AI voice-assistants getting into smart appliances

Household appliances that integrate with voice-activated virtual home assistants are making a huge splash at Europe’s largest consumer electronics expo here.

At IFA 2017, U.S. startup Neato Robotics unveiled a vacuuming robot that connects to one of several smart home platforms, including Amazon’s Echo system. One can instruct the machine to clean up around the house at a set day and hour each week by speaking to an Echo smart speaker.

Voice-controlled connected products being announced at this year’s IFA run the gamut from smart TVs being sold under the Toshiba brand by Turkish company Vestel to heated blankets made by Germany’s Beurer. Many of these electronics can also be activated remotely via smartphones.

British research company IHS Markit estimates that the AI-powered digital assistants market will reach 4 billion devices at the end of this year, a number that could grow to 7 billion in 2020.

Most of these devices are compatible with Echo — as they should be. Since getting a head start in the field in 2014, Amazon’s artificially intelligent speakers have captured a 70% share of the voice-controlled speaker market.

“We chose Amazon’s technology because it is the most widespread,” said a sales manager at Cerevo, a Tokyo startup that showcased its smart desk lamp at the IFA.

Google emerged as a rival when it launched its own Google Home smart speaker in 2016. Third-party connected appliances are steadily adding the American company’s AI technology, Google Assistant, to their repertoire of compatible systems.

Neato’s robot vacuum supports the AI services of both Amazon and Google. Germany’s Elgato has unveiled five new household accessories, including smoke detectors and door locks, that are powered by Apple’s HomeKit platform.

It is too early to tell, however, which home assistant option will be dominant, said a representative for Bosch. The German technology group is exhibiting ovens and coffee makers that connect to Echo at the expo. Bosch also would like to make its devices compatible with Google and Apple’s voice platforms in the future, said the rep.

In contrast, no appliance can be seen at the trade show that can work with Japanese AI technology. The likes of Fujitsu, Sony and Panasonic are developing their own AI voice assistants. Sharp is adding that tech to ovens and small robots being put on the market. The Nippon Telegraph & Telephone group is recruiting appliance and toy makers to adopt its voice-controlled AI system.

Japanese developments in the field are chiefly done in the home language. Devices that can work in the English-speaking world are few and far between.

Meanwhile, American rivals are busy creating multi-language platforms. Google will market its Japanese-language voice-activated speaker in Japan this year. Amazon will also release Echo’s Japanese version in due time. The language barrier that used to shield Japan’s market from U.S. competitors is showing signs of cracking.

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