With more gadgets on the market than ever before, manufacturers are having to become ever more inventive to differentiate themselves and entice consumers to buy new products.
According to Pew Internet, the average American household normally includes nearly four devices per person—desktop, phone, tablet, and a connected TV or console—while in the UK, the total number of devices per household is estimated to be more than 8. One of the major categories that we’re seeing tech companies develop in an effort to expand what devices they can sell is smart home assistants, which can best be described as networked and internet-enabled speakers.
But what exactly is a smart home assistant? What functions does it offer that the average tablet, phone, and laptop owner doesn’t already have access to? Generally, smart home assistants are voice activated, meaning users can experience them effortlessly integrated with their home environment, rather than actively picking up a device to perform a task. The idea is that an assistant isn’t another device you have to manage or think about; once it is set up, it should seamlessly begin complementing your at-home tech infrastructure.
In fact, unlike the flashy and slick design aesthetic of, say, the latest Samsung or Apple smartphone, smart home assistants are intended to fade into the background. As Fast Company recently reported on the release of the Google Home Mini: “The device–which lets you access information and services from your computer or phone using just your voice–looks like a smooth, fabric-wrapped river rock. It was designed to make the advanced AI-powered technology inside feel like a natural addition to any room of your home, not some spooky HAL 9000 bot lurking around. To achieve this, Google designed a custom textile and even its own yarn.”
In other words, the functionality of these devices doesn’t come from being yet another showy device, but rather how they allow you to interact with existing technology you already have, whether it be your Spotify account, Nest features or your home security. All of these things could, in theory, be synced using a device like a phone, but a smart home speaker removes an extra layer of friction, making the connected home experience feel seamless and natural rather than invasive and foreign.
So what are the leading contenders in the smart home assistant market? Here’s a look:
Amazon Echo: The Amazon Echo comes in several different iterations, from the under $50 Amazon Echo Dot to the fully-equipped Amazon Echo show. Most people will have heard of Alexa, which is the AI interface that users talk to when supplying voice-activated commands, and users say they prefer saying someone’s name to activate a command as it feels more natural. The Amazon Echo definitely has the benefit of being the first major player in this market, which counts for a lot.
Google Home: Second to the Echo is Google Home, which also comes in the pared-down and lower cost version Google Home Mini mentioned above. Google Home has the major advantage of drawing from Google’s massive data sources, so users say that local stats like weather and sports tend to be more accurate from Google Home. However, the practice of saying “Okay, Google”—which is how one activates the assistant—hasn’t quite caught on in the way that Alexa has.
Apple HomePod: Surprisingly, Apple has been slower on the uptake when it comes to smart home assistants; its version is due to launch in December 2017, and will be commanded by Siri, the AI interface that most Apple users are already familiar with. It will be interesting to see how Apple fares against the existing competition.