How the house of the future will speak to you

Technologists might have got the central question of the connected home the wrong way around

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The Independent Tech

Technologists are convinced that the house of the future will be one that you can speak to. But far more neglected – and potentially far more important – is the other half of that equation: that if you’re going to speak to your house, it needs to be able to speak back.

A range of companies are rushing to become the speaker companies of the future. And now it appears that doing so is no longer just about making speakers that sound as good as possible, it’s about making ones that speak to you, too.

A range of companies are building voice assistants that sit in your house, from Amazon to Google, and with Apple reportedly exploring the possibility of making your own.

But for now the central feature of many of those products is something fairly simple: playing music through speakers. The way you do that might be stunningly modern – using voice control that harnesses the latest language processing and AI software, and microphone hardware – but the use that it’s put to is really rather simple.

And speaker companies are in the process of fighting back. Sonos, for instance, was perhaps one of the first connected home companies – providing internet of things products before the internet of things was really a thing, let alone a slightly over-talked cliche.

And now the company is positioning its products as the way that your house will speak to you. Voice might be the mouse or touchscreen of the future, letting you control your house; but sound will surely be its screen, and the way that you actually experience what it’s up to.

That’s a vision that Sonos laid out recently, when it launched a new range of updates meant for making their already internet-enabled speakers more smart. That included tools that work with Amazon’s Alexa AI assistant, for instance, and integration with yet more other connected home features.

That is a conscious move that the company have made, says John Gahagan, Sonos’s regional director for northern Europe.

“Our vision for Sonos is that if you have devices connected in your home, they’re going to need to make sound,” says Mr Gahagan. “And so our hope is that the sound comes out of a Sonos speaker.

“Say your doorbell rings: the music dips, the doorbell chimes, and then the music comes back up.”

Sound is central to the way that people interact with the houses of future, says Mr Gahagan. That’s because doing so cuts out many of the supposedly easy but often obstructive ways of controlling technology.

“How do you want to interact with other devices in your home? The idea of getting out a smartphone, finding an app, interacting with it – it’s already quite antiquated.”

Instead, he says, “the idea is that any sound – your washing machine, your kids leaving a message when they go out the door, your doorbell, your baby monitor” – will become a way of interacting with computer and the internet.

They’ll still be speakers, too, of course. Sonos’s recent 

“We still want to be great for music, but we want to be a platform as well,” says Mr Gahagan. “That’s a really big shift.”

It’s a terrifying shift, too. There seems to be as many companies as there are platforms – and, terrifyingly, many of them don’t work with each other. The vision of the internet of things is one where all of a house’s different devices will be able to talk to each other, but the race to become the dominant platform is meaning that lots of products are speaking different languages.

If you’re using Amazon’s Echo, for instance, you can only talk to other things that aren’t set up for that platform. You can’t, for instance, use it to listen to songs on Apple Music, since Apple are notoriously rigid about what works with its platforms and what doesn’t.

Sonos is clear that it isn’t going g to work that way. “We’ll be integrated,” says Mr Gahagan.

“We’re not going to come out with our own connected home platform. But we will work with others who have platforms.

“There’s a multitude of these different networks coming out, and actually it just confuses people rather than simplifies it.”

That could help it advance in what will be the central battle of the connected home and speakers. Will the audio companies get smart quicker than the computer companies can start sounding good? The race is analogous to those being run by connected car companies – will tech or auto companies get there first?

Sonos is clear that its virtue is in tying the two together. The company has been making great-sounding speakers that can connect to the internet for years – all it’s got to do is get a little more smart, rather than changing its entire product.

At some point that vision might be one beyond music. But at the moment, Sonos’s skills are fairly specific: they’re best at making speakers, and making those speakers connect to the internet.

“At the moment it’s all about content, making music quicker, or about control” like Spotify’s connections to Amazon.

“Predominantly it’s music-focused. We like to think of ourselves as a music company, not an electronics company. We make products for music and we pride ourselves on the quality of the music experience.”

Sonos’s vision is simple. The things that win people around to the internet of things are likely all to be so – people don’t want to turn their houses into a huge web of interconnected internet devices, but just make things slightly easier.

“We just want to be a way that people listen to sounds in their home,” he says. “Part of that is music. Music is at our core” and the real experience of Sonos should be putting your favourite album on, “having a quiet night in with a glass of wine”.

“The backend will be complicated as these things always are,” he says, but Sonos and others are working hard to make the actual experience of using it as simple as possible.

That’s the dream of the connected home, though perhaps more dream than reality for the moment. It sounds good.

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