Your browser is out-of-date!

Update your browser to view this website correctly. Update my browser now


Touchscreens Speak Louder Than Words

Why voice control may not be the future of smart home after all

Last year was a breakthrough period for voice computing.

Amazon sold over 8 million Echos and Dots, and their Amazon Voice Services (AVS) put Alexa in everything from refrigerators to dancing robots to Ford F-150 trucks.

Google Home followed (and Apple is rumored to be next), setting the industry on track to move 23 million more voice-powered devices in 2017.

But it was just in the last few weeks with announcements from Amazon and Google that we got a glimpse of what is really happening – the beginning of the ambient computing revolution.

“Ambient computing” refers to making the capabilities of a place, such as a home, directly accessible to anyone present, without the need for an intermediate device like a mobile phone or computer. If you have ever asked Alexa to play music or turn on the lights, you’ve used ambient computing (incidentally, these are the two most common uses of Alexa, each comprising over 30 percent of Alexa requests). But voice is just one form of ambient computing, and is often not ideal: If you’ve ever tried to use Alexa to adjust light levels, select from a list of favorite stations, or describe a cooking recipe, then you’ve experienced the limitations of a voice-only solution. This is why new skills/actions lose 97 percent of their users in just two weeks, according to a new study by Voice Labs.

With the launch of Amazon Show and Google Home, ambient computing devices are evolving to add more interfaces that broaden their range of use cases. The Amazon Show has a screen interface, so you can ask it a question and get a visual display response. Google Home allows you to stream a response from Google Assistant to a nearby screen using Chromecast. As these screens become interactive themselves, general purpose ambient computing devices can adapt to consumer interaction preferences that feel much more intuitive. Cameras, motion sensors, and other capabilities will take this even further.

This raises the question: Given a range of ambient computing capabilities, which interface will get used the most and why? We recently had a chance to test this out with a pilot test of Brilliant Control, our company’s smart-home control panel that replaces standard light switches to give you touch, voice and motion control over your lighting and other smart-home functions.

Analyzing thousands of interactions in households that had voice services turned on, we found that:
• motion was used about 5 percent of the time;
• voice was used 14 percent of the time; and
• touch was used 81 percent of the time.

Why was touch used most often? It turns out it was due to three factors. First, simplicity: it’s still easier to flip on lights with your finger when you walk into a room. Second, choice: selecting between options, such as songs/playlists/channels for music players, is far more natural with a screen. Third, interactive feedback: it’s much faster to adjust dimming levels for lights or sound levels for music with the slide of a finger than by issuing successive commands until you find the right level. Voice computing has an important role in the home of the future, but it is not a complete solution in itself.

By 2018 over 50 percent of households will have adopted smart-home products. The full realization of ambient computing will make it fun and delightful to interact with our homes, rather than the clunky mobile phone-driven or voice-only interactions that exist today. As Amazon, Google and companies like Brilliant evolve our solutions, I think we will be surprised at how quickly we will find homes without ambient computing outdated and frustrating.

It only took eight years for mobile phones to go from simple voice/text devices to mandatory always-on companions that simplify day-to-day life for billions of people. Ambient computing is already on its way to being the next big wave.

Aaron Emigh is CEO and co-founder of Brilliant, a venture-backed connectedhome company based in San Mateo, Calif., that launched in February. Pre-orders of its first product, the Brilliant Control smart light-switch panel, sold out in 19 days, and should begin shipping in late summer.