into our pockets, but after all this time, we’re still trying to figure out how best to get it out.