Smart condo conundrum: Talk to appliances, or text them?

Jeremy Wagstaff

* 24.5 mln voice-first devices to ship this yr, vs 6.5 mln

in 2016

* Others using messaging apps to control appliances

* Unified Inbox working with appliance makers vs Amazon,

Google

SINGAPORE, March 13 (Reuters) - In today's so-called smart

home, you can dim the lights, order more toothpaste or tell the

kids to go to bed simply by talking to a small Wifi-connected

speaker, such as Amazon's Echo or Google's

Home.

This voice-first market - combining voice with artificial

intelligence (AI) - barely existed in 2014. This year, Voice

Labs, a consultancy, expects 24.5 million appliances to be

shipped.

Other big tech firms have their own plans: Apple is

taking its Siri voice assistant beyond its mobile devices to

PCs, cars, and the home; Baidu last month bought Raven,

billed as China's answer to Amazon's Alexa intelligent personal

assistant; and Samsung Electronics plans to

incorporate Viv, its newly acquired virtual assistant, into its

phones and home appliances.

But not everyone thinks the future of communicating with the

Internet of Things needs to be vocal.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, for example, was

working on Jarvis, his own voice-powered AI home automation, and

found he preferred communicating by text because, he wrote,

"mostly it feels less disturbing to people around me."

And several major appliance makers have turned to a small

Singapore firm, Unified Inbox, which offers a service that can

handle ordinary text messages and pass them on to appliances.

With your home added to the contacts list on, say, WhatsApp,

a quick text message can "start the coffee machine"; "turn on

the vacuum cleaner at 5 p.m."; or "preheat the oven to 200

degrees at 6.30 p.m."

"Think of it as a universal translator between the languages

that machines speak ... and us humans," said Toby Ruckert, a

German former concert pianist and now Unified Inbox's CEO.

The company is just a small player, funded by private

investors, but Ruckert says its technology is patent-backed, has

been several years in the making, and has customers that include

half of the world's smart appliance makers, such as Bosch

.

Unified Inbox connects the devices on behalf of the

manufacturer, while the consumer can add their appliance by

messaging its serial number to a special user account or phone

number. It so far supports more than 20 of the most popular

messaging apps, as well SMS and Twitter, and controls

appliances from ovens to kettles. Other home appliances being

tested include locks, garage openers, window blinds, toasters

and garden sprinklers, says Ruckert.

"People aren't going to want a different interface for all

the different appliances in their home," says Jason Jameson, of

IBM, which is pairing its Watson AI supercomputer with

Unified Inbox to better understand user messages. They will this

week demonstrate the service working with a Samsung Robot

Cleaner.

"The common denominator is the smartphone, and even more

common is the messaging app," Jameson notes.

"TROJAN HORSE"

There's another reason, Ruckert says, why more than half of

the world's smart appliance manufacturers have signed up.

They're worried the big tech companies'

one-appliance-controls-all approach will relegate them to

commodity players, connecting to Alexa or another dominant

platform, or being cast aside if Amazon moves into making its

own household appliances.

"Our customers are quite afraid of the likes of Amazon,"

Ruckert said. "Having a Trojan horse in a customer's home, like

Echo, that they must integrate with to stay competitive is a

nightmare for them."

An Amazon spokesperson said the company was "excited by the

early response by smart home device manufacturers and even more

excited by the customer response," but declined to speculate

about future plans.

A spokesperson for Bosch said no single company can knit the

Internet of Things together, so "there is a need to collaborate

and establish ecosystems," such as working with Unified Inbox.

Already the race is on to incorporate other services into

these home hubs.

Amazon allows third parties to develop apps, or "skills",

for Alexa. It has more than 10,000 of these, with many added in

just the past three months. Most are developed by firms using

Amazon's software toolkit, and range from telling jokes to

ordering food.

And Amazon makes it easy for other hardware makers to

incorporate Alexa into their appliances, increasing its reach.

Chinese device maker Lenovo has embedded Alexa in

its speakers, while General Electric has it in a lamp -

meaning users can control these devices by voice, and use them

to order products from Amazon. LG Electronics and

Huawei are also working on Alexa-enabled devices, Amazon said.

Text messaging, though, may yet break down those walls.

As Zuckerberg noted, the volume of text messages is growing

much faster than the number of voice calls. "This suggests that

future AI products cannot be solely focused on voice, and will

need a private messaging interface as well," he says.

EVEN SMARTER

Some companies are already looking further ahead, and doing

away with the need for any human instruction - whether by voice

or text - by making machines smarter at learning our habits and

anticipating them.

LG, for example, is using deep learning to make its

appliances understand and avoid objects in a room, or fill an

ice-tray based on a user's cold drink habits.

At Unified Inbox, Ruckert looks ahead to being able to

communicate not only with one's own appliances, but with

machines elsewhere. Bosch executives in Singapore, for example,

have demonstrated how a user could ask a smart CCTV camera how

many people were in a particular room.

Ruckert is also working with Singapore's Nanyang Polytechnic

to send updates to family members or staff direct from hospital

equipment attached to patients.

And smart appliance entrepreneur James Dyson said in a

recent interview that the future lies in what he calls "highly

intelligent automation".

"For me, the future is making everything happen for you

without you being particularly involved in it."

(Reporting by Jeremy Wagstaff; Editing by Ian Geoghegan)