Digital Assistants, Devices, Features
Have you heard of “Alexa”? Or maybe you have spoken to “Siri”? Such digital assistants are on the rise. They control increasingly more household appliances: speakers, lamps, dishwashers and even coffee machines.
Instead of pulling out your smartphone and opening an app, you just have to say what you want. Voice control turns your request into reality, and reports its success in a very natural sounding voice. This Tech Guide will step you through setting this all up – your specialist dealer has the matching products.
Alexa and her friends
Minimum quota, what nonsense. One area of technology has that covered. It is dominated by women, even if only verbally. Alexa, Cortana, Siri and their colleagues are the voice assistants. Even behind the rather masculine-sounding names like Google Assistant, there are usually female voices.
If you want to entrust the assistant with as little personal data as possible, you can create an extra user account. This way, voice control is separated from your online shopping or email. However, subscription services, such as music streaming, must then be under this second account, or you won’t be able to control it correctly.
Input methods are always the same: a microphone records your voice and sends your commands to the internet as an audio file. The voice assistant server analyzes your recording and executes your command. If needed, it replies by voice automatically and in a natural sentence. Because this process requires quite some power to compute, it only works in the cloud. Otherwise, even the tiniest of devices would need the power of a supercomputer.
Able to learn
Using the internet has one advantage: By comparing and analyzing many thousands of voice commands, the voice assistant can learn and improve continuously. Artificial intelligence (AI) is often mentioned in relation to Alexa other voice assistants, but the technology is not yet advanced enough. The current voice assistants listen for certain keywords and are not yet able to draw their own conclusions. You need to input commands using predefined phrases. But when you do, the voice assistant works both promptly and reliably.
Some devices only analyze speech input when you press a button. Others listen constantly so as not to miss their cue. Activation words like “Alexa,” “OK Google,” or “Hey Siri” then start transferring data to the server. According to independent tests, no transfer occurs without an activation word. If you want to be completely safe, you can always switch the microphone off entirely.
Apple product owners have been using Siri for years. The voice assistant is at home in Apple’s smartphones and tablets. She also helps you use the HomePod streaming speaker, and find your favorite movies on an Apple TV. Third-party devices using Siri will not be available for quite some time as Siri is only part of Apple operating systems. She notes down tasks, writes messages, creates bookings in your calendar or calls telephone numbers. Those who use certain smart home products can also control them via Siri. You can find compatible devices by looking for the HomeKit logo on their packaging.
The voice assistant built into Windows is called Cortana. She has been helping PC users at work since Windows 10 was released by Microsoft. Cortana has also replaced the previous voice control feature on the Xbox One console. Functions are largely limited to search and screen navigation. However, Microsoft and Amazon have recently agreed to cooperate: Alexa and Cortana will soon be able to complement each other with their different capabilities.
Probably the most successful voice assistant comes from Amazon. Alexa is built into many Amazon products: in wireless speakers (Echo series), media players (FireTVs) and tablets. Many other manufacturers have also integrated Alexa into their devices. In addition to playing internet radio and streaming music (Spotify, Amazon Music, Apple Music), Alexa can control your smart home and answer questions. With small voice apps, called Alexa skills, you can expand the range of features.
As the successor of “Google Now”, the Google Assistant is available on Android devices. Command your Android smartphones and tablets, and also televisions that use Google’s Android operating system. There is an app available for iOS, and voice-activated speakers from both Google itself and third-parties. The speakers work like those models with Alexa built in, but use Google’s music services instead of Amazon Music. There is one main difference: Google Assistant can access the concentrated knowledge of Google’s search engine. This makes it much more intelligent when you ask a general question. But there is a smaller range of controllable devices available at the moment.
Bixby is the youngest amongst the other digital assistants, launched in 2017 by Samsung. Like Apple’s Siri, Bixby is destined to become the central command center of your smart home. By now he is able to control Samsung televisions, as well as refrigerators and other networked household appliances. And with a little help from a smart home hub a lot more devices come into play.
Smartphones & PCs
A user’s right hand
Sometimes, it’d be great to have a second pair of hands. For example, when your shopping bags weigh you down on one side and you are trying to tap out a message on your smartphone with the other, without dropping everything. In such a situation, a touchscreen is no help. On the other hand, a voice assistant does the job with ease.
There are many use cases and only a few are unfamiliar. If you are embarrassed to command your smartphone or smartwatch in public, Bluetooth headsets let you connect to your assistant inconspicuously. For those around you, it looks like a normal telephone conversation. You can activate Siri or the Google Assistant conveniently at the touch of a button on many headsets and wireless headphones. This is also useful when you are in the middle of training – as a voice-controlled DJ for your music.
While some assistants are built into mobile phones, others are available via an app. This is especially true for Alexa, where apps for Android and iOS add the Amazon voice assistant to those devices. The apps’ features are similar to those of speakers with Alexa built-in, but they are not as deeply integrated into the Apple or Google smartphone operating systems.
Both Cortana and Siri are also at home on your computer. From here, they can help with your typical computer tasks, but are more limited in how they can control other devices.
Make a telephone call
Simply say the name of who you want to call, and your digital secretary will connect you. If there are multiple phone numbers for your contact, you’ll be asked which one you want to call.
Send a message
Do you get annoyed by the on-screen keyboard? It’s easy to send SMS and WhatsApp messages purely by voice. Answering works just as well.
Speaking is faster than typing – and it’s easy to correct any mistakes made by the assistant afterwards.
Search for information
Do you want to know the current cinema schedule, or find an ATM nearby? Voice assistants deliver these results on demand.
A simple sentence such as “Take me home” opens your map with a route at the ready. Then all you need to do is drive or walk there.
Adding appointments to your calendar or reading upcoming appointments aloud to you are some of the easiest tasks for digital assistants.
Make a song request, we’ll play it
Speakers that play on command? It sounds futuristic, but it’s not. Voice control is taking over the living room. Modern audio devices can be controlled not only via apps on your smartphone, but also with Alexa, Siri or the Google Assistant. One advantage: instead of searching for an album, song or artist on your smartphone, call out a title or name. Or opt to play tracks from a particular music genre – pop songs. You can also change the volume, pause and resume playback using voice control.
You can deactivate the microphone on these devices by using a mute button, if you wish. The speaker then is unable to listen in on or record any conversations in the room.
Especially convenient: wireless speakers with built-in voice control. These have microphones on board and only need to be connected to your Amazon, Apple or Google account to operate. In general, you need to opt-into using the voice assistant. Some manufacturers plan to offer additional services via software updates – check with your dealer.
Instead of building everything into the speaker, there is another way – by distributing the tasks. The speaker receives the commands and forwards them to a receiver via the home network. This allows you to control AV receivers or multi-room systems via voice input. Prerequisite: All related devices must be connected to your network via LAN or wireless and to your home router. Additionally, software that connects these devices to your voice assistant must be built into the audio. Such extensions are calls skills (Amazon) or actions (Google).
An internet connection is important for a second reason: it allows you to search verbally for song titles, playlists or radio stations. But smart speakers can do even more. It uses the internet to communicate with household electrical appliances and smart home devices.
LED lights, thermostats or washing machines can be controlled by voice, it’s not just your music. This saves you from constantly switching apps on your smartphone and is faster because it’s hands-free. Directional microphones ensure reliable speech recognition, even across the room or when music is playing. But above all: you’ll never need to search for the remote control or your smartphone again. Your voice assistant is always on hand – sorry, on call – waiting for your commands.
Ideal for streaming services
To successfully execute a command, the voice assistant must know the name of the requested title. Online services, such as Google Play Music, Amazon Music, or Spotify, have this information stored with each track. Album titles, artists and genres are stored in the service provider’s database. Alexa and the other assistants lack the necessary information to control music on your home computer. If you want to, you can upload your MP3 files to some providers’ cloud storage, which will then be just as accessible as via a streaming subscription. And if nothing else works: many smart speakers also work with Bluetooth. You can always stream your music conventionally from your smartphone using Bluetooth.
Multi-room: Control the system
“Alexa … play some relaxing jazz in the living room. Alexa … louder in the kitchen.” Amazon’s voice assistant can control music throughout your home, provided you have installed an appropriate multi-room system. Individual speakers listen for commands from your Amazon Echo. Microphones and voice control features are also integrated into some systems’ multi-room player, so you don’t have to purchase an additional Amazon device.
Tip: If you have Echo devices in different rooms, group them in the Amazon app and operate them as a multi-room system yourself. Google offers comparable features in its Home App, where the choice of products is even greater: Every audio device with “Chromecast built-in” is suitable for multi-room audio. Your specialist dealer will be happy to show you matching wireless speakers, soundbars and AV systems.
TV & Video
Movies and TV series on command
Televisions with voice control have been around for a long time. But they have improved significantly, now offering features comparable with smart speakers. Push a button on the remote control and talk to open apps on the screen, play video content or fast forward and rewind. It’s also easy to search for content: “Show me all movies featuring Daniel Craig”. Manufacturers rely on Google as well as their own systems.
An alternative for owners of older televisions: Use a media player with a microphone-equipped remote control, or a suitably equipped game console. Connect these to your TV via HDMI cables and bring Alexa, Siri or the Google Assistant into your living room, even if you have an older TV.
Do you want to control your entire home cinema? Even older non-networked DVD players or satellite receivers? Then choose an infrared hub with voice control. It converts commands from the voice assistant into traditional remote-control signals. Your specialist dealer will be happy to show you the right solution.
… doesn’t do itself. But housekeeping is easier with voice control. As with all voice-controlled products, an internet connection is required.
In other words: only networked household electrical appliances can be controlled by voice. Whether this is Alexa or another digital assistant depends on the manufacturer as they must include the necessary software. Then voice commands can be given via the assistant’s app: Select the Alexa skill or Google action, enter the appliance’s credentials, and done.
Easy to use
In order for the voice assistant to know which appliance you mean, manufacturers provide special command, usually starting with a fixed phrase like “Start Home Connect …” or “Tell Device XY …”. This may sound unnatural at first, but you’ll quickly get used to it.
How much longer is the laundry going to take? Would you like to turn the dishwasher on by voice command before you get into bed? With household appliances that support the Home Connect standard, this is easy. They listen for commands from Amazon’s Alexa and react accordingly. Other appliances can be connected to the central control system using a smart home system.
Why not order a cappuccino or latte macchiato before you even get out of bed? The Amazon Echo in the bedroom transmits your request to the coffee machine over the network – your coffee is ready before you are even on your feet. Robotic vacuum cleaners, light alarm clocks and wireless routers are also able to be commanded by voice. The range of such devices is constantly growing.
Even without outside help, smart speakers are useful in everyday life. For example, you can search for a recipe on the internet and it will read out the steps you need to follow to make it. If an ingredient is missing, ask your digital assistant to add it to your shopping list. Set a timer for boiling eggs or remind you there’s a cake in the oven. No-one needs to touch their smartphone with sticky hands any more.
Do you have a refrigerator or dishwasher that can’t be connected to your network? Ask your specialist dealer whether the manufacturer offers retrofit add-ons.
Everything controlled from a central hub
Everyone can afford such a caretaker: a digital assistant to turn the heating up when you are cold, dim the lights when you want to watch TV, or activate the alarm system when you leave home. All by voice, of course.
An advantage over traditional home automation systems: Devices can come from different manufacturers. Because its Alexa, Siri or another assistant that takes commands, smart home device brands can also be mixed, provided they work with the same voice assistant. Use the group function in the assistant’s app to combine devices and control them all at the same time. For example, the command “Dim the light in the living room to 50 percent” will turn down all of the lights in the room.
Some assistants can go even further and remember routines. These are sequences of actions that run automatically. A typical example: “Good morning” switches on the light, turns up the temperature in the bathroom and starts the coffee machine. It may also give you today’s weather forecast and read the latest news. Only smart home systems offer so much comfort, and most also work via voice control.
When working with many devices: Make sure you assign unique names. Otherwise the voice assistant won’t know which light or thermostat you mean. Rename the app itself if there any misunderstandings.
Use voice-activated speakers with an integrated Zigbee control center to control wireless LED lights – you don’t need an extra base station.
Many lights already allow you to control them by voice. The range of available lights include light globes with E14 and E27 connections, complete light fittings and LED strips.
Regulate your heating using your smartphone and voice input. The digital assistant then turns the heating up or down, and sometimes even tells you how warm your room currently is.
Virtually any electrical device can be switched on and off via wireless power adapters. Save energy without lifting a finger – a voice command is good enough.
Smart home systems
Complete solutions for controlling lighting, heating, and alarms provide you with fine-grained controls. Voice control makes this even easier – activate several actions at once with single commands like “Good morning“ or “I’m going to bed.”