CES 2019: Amazon and Google Assistant carve up tech expo
At CES, there’s no shortage of gadgets to talk to. Smart TVs, cars, pianos – and even a toilet – these are just some examples of devices that come with voice-activated helpers.
No matter who makes the hardware, the virtual aide linked to or packaged inside is likely to be one of two: either Amazon’s Alexa or Google Assistant.
For ShadeCraft, the maker of a new device that lets garden parasols be controlled by voice, Alexa was simply more straight-forward to build in.
“It was much easier and simpler to integrate,” explains chief executive Armen Gharabegian. “But we have been testing Google voice as well.”
Users can ask Alexa to open or close the sunshades mechanically, or play music via Bloom’s speakers. But ShadeCraft wants to integrate Alexa completely, so that the parasol behaves just like an Amazon Echo smart speaker.
Voice commands such as ordering Amazon products or asking what the weather will be like could then be done from the patio as well as the living room.
The benefit of this would be to give users access to the particular functionality offered by different virtual helpers.
Google Assistant, for example, tends to be better at answering queries about the wider world than Alexa. It also has exclusive access to some of the search firm’s other products, letting users control Chromecast audio streams or display YouTube and Google Maps on devices with screens.
Alexa, by contrast, is more widely supported by third-party products and has more apps.
Another firm that thinks its customers may be best at deciding how to interact verbally with its devices is Sonos.
It has shown off a prototype smart speaker that allows users to select either Alexa or Google Assistant, though it isn’t possible to activate them both at the same time.
Part of the problem is that interacting with multiple virtual helpers through one device could get confusing.
“Say an alarm goes off on the speaker,” writes Dieter Bohn at tech site The Verge. “You might not know whether it was Alexa or Google that set it off, and you’d be stuck guessing which one to ask to stop while it beeps.”
However, in time, people may well become accustomed to using both assistants interchangeably, and even others like Apple’s Siri or Samsung’s Bixby, depending on what they want to do.
“[Consumers] will be entrenched in one of those ecosystems and so the manufacturer of appliances is not going to want to lose sales to consumers who prefer one of them,” says Ross Rubin at market analysts Reticle Research.
But for now the land grab is everything, which is why executives at Amazon must be feeling pleased with Alexa’s progress.
Focals project a colour display into the wearer’s eyeball by bouncing it off the lens to create a hologram-like visual in the right eye. This is used to relay text messages or directions to a place, for instance.
“The result that you get is a small transparent display that sits about an arm’s length in front of you,” says spokesman Alexander Ingram.
With Alexa and a speaker on board, there’s another option – just listen to the information instead. Or play some music.
North received investment from Amazon and so has built Alexa into Focals – but Mr Ingram says there are no plans to keep the glasses as an Alexa-only product.
“By being able to take these assistants out of the home and into the world, that just opens up a huge range of new applications,” he said.
There is another way to bring voice activation to a product without having to rely on one of the tech giants’ assistants.
Snips lets firms build their own voice tools that run solely on the devices they were intended for.
So, if you want to make a coffee machine that simply responds to a handful of crucial commands, it would be an option.
What’s more, by not relying on Amazon’s or Google’s servers, users would not need to bother connecting their new coffee machine to the cloud before asking it for a cappuccino. And that avoids the risk of a cyber-security scandal or other privacy issue.
“This kind of information should stay in your home, it should not go elsewhere, to a server on the opposite side of the world,” said the firm’s vice president of product, Sebastien Maury.