Can you trust your smart speaker? What new abilities are being developed for it? Will new companies be able to break into the industry? Let’s take a look at some of the latest research, trends, and innovations in the global smart speaker industry.
Is your smart speaker spying on you?
Maybe not spying, per se, but it is listening a lot more often than it should be. Researchers at Northeastern University and Imperial College London found that on average, smart speakers are triggered between 1.5 and 19 times a day.
The researchers tested several different smart speakers: the Google Home Mini, Apple Homepod, Harman Kardon Invoke, and the second and third generations of the Amazon Echo Dot. Tests were conducted by playing a variety of television shows for the smart speakers and recording when and how each one activated. The number and duration of activations varied from one device to another, but all of the devices responded to phrases that didn’t match their wake words.
The Homepod and Invoke were the worst culprits for accidental activations, followed by the Echo Dot 2, Google Home Mini, and Echo Dot 3. The Homepod and the Echo Dot 2 stayed active and listening the longest (20-43 seconds), and more than half of their activations lasted at least 6 seconds. This is long enough to record the speakers’ environment, but not long enough to capture full conversations. The study said it found no evidence for smart speakers spying on their users.
The study also found that the smart speakers responded inconsistently – researchers ran the experiment 12 times, but less than 9% of activations were consistent across the tests. It’s unclear whether this means there is some randomness in the way smart speakers detect words, or if they learn from previous mistaken activations.
Smart speakers pose an interesting challenge for manufacturers and for the consumers who want to take advantage of them. In order to be useful, they need to be good at detecting the appropriate wake words when spoken by different people with different accents and ways of speaking. But in order to avoid annoying users or make them feel like they can’t control what the device listens to, the speakers still need to be precise. Some speakers appear to have a better handle on this than others, showing that there is still plenty of room for innovation and improvement in the smart speaker industry.
Preventative measures for legal professionals
Some law firms and other companies dealing with sensitive information have decided not to take any chances when it comes to smart speakers – they are urging their attorneys to turn off smart speakers and other listening devices while working from home, or even remove them from the room entirely.
This isn’t just from a fear that the manufacturers of the smart devices are listening in, or that accidental activations will record and send something they shouldn’t. There’s also the possibility of someone hacking into the devices and using them to listen in to confidential calls. The risk may be relatively low, but when working with sensitive information, especially when it comes to high-profile clients, an abundance of caution can be prudent.
COVID-19 is introducing new challenges for people and organizations in a range of industries as everyone adapts to new working conditions and changes in demand. It’s an important time to assess both risk and opportunity in the market and in the (home) office.
Balancing function and privacy in the smart speaker industry
One research team is working to make smart speakers more adept at determining where in the home a user is located when they activate the device. The goal is to help the device respond better to ambiguous commands such as “turn on the lights” or “turn up the temperature,” as well as better interpret indistinct commands based on the context of where the speaker is in the home.
The team’s VoLoc system uses Alexa’s microphone array as well as room echoes to help determine the speaker’s location. It reverse triangulates the user’s position by isolating the direction of the arriving voice signals. This also teaches the system more about the layout of the room, which improves its triangulation abilities.
The research team acknowledges that this could involve sacrificing some privacy by giving big companies such as Google and Amazon more information about customers’ homes, but they believe that the technology provides important benefits to seniors, people with disabilities, and other users, providing useful reminders and other assistance. Companies and consumers will have to decide how much they are willing to accept in terms of privacy and convenience.
Suggested reading: Convenience vs Data Privacy: How Risky are Smart TVs?
A new competitor enters the global smart speaker industry
Chinese electronics giant Huawei is launching its first smart speaker outside of China, introducing new competition to a market dominated by a few key vendors. The Huawei Sound X has been created in partnership with French audio company Devialet. It is already available in China, but is now being launched outside the country this coming summer.
The new smart speaker features some high-end technology, including vibration-cancelling speaker structure, but it currently lacks a voice assistant such as Alexa or Google Assistant. In China the speaker uses Huawei’s voice assistant Xiaoyi, but while the company says it plans to add one for the global market at a later date, until it does the Sound X lacks a key feature when it comes to competing effectively with other industry giants.
Suggested reading: 10 Leading Pro AV Technology Companies to Watch in 2020
A global market on the rise
The global smart speaker industry shows promising growth for the next several years, with a predicted increase of over $14 billion between 2019 and 2023. More than a third of this growth is expected to come from North America, where industry leaders such as Amazon and Google continue to innovate in terms of both hardware and software capabilities. The growing popularity of voice commands for online shopping and other functions will help drive the market in the coming years.
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