Don’t Force Voice-Enabled Devices to Communicate With Non-Voice-Enabled Devices

Smart speakers are an easy entry into smart home territory, requiring only your voice to find new features. But the protocols underlying WiFi, which connects most smart home speakers, wasn't designed to handle voice. That's why the ULE Alliance is advancing a DECT-based standard as the optimal form of connectivity for voice-based smart home applications.

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Illustration: © IoT For All

A study this year by industry analyst firm Parks Associates found that in a survey of US households that own a smart home device, smart speakers came in last in net promoter score (NPS) among the devices surveyed. NPS is an index ranging from 100 to 100 that measures the willingness of customers to recommend a company’s products or services to others. Smart speakers received a score of 26, while others were in the 37 to 47 range. This seems surprising until you peel back a few layers to better understand what the scores mean.

Smart speakers run a number of applications, and once you have one, for many, there’s no “going back.” They’re an excellent, easy entry into smart home territory, with relative ease of installation/activation and a learning curve that requires only your voice to find new features. So, why aren’t people screaming about these products from the rooftops?

Smart speakers are an easy entry into the #SmartHome space, requiring only your voice to find new features. However, these smart speakers should be optimized using a transmission protocol designed to bring out the best in voice.… Click To Tweet

Voice control is a dominant theme in the smart home. From consumer electronics and lighting to music or white goods and appliances, control by voice has brought a lot of opportunity to manufacturers, and customers are flocking. Amazon recently announced it was celebrating its Alexa (Echo) compatibility with more than 20,000 devices, making it the market leader in voice control. Of course, Google is challenging Amazon’s market-dominating position with its own products. 

Google Home and Google Home Max, and the small Google Home Mini, are becoming more popular in the US. Many utilities are even offering the products as free accessories to promote smart home adoption. Add Apple HomeKit and others to the mix, and the competition is fierce.

The CEDIA Expo 2018

At CEDIA Expo 2018, Parks took to the stage to address their findings and to issue a press release. Their conclusions mirror what the ULE Alliance recognizes as well. Analyst Dina Abdelrazik sums it up as follows:

“It is surprising that smart speakers with personal assistants have such a low score, especially considering they have the highest purchase intention rate among all smart home devices. Integration with other smart home devices can be a challenge for consumers, which may contribute to low NPS. System integrators, as they add voice assistants to their services, have the opportunity to customize and integrate technology in the home with voice control to ensure a seamless and positive user experience.”

Dina Abdelrazik

In summary, Parks believes it’s up to the system integrators to make products successful in the market. Interoperability is key, and with more companies jumping on the Open Connectivity Foundation bandwagon, we are hoping to see a substantial improvement in this space. The customer experience will make or break any device (figuratively). However, our US broadband speeds have increased to the point where simple voice should not be an issue, yet here we are. So, what else is impacting smart speaker (and other smart home devices) adoption?

The Problem With WiFi

We see another challenge, and it goes back to the wireless systems within the home.

To make a simple example, speakers are typically using the home’s WiFi connection to transmit voice requests. Have you ever made a VoIP or Skype call over WiFi? What did you think of the quality? Even those with the highest Mbps broadband connections still can’t get over how disappointing voiceand often videois with WiFi. It’s not it’s fault.

When the internet protocol (IP) was designed, it was for data transfer, and it does a great job with it because packet loss can be absorbed and go unnoticed. Voice just isn’t its thing. WiFi was never designed for real-time applications, so voice cuts up and video stalls. Look at its age: it was invented before Netflix. This is true of all other wireless communications technologies—we’re not aware of one that was designed specifically to carry video. However, there’s one wireless technology that was designed with voice in mind.

DECT (the technology that made our cordless phones a success) has been around for more than two decades, with real-time behavior, dedicated frequency, and guarantees. It’s the technology-of-choice for voice, and the good news is that software updates in recent years have allowed DECT to be used for the best quality voice-based applications in the smart home.

The ULE Alliance and DECT: Toward Better Voice Transmission

Based off the voice standard DECT, ultra-low energy (ULE) is great for voice transmission. In fact, that is exactly what it is designed to do: transmit voice and low-bandwidth data/video.

The ULE Alliance is a non-profit industry consortium of more than 130 well-known companies that successfully established DECT radio as the optimal smart home standard. With the unparalleled benefits of extended reach (so it’ll cover your house, garage and yard with no repeaters), no interference (it has a dedicated transmission frequency of 1.9Ghz so it’s not competing in the crowded 2.4/5.0 space), and star topology (no repeaters needed = no dropped connections), ULE is quickly becoming the most experienced newest kid on the block in the smart home wireless space. As with all pros, there’s a con: lower bandwidth. But, transmitting HD video was never its original goal, so it can excel in voice.

The ULE Alliance has set its sights high for the US market and beyond. Member companies are shipping voice devices at record-breaking rates to OEMs and service providers looking to offer a superior customer experience to their customers using voice-enabled devices, and it doesn’t stop there: the next generation of DECT will have data bandwidth for video. It’s been developed specifically with these needs and bandwidth in mind.

There are many options for wireless transmission in the home, and devices are becoming more and more driven by voice-activation. The logical conclusion would be that these smart voice devices should be optimized using a transmission protocol specifically designed to bring out the best in voice. The only protocol that exists to do this is ULE. If we don’t recognize the need for different and superior voice communications, we risk the NPS score dropping further, customers abandoning voice devices, and stalling future innovation.

Written by Avi Barel, Director of Business Development for the ULE Alliance.