Digital voice controlled assistants such as Amazon’s Echo and Dot offerings and Google Home were a hot item this past holiday season — and they will begin playing an increasingly important role in controlling security systems this year.
Once heavy advertising for those products started late last year, “we had numerous phone calls asking if we could support stuff like that. The buzz has been generated,” comments Courtney Brown, owner of Statesville, N.C.-based security dealer Lake Norman Security/Alarm South.
Some alarm systems already can be controlled by Amazon’s and/or Google’s digital assistants and more systems will have that capability moving forward. Some manufacturers also are considering interfacing their systems with Apple’s HomeKit platform, which isn’t a digital assistant per se, but which can provide voice control capability.
In this article we explore what security dealers need to know about these offerings. It’s also worth noting that some security systems have built-in voice control capability and although those built-in capabilities won’t be the focus of this article, those offerings likely will benefit from increased interest in voice control.
Amazon & Google Connectivity
Amazon, manufacturer of the Echo and Dot voice-controlled digital assistants, currently has the lion’s share of that market. But the company is expected to see increased competition from Google Home, Apple HomeKit, and possibly other manufacturers in the future.
Amazon Echo and the lower-cost Dot are small devices with built-in microphones, speakers, Wi-Fi, and voice control software that goes by the name Alexa. The Echo and Dot use Wi-Fi to connect to a homeowner’s broadband connection and from there to a data center cloud operated by Amazon.
“The Echo is full size with a big speaker and microphones,” explains Dave Pedigo, vice president of emerging technology for Indianapolis-based industry association CEDIA. “The Dot is the size of a hockey puck and has fewer speakers and mics.”
Google Home is a similar product to Amazon Echo and Dot, but hit the market more recently.
There are three different ways security manufacturers can link their systems with Amazon’s or Google’s digital assistants. If the security manufacturer operates its own cloud, it can make an agreement to link that cloud to the Amazon and/or Google clouds. Security cloud providers such as Alarm.com and SecureNet also are making agreements to connect to the Amazon and/or Google clouds, enabling manufacturers that use those security clouds to gain voice control capability.
The third option, is to integrate the manufac-turer’s cloud with a third-party cloud operator such as IFTTT or Stringify that already has integrated with the Amazon and/or Google clouds.
With the first two options, when a user speaks a command to the Amazon or Google digital assistant, the command is relayed to the Amazon or Google cloud, then to the security manufacturer’s or security cloud provider’s cloud, and from there to the control panel. With the third option, the communications path goes through IFTTT or Stringify between the Amazon or Google cloud and the security cloud.
Any cloud-connected security system could be controllable by a digital assistant provided that the manufacturer of the security system has achieved interconnectivity with the digital assistant manufacturer’s cloud through one of these three methods, manufacturers say. Both Amazon and Google have created open interfaces for their clouds, enabling other manufacturers and cloud providers to use application programming interfaces to interconnect their clouds with them.
Voice-Controlled Digital Assistant Capabilities
The exact functionality that can be controlled by a digital assistant varies by manufacturer. Some manufacturers have only opened up the ability to arm the security system, for example, while others also have given digital assistants the ability to control lights, door locks or thermostats connected wirelessly to the security system.
Digital assistants are designed to respond to specific nomenclature. When summoning Echo or Dot, users must first say “Alexa” or “Echo,” for example, and users summoning Google Home must first say “OK (or hey) Google.” After that, the user typically must say the word “tell” followed by the name of the security system interface and a specific command for what the user wants to do.
Some manufacturers also give end users the ability to create scenes. Springfield, Mo.-based DMP, for example, lets homeowners use a smartphone app, keypad or portal to give Alexa the ability to initiate the shutdown of lights and thermostat adjustments in response to a bedtime command, explains Clayton Tummons, DMP director of mobile technology.
Manufacturers are divided about whether digital assistants should be able to disarm a system. Some manufacturers offer or are considering offering dealers the ability to let customers disarm their systems after the customers have correctly spoken their passwords. Some other companies have made a deliberate decision not to give customers that capability because someone accompanying the homeowner might hear the code and use it at another time without authorization, explains Russell Vail, president and CEO of Sugarland, Texas-based ipDatatel, which offers a security hub that provides the functionality traditionally provided by a security panel.
Also a matter of debate is whether end users should be able to establish a connection with a central station operator by speaking to a digital assistant. SecureNet is considering giving manufacturers using its cloud the option of letting end users summon police or fire by opening a connection to the central station, explains Barrie Webb, vice president of global sales for Lake Mary, Fla.-based SecureNet Technologies.
But some manufacturers have deliberately avoided offering that capability. A key concern is that the digital assistant’s connection to the cloud is typically via the customer’s Internet connection only, which means that if that connection becomes inoperable, voice control is lost. (Alarm signals normally would still go through, however, because modern security systems typically have both a landline and cellular Internet connection to the central station.)
Although not a voice-controlled digital assistant per se, Apple HomeKit has the ability to provide the functionality of such a device — and some manufacturers, including ipDatatel, see potentially strong value in the way Apple is approaching the digital assistant opportunity.
“We like where Apple is going,” Vail says.
The Apple HomeKit platform includes a hub device that uses Bluetooth or Wi-Fi to communicate directly with devices such as thermostats, door locks, lighting controls — and potentially security systems — that have an Apple HomeKit chip built into them. Voice control comes via a voice control interface built into the remote control for the user’s HomeKit-capable Apple TV streaming media player. (The Apple TV, which is connected to the Internet, is also the way users interface with Apple HomeKit when they are away from home.)
Unlike the digital assistants from Amazon and Google, Apple HomeKit does not rely on the cloud for communication with other devices. Vail sees that as an advantage because it eliminates the possibility of the system losing functionality if the customer’s Internet connection becomes inoperable.
Another advantage is that the security system would respond a bit more quickly to commands because communications would not have to travel through two or three clouds. Additionally, the ipDatatel security hub would gain the ability to communicate with and control thermostats, door locks, or lighting controls that use Bluetooth or Wi-Fi communications — even though ipDatatel’s own product doesn’t use Bluetooth or Wi-Fi for communication with such devices.
The Security Dealer’s Role
Some manufacturers will be making it easy for dealers to offer products such as the Echo and Dot or Google Home by making the products available through manufacturer-provided portals that also support cloud functionality. Dealer margins on these products may be slim, but some see the products as a way of enabling sales of other products and adding value to the overall system.
“Security professionals are positioned to be not only providers of security and life safety systems, but can also evolve into the consumer’s trusted connected home solutions provider,” says Scott Harkins, vice president of partner development for Melville, N.Y.-based Honeywell Security & Fire. “Selling new products can and should be an integral step in that process.”
Brown says that “as soon as we can evaluate a product, we would put it in our portfolio of offerings.”
Dealers are likely to use a variety of approaches toward incorporating digital assistants into their product portfolio. “Some will give it away and build it into a marketing campaign,” predicts Mike Hackett, senior vice president of sales and marketing for San Jose, Calif.-based Qolsys Inc. “Others will say ‘it will cost an extra dollar a month’ or whatever.”
Dealers offering digital assistants should be prepared to support them, however. When selling a new security system, technicians should spend more time than in the past “showcasing” system functionality, including how the system can interoperate with voice-controlled digital assistants, Webb advises.
Moving forward, the security system capabilities that can be controlled by a digital assistant are sure to expand. Dave Mayne, vice president of marketing for Hudson, Wis.-based Resolution Products Inc., notes, for example, that Resolution Products’ roadmap calls for giving end users the ability to tell Alexa to ask what functionality in the Resolution security system can be controlled via voice.
Eventually security systems also may be able to integrate with equipment from other cloud-supported manufacturers via the Amazon or Google clouds (and potentially through an Apple cloud) in much the same way that they can do now using IFTTT or Stringify.
As Shawn Welsh, senior vice president of product line management and marketing for Atlanta-based Telguard explains, an advantage of the third-party cloud approach is that it can enable a security
system designed to use Z-Wave or Zigbee to communicate with thermostats, door locks and light controls to also communicate with home control devices designed to use Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. For this to occur, the cloud underlying those devices also must be connected to the third-party cloud and the third-party cloud must support the required interfaces.
Meanwhile, Nortek is working on sophisticated “natural language” capabilities that could make it easier for homeowners to use voice control with their security systems. (See “What’s Cooking with Nortek’s Nuiku Acquisition?” on page 80.)
Clearly, we are in the early days of voice control and the technology is likely to become increasingly important to the security and home control industries in the coming months and years.
What’s Cooking With Nortek’s Nuiku Acquisition?
Carlsbad, Calif.-based manufacturer Nortek Security & Control is taking the voice control opportunity so seriously that the company in mid-2016 bought Nuiku, a company with expertise in that area. Since then Nortek has been working on what Jim Poder, vice president of product innovation for Nortek Innovation Foundry, calls “natural language processing.” The goal is to eliminate the requirement for end users to use specific words to control systems.
“Some call it a light, some call it a lamp — the language processing engine has to understand the subtleties of language and figure out the intent,” Poder explains.
Another goal is to enable end users to easily set up system rules using regular speech. Nortek wants a homeowner to be able to ask for the lights in Suzy’s room to come on at sunset and turn off at a certain time and have the system automatically program itself to do just that.
“If you can get consumers to create their own rules, it scores much higher on satisfaction value,” Poder observes.
Poder and Robert Beliles, senior vice president of product management and marketing for Nortek Security & Control, decline to reveal whether Nortek is planning to create a product similar to Amazon Echo or Google Home, but they note that end users will be able to use products such as those as “listeners” that will feed into the Nortek system.
Research Shows Voice Control Sales Gaining Momentum
A late-2016 forecast from Strategy Analytics estimated that more than 2.8 million U.S. households would own voice-activated digital assistants by the end of 2016. The majority of those — about 1.8 million — would be purchased in 2016, the research firm estimated.
A late-2016 forecast from the Consumer Technology Association was more bullish, estimating sales of 2.2 million voice-activated digital assistants for the year, a 32 percent increase over the previous year. CTA’s 2016 revenue estimate for digital assistants was $392 million.
Strategy Analytics projects that 11.5 percent, or 13.9 million U.S. households, will own digital assistants by 2020.
Echo & Google Talk to Each Other
About the time the Obama-Biden Internet memes died down, a new social media sensation began to emerge. Check out YouTube and you’ll find numerous homemade videos starring Amazon Echo and Google Home in conversations with each other. Here are two of our favorites: http://bit.ly/2i0P2dH (a bit long, but gets more interesting as it moves along) and http://bit.ly/2kRiodt (infinite loop).
To learn more about voice control of security systems, visit SDM’s website where you’ll find the following articles:
“Key Trends in Interactive Services”
“Connected Home: Domestic Bliss or Distress?”
“The Revolutionary Trends in Home Automation”