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CES 2019 Preview: Your TV Wants To Control Your Home

Although smart speakers would say otherwise

Get ready for TVs to start pulling their weight around the house this year.

Next week at CES 2019 we should expect to see a growing number of manufacturers introducing smart-home connectivity into their TVs in the form of voice activation. This latest innovation combines the ease of voice commands for TV control with myriad other functions that expand the television’s abilities by integrating it with the rest of the smart- home ecosystem.

Of course several brands, including Samsung, LG and Sony, already offer the ability to control connected devices in this way. But this we will likely see manufacturers show off some new relationships between their TV brands and the companies behind voice assistant technology, most noticeably Google Assistant software.

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So far, voice assistant technology comes to TVs in two formats. One type offers built-in assistant capabilities, which operate through a voice-enabled remote and do not require a standalone device. The second format does not have voice-assistant technology built into the TV itself, but does allow the user to control the TV through the use of a separate device such as an Amazon Echo. TVs with this format are commonly identified as “compatible with” various voice assistant operating systems, such as Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant. 

This approach is currently more widely used than the built-in format because it is easier for TV manufacturers to outsource the virtual assistant function to an external device, and also because it gives manufacturers the ability to work with multiple device types at once. Many of the “compatible” TV models can operate with both the Amazon and Google platforms.

Virtual assistant software is currently available to the TV market from three primary sources: Amazon’s Alexa, Google Assistant and Samsung’s Bixby. While each brand offers its own standalone speaker hardware, with Samsung’s to be announced, Amazon and Google also license their virtual assistant software to other manufacturers’ products, including TVs. So far, Google is winning the integration race and is built into more TVs than its Alexa competition, including models from Hisense, LG and Sony.

In contrast, Amazon formed an exclusive partnership with Best Buy’s private-label Insignia brand and the Hisense-licensed Toshiba badge last year, which limits its prospects for expansion. However, many additional brands are nonetheless compatible with Amazon Alexa and Google Home, including Haier, Hisense, LG, Sony and Vizio. We can expect to see more TVs added to this list this year, and perhaps even an additional player if Roku expands its voice control capabilities beyond the television. As for Samsung, the brand remains content with its proprietary Bixby technology to the exclusion of all others.

What results from the addition of this software is an integrated system that lets TV users speak into a voice-enabled remote to control the TV, as well as conduct any of the other functions available on a standalone virtual assistant device. In practical terms, this turns the television into a giant control center for the smart home at the same time that appliances, home audio, thermostats, security cameras, lighting and many other once-standard household devices are gaining new functions and abilities through the addition of virtual assistant software.

Point is, these smart-home products need some sort of external control source. Traditionally this was accomplished via a mobile app and later with the additional option of voice-controlled smart speakers. Now, with the integration of virtual assistants into the TV itself, the TV has the potential to become the control hub of the smart home, although the industry has yet to establish a need for the television to fulfill this role in the home. The convenience of an always-available smartphone or an always-on voice controlled speaker cannot be overstated, and the TV industry has yet to proffer a compelling reason why the TV is more suitable for this purpose than a smaller device.

The market may have an uphill battle on its hands in this regard, although TV manufacturers will be doing their best to drown out any doubts at CES.

See also: TV At CES 2019: ‘8K Is Getting Real’