Voice-activated assistants do your bidding

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Mae Anderson

Does your home really need a “smart speaker” that can answer questions, call you an Uber, turn off the lights, or play music when you ask? You may be about to find out.

Two years ago, Amazon introduced the Amazon Echo, an unassuming, $180 cylinder that sits atop a kitchen counter or bookshelf, acting as a personal assistant that listens to you and does your bidding.

Initially, the gadget’s main purpose was a little difficult to discern. But Echo and its Alexa voice-recognition software have since become a sleeper hit, with millions sold.

The Echo’s hands-free operation filled an undiscovered niche in the smart-home universe. Users can just say the wake word “Alexa” and direct it to do a task, such as turn on lights or set a timer. Alexa can also respond to requests verbally, using its encyclopedic database to answer a variety of questions.

The fact that you don’t need to use a smartphone or tablet to activate Alexa sets it apart from other smart home systems, like those offered by Samsung or Apple.

Then last fall, Echo got some competition. Google is selling a similar smart speaker called Google Home, priced at $129. It performs many of the same tasks as Echo, including playing music and fielding questions, plus controlling compatible lights and appliances.

The Google Assistant that works with Home will also be able to access your Google Calendar, Google Maps and other services, if you allow.

Learning new skills

One key to the Echo’s success was Amazon’s willingness to work with third-party software developers, allowing it to add new functions each week, making it easy for owners of the speaker to discover new ways to use it. (It launched with a few dozen so-called ‘skills’ and now has thousands.)

“Initially we got it for music,” said Brian Bishop, a business analyst in Tomball, Texas, whose family uses two Echos. “Later, when it controlled the lights and fans and outlets, that just made it even better.”

Apple and Google have also opened up their personal assistants — Apple’s Siri and Google Assistant — so that third-party developers can create new features for them. Sony is working on Xperia Agent, a digital assistant that connects to devices in the home.

All these companies are chasing the smart-home market, which could grow to be a $71 billion global industry by 2018, up from $33 billion in 2013 and $25 billion in 2012, according to Juniper Research.

Interest in smart homes appears to be rising as more people become enamored with their smartphones. A recent online survey of more than 4,600 adults in the U.S. by Forrester Research’s Technographics found 57 percent of them either had used, or were interested in using, a smart home device — such as lights or thermostats — designed for remote control.

A box with personality

People seem to have an easier time talking to a speaker that has no other interface than they do talking to a smartphone.

“I’ve never used Cortana [Microsoft’s personal assistant]. I don’t use Google, and my wife doesn’t use Siri. But everybody talks to Alexa,” Bishop from Texas said. “I couldn’t really tell you why. That was the only way to communicate, so we all got in the habit.”

Buck Wise, an advertising executive in Portland, Oregon, tried several variants of smart home systems, but said the Echo worked best for him because of the hands-free speaker. He has lights, blinds, and his garage door synced with the Echo.

“Alexa truly is the brain of our home, and it would feel like 100 steps backwards to get through a day without her,” Wise said.

What won him over? Commanding the device just by speaking — and without having to fire up an app — basically did the trick, he said.

Amazon has also launched two other Echo-like devices, the smaller $50 Dot — which it now sells in six-packs so people can have one in every room — and the portable $100 Tap, to give Alexa even broader reach.

Dave Limp, Amazon’s senior vice president for devices, says the goal is for Alexa to keep getting smarter as it continues to build new “skills” over the coming years. “The hope is you can ask Alexa anything, and it will be able to respond correctly, quickly and be able to be there,” he said.