June 25, 2019
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Google launches new Assistant developer tools

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At its I/O conference, Google today announced a slew of new tools for developers who want to build experiences for the company’s Assistant platform. These range from the ability to build games for smart displays like the Google Home Hub and the launch of App Actions for taking users from an Assistant answer to their native apps, to a new Local Home SDK that allows developers to run their smart home code locally on Google Home Speakers and Nest Displays.

This Local Home SDK, may actually be the most important announcement in this list, given that it turns these devices into a real hardware hub for these smart home devices and provides local compute capacity without the round-trip to the cloud. The first set of partners include Philips, Wemo, TP-Link and LIFX, but the SDK will become available to all developers next month.

In addition, this SDK will make it easier for new users to set up their smart devices in the Google Home app. Google tested this feature with GE last October and is now ready to roll it out to additional partners.

Developers who want to take people from the Assistant to the right spot inside of their native apps, Google announced a preview of App Actions last year. Health and fitness, finance, banking, ridesharing and food ordering apps can now make use of these built-in intents. “If I wanted to track my run with Nike Run Club, I could just say ‘Hey Google, start my run in Nike Run Club’ and the app will automatically start tracking my run,” Google explains in today’s announcement.

For how-to sites, Google also announced extended markup support that allows them to prepare their content for inclusion in Google Assistant answers on smart displays and in Google Search using standard markup.

You can read more about the new ability to write games for smart displays here, but this is clearly just a first step and Google plans to open up the platform to more third-party experiences over time.

Report: Smart speaker adoption in U.S. reaches 66M units, with Amazon leading

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Smart speakers had a good holiday. Amazon already said its Echo Dot outsold all other items on its site this holiday season, which hinted toward the sizable growth for the voice-powered speaker market. Today, research firm CIRP is reporting the U.S. installed base for speakers grew to 66 million units in December 2018, up from 53 million in the September 2018 quarter and just 37 million in December 2017.

However, holiday sales didn’t have much impact on the market shares for the various speaker brands, the firm found.

Amazon Echo devices still lead the U.S. market with a 70 percent share of the installed base, followed by Google Home at 24 percent, then Apple HomePod at 6 percent, the report said.

“Holiday shoppers helped the smart speaker market take off again,” said Josh Lowitz, Partner and Co-Founder of CIRP, in a statement. “Relative market shares have remained fairly stable, with Amazon Echo, Google Home, and Apple HomePod accounting for consistent shares over the past few quarters. Amazon and Google both have broad model lineups, ranging from basic to high-end, with even more variants from Amazon. Apple, of course, has only its premium-priced HomePod, and likely won’t gain significant share until it offers an entry-level product closer to Echo Dot and Home mini,” Lowitz added.

Also of interest is that some portion of those buying a smart speaker for their home already own one. According to CIRP, 35 percent of smart speaker owners now have multiple devices, as of December 2018. That’s up from 18 percent in December 2017.

This figure is key to the device markers’ larger strategies, because it means that once a company is able to get that first sale, the consumer may return to buy more devices from the same vendor.

Amazon had gained an early advantage here, initially convincing more users to buy another speaker compared with Google Home users. A year ago, almost double the number of Echo users had multiple devices, versus Google Home owners. But Google is catching up, and now about a third of Echo and Google Home users have multiple devices.

It’s worth noting that CIRP data – like much that’s produced by market research firms – isn’t always going to match up exactly with other firms’ estimates and forecasts.

For example, Strategy Analytics this fall said that Amazon’s Echo market share in the U.S. was 63 percent, to Google’s 17 percent and Apple HomePod’s 4 percent. Meanwhile, eMarketer’s 2019 U.S. forecast predicts Amazon Echo will end up with around a 63.3 percent market share this year, versus Google Home’s 31 percent, with all others like HomePod and Sonos, reaching 12 percent.

That said, the broad strokes across all reports point to the same general findings – that Amazon is leading the U.S. market by a wide margin, and while that margin may be shrinking, it’s not going away soon.

Wrest control from a snooping smart speaker with this teachable “parasite”

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What do you get when you put one Internet connected device on top of another? A little more control than you otherwise would in the case of Alias the “teachable ‘parasite’” — an IoT project smart speaker topper made by two designers, Bjørn Karmann and Tore Knudsen.

The Raspberry Pi-powered, fungus-inspired blob’s mission is to whisper sweet nonsense into Alexa’s (or Google Home’s) always-on ear so it can’t accidentally snoop on your home.

Project Alias from Bjørn Karmann on Vimeo.

Alias will only stop feeding noise into its host’s speakers when it hears its own wake command — which can be whatever you like.

The middleman IoT device has its own local neural network, allowing its owner to christen it with a name (or sound) of their choosing via a training interface in a companion app.

The open source TensorFlow library was used for building the name training component.

So instead of having to say “Alexa” or “Ok Google” to talk to a commercial smart speaker — and thus being stuck parroting a big tech brand name in your own home, not to mention being saddled with a device that’s always vulnerable to vocal pranks (and worse: accidental wiretapping) — you get to control what the wake word is, thereby taking back a modicum of control over a natively privacy-hostile technology.

This means you could rename Alexa “Bezosallseeingeye”, or refer to your Google Home as “Carelesswhispers”. Whatever floats your boat.

Once Alias hears its custom wake command it will stop feeding noise into the host speaker — enabling the underlying smart assistant to hear and respond to commands as normal.

“We looked at how cordyceps fungus and viruses can appropriate and control insects to fulfill their own agendas and were inspired to create our own parasite for smart home systems,” explain Karmann and Knudsen in a write up of the project. “Therefore we started Project Alias to demonstrate how maker-culture can be used to redefine our relationship with smart home technologies, by delegating more power from the designers to the end users of the products.”

Alias offers a glimpse of a richly creative custom future for IoT, as the means of producing custom but still powerful connected technology products becomes more affordable and accessible.

And so also perhaps a partial answer to IoT’s privacy problem, for those who don’t want to abstain entirely. (Albeit, on the security front, more custom and controllable IoT does increase the hackable surface area — so that’s another element to bear in mind; more custom controls for greater privacy does not necessarily mesh with robust device security.)

If you’re hankering after your own Alexa disrupting blob-topper, the pair have uploaded a build guide to Instructables and put the source code on GitHub. So fill yer boots.

Project Alias is of course not a solution to the underlying tracking problem of smart assistants — which harvest insights gleaned from voice commands to further flesh out interest profiles of users, including for ad targeting purposes.

That would require either proper privacy regulation or, er, a new kind of software virus that infiltrates the host system and prevents it from accessing user data. And unlike this creative physical IoT add-on that kind of tech would not be at all legal.

Google cans the Chromecast Audio

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The Chromecast Audio is no more. Google has decided to stop manufacturing the audio dongle that allowed you to add any ‘dumb’ speaker to your Google Cast setup. If you still want one, you’ll have to hurry — and to entice you to buy a discontinued product, Google is now selling its remaining inventory for $15 instead of $35.

“Our product portfolio continues to evolve, and now we have a variety of products for users to enjoy audio,” Google told us  in a statement. “We have therefore stopped manufacturing our Chromecast Audio products. We will continue to offer assistance for Chromecast Audio devices, so users can continue to enjoy their music, podcasts and more.”

While the Chromecast turned out to be a major hit for Google, the Chromecast Audio was always more of a niche product.

Google is clearly more interested in getting people to buy its Google Home products and Assistant- or Cast-enabled speakers from its partners. It’s also worth noting that all Google Home devices can connect to Bluetooth enabled speakers, though plenty of people surely have a nice speaker setup at home that doesn’t have built-in Bluetooth support. “Bluetooth adapters suck,” Google told us at the time, though at this point, it seems a Bluetooth adapter may just be the way to go.

The Chromecast Audio first launched back in 2015, in conjunction with the second-generation Chromecast. Over the years, the Chromecast Audio received numerous updates that enabled features like multi-room support. Google says it’ll continue to support Chromcast Audio users for the time being, so if you have already invested in this ecosystem, you should be set for a few more years.


Google woos smart home device makers with launch of Google Assistant Connect

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Google is making it easier for device manufacturers to integrate with Google Assistant technology, including those times when devices need to respond to voice commands without the benefit — or the expense — of being connected to Google’s cloud. To do so, Google is today launching into preview a new set of tools called, Google Assistant Connect, before making them broadly available to device makers later this year.

The tools can be used to build devices that leverage an existing connected speaker with Google Assistant to deliver content and respond to commands that require cloud computing resources.

Google Assistant Connect also includes features that will make it simpler for customers to set up their new smart home devices by offering an easier way to pair with Google Assistant.

For some examples of how this could work: a device maker could integrate an e-ink display that shows the weather or your calendar, while the Assistant Connect delivered content provided by the customer’s linked smart speaker to update the display with your current meetings and temperature. That allows the manufacturer’s device to benefit from an existing smart speaker’s capabilities instead of having to integrate that technology itself.

This is similar to how Amazon’s Alexa Connect Kit is used with various smart devices, like the Alexa microwave. 

Google Assistant Connect can also be used in rooms where a Google Assistant smart speaker isn’t available, to allow devices to respond to simple voice commands — like ordering an air conditioner to turn itself on or off, for instance.

The simpler setup feature also rivals Amazon’s newer Wi-Fi Simple Setup for Alexa devices.

Google Assistant Connect will simply set up, as well, by allowing devices to connect to Google Home speakers without the need for a separate bridge or hub. This is an area Google had somewhat ventured into back in October with the launch of Google + C by GE smart LED bulbs, which were made to work with Google devices without a hub. Now this same capability will be a part of this broader toolkit for device makers.

Google says it will have more to share about Assistant Connect later in the year, as it opens up to more manufacturers.

CES 2019 coverage - TechCrunch

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