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How Voice Control Will Make the Internet of Things More Human

By J.D. Sartain
June 10, 2014 11:47 AM ET

CIO - Cisco Systems expects more than 10 billion mobile Internet-connected devices by 2016, including machine-to-machine (M2M) modules. Gartner sees the Internet of Things (IoT) reaching 26 billion installed units by 2020. Forrester says voice control will be the next battleground for technology's Big Five: Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft.

How do those three statements relate? With all these mobile Internet-connected devices and installed IoT units, the progression to voice control and monitoring is the next logical step.

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Building intuitive human interaction capabilities within next generation-connected products is becoming essential and expected," says Yasser Kahn, CEO and founder of Connect2.Me, an IoT platform that represents (among other technologies) a long list of voice control and monitoring companies. "Nothing defines 'intuitive' more than voice interaction. It reduces the adoption and learning curve for the end user while, at the same time, creat[ing] a unique bond between the product and its owner."

The increase in personal devices by 2020 is an important statistic to consider, notes Jorge Lopez, vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner. The voice control industry is a proxy for growth, but it's also a proxy for an upper limit; once the number of personal devices reaches every human on the planet, further growth is only gained by increasing the capabilities of things, he says. "If that does take off, to an even modest extent, it will represent growth substantially larger than with personal devices."

Voice Control Applications Just the First Step

James McQuivey, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester explains that the most common applications for this technology will be home security, personal and family health monitoring, and family monitoring (whether remote or local).

Consumers' need for these applications will justify the introduction of microphones and other sensors into homes (and even businesses) almost immediately. Even though the most common microphones today are in voice control of specific appliances, devices and entertainment services such as Amazon FireTV and Comcast's X1 Platform, these likely won't be the microphones installed as safety and health monitors.

What's more likely, McQuivey says, are environmental microphones either built into smoke alarms and thermostats or in the form of small plug-in modules such as an electric air freshener. Once these microphones are in place, they can be assigned to do just about anything - listen to people sleep (to provide a 'snore report'), identify if individuals face health issues that need to be addressed, monitor who's home in the afternoon (to ensure the kids arrive home from school safely and on time) and alert parents if something's not right.

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"All of this will happen," McQuivey says. "It's just a question of who's best positioned to sell it to consumers."

Retailers that already sell to homes and businesses are in a good position, he says. "That's why Staples has begun selling automation tools and why Amazon is likely a player." Security service providers, based on their existing customer relationships, are apt to think they have a strong play here, too, but McQuivey thinks these firms may fail to understand the scope of the opportunity and will try to charge too much - $10 a month on top of the $50 they already charge for existing security services, say - while "offering too few meaningful improvements to customers' lives."

Many big-name companies offer voice recognition software and virtual assistant programs for their communication and entertainment products that talk to users and respond to a list of commands - Amazon FireTV, Amazon Dash, Comcast's X1 Platform, Microsoft Cortana, Google Now and Apple Siri. Some even monitor user habits, answer questions guided by input and deliver suggestions based on logs of what users view, access or save, such as movies, music and favorite restaurants.

These systems, though, represent a simplified first step. They don't provide the level of voice control monitoring that analysts see as the wave of the near future.

Advanced Systems Will Operate at 'People' and 'Thing' Speed

The next step, as McQuivey says, involves more advanced security and smart systems that first monitor and then interact with human users to fulfill their daily needs - turning on lights, adjusting thermostats, reporting intruders and identifying residents or employees based on certain biological signs or even DNA. Meanwhile, the medical devices that hospitals use to monitor and communicate vital signs such as blood pressure, sugar levels and heart stress will move into homes and offices. Even office equipment and home appliances that tell users when the printer is out of ink or the milk has expired, respectively, are part of this scenario.

Lopez says the transition from a human-centric economy to one balanced between humans and things will put two speeds into play. There's the speed of how people think and respond, which can range from tenths of a second to hours, and there's the speed of things, which operate at speeds than people won't be able to perceive.

"Voice, for better or worse, will be mostly associated with humans and, as such, serves as one of the key interfaces to humans," Lopez says. "Things, however, will communicate and negotiate through means that only connect to humans, if they have to, for information, decisions and commands."

Home Monitoring System Privacy Difficult to Define

Privacy, of course, "will be one of the most important issues we'll have to wrestle with," McQuivey says. Abuses and "significant mistakes" will happen, he says, and they'll be on the order of what happened to the credit card and password information of Sony and Target.

In this case, though, the nature of privacy is harder to define. Credit card numbers can be used against their owners with great effect. But when everything you say in a 30-day period - as recorded by a microphone in your home or office, then stored somewhere in the cloud - can create possible abuses if that information is accessed, it's harder to specify all the potential ramifications.

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It's important to walk into these situations with eyes wide open, McQuivey says. Otherwise, companies won't incorporate privacy protections up front but, instead, will add them as an afterthought once something horrible has happened, such as someone hacking into a home audio database to see exactly when the teenage daughter is home alone in order to coordinate an assault. Preventing that single scenario would likely be reason enough for buyers to embrace the range of benefits that such technology could promise. "The goal for a home security company should be to provide home monitoring as a companion to home security," McQuivey says.

Humans Want Systems That Seem, Well, Human

Voice control will get a lot of attention, but Lopez says it's only one form of control and communications. As we move toward the future, it's reasonable to assume a diversity of inputs, including keyboards and touchscreens that pay greater attention to gestures and voice.

The array of products coming in the next five years could - as Apple has demonstrated - provide new, creative ways of working with personal devices. "It will be important for planners to develop alternative scenarios for voice control in order to ensure that they're not caught flat-footed, if their focus on voice does not pan out as hoped," Lopez says.

But as Kahn points out, people trust and identify with objects that share human characteristics - including voice. "As future IoT devices become more ubiquitous, they need to become more human."

J.D. Sartain is a freelance journalist from Boston. You can reach her her via email or on Twitter @JDSartain. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn.

Read more about consumer technology in CIO's Consumer Technology Drilldown.

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This story is reprinted from CIO.com, an online resource for information executives. Story Copyright CXO Media Inc., 2012. All rights reserved.
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