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3 January 2019

CES to see smart home voice interoperability taken up a notch

CES 2018 was famously competitive concerning all things smart home and next week’s show is sure to take the battle of the assistants to new heights. But before we get overwhelmed with press releases from Amazon and Google, a much smaller supplier in the space released a preview this week, with Universal Electronics set to unveil a new white label product – where voice takes center stage but interoperability could steal the show.

Universal Electronics talks about a new smart home hub powered by QuickSet Cloud, a set of frameworks, engines and capabilities built on Microsoft Azure. The marketing focus of the new platform is interoperability-as-a-service, meaning operators can support multiple voice assistants to power content discovery, among other use cases. We have often discussed a multi-assistant future and this press release has already got us salivating for what CES next week has to offer.

Called Neo Butler, the smart home hub includes a built-in white label digital assistant, but as Universal Electronics is more of a hardware expert, the point of integrating with QuickSet Cloud is really about making the device a more versatile digital assistant – supporting a range of the current installed base of devices in consumer homes.

Naturally, this greatly improves the appeal of a white label hub for operators, but the interoperability feat is not easily achieved. The QuickSet Cloud stack includes a complex set of frameworks including the Discovery Engine, which uses device signatures across HDMI, IP and Zigbee rf4ce networks as an input, then calculates a series of device fingerprints and matches them against Universal Electronics’ device knowledge graph to identify device brand, model and control information. Finally, it merges the results across the multiple networks and returns a device object to the host application.

The Quickset Cloud Predictive Engine is essentially an extension of the Discovery Engine, using machine learning models to find different device attributes with varying levels of confidence, then returning an output with a prioritized list of probable device features and capabilities.

The interoperable-as-a-service push of course covers the IoT angle, reaching into hospitality and energy management segments as well as entertainment and home security.

Based on the from QuickSet Cloud, the name Nevo Butler is drawn from the concept of how a true digital home butler should provide a consistent and hassle-free experience when discovering and interacting with nearby devices regardless of the underlying communication protocol. QuickSet Cloud says a true knowledge graph will apply context to user commands, for example, “a consumer should be able to use a simple command such as “pause” or “what’s playing?” instead of an unnatural and verbose version where they are trying to convey the context.”

Initially, we assumed it was suggesting the “Alexa” and “Ok Google” activation commands were unnecessary and verbose, until we came across a graphic showing a speech bubble with “Ok Nevo, good night”, to which it responds, “You got it, turning off the TV” – how very human-like. Of course, if these triggers were to be eliminated and a digital assistant was activated by general conversations in perpetuity, then it would be thrown in the trash within days.

“In real-life scenarios, content playback can be initiated from different control points, or through different playback devices. Media watermarking and recognition techniques may be employed but can be limiting in reliability, cost and efficiency. A hybrid implementation which includes a dynamic and device-centric discovery platform would enable a scalable and reliable solution. Alternative implementations fail to deliver this when they meet the realities of a consumer’s home where multiple brands and providers need to work together in a single environment. So if a voice assistant of the smart home will be the future, it must address the above-mentioned realities of consumer home,” states a QuickSet Cloud blog post.

The developer-driven QuickSet Cloud community says it has enhanced experiences for Dish Network, AT&T, Ecolink, RCS Technology and Philips Hue. Universal Electronics is no minnow, however, with some experience at a tier 1 US operators, having supported the development of voice remotes for Dish Network at last year’s CES show, and supplied the BLE voice remotes for the AirTV Player the previous year. It contributed microphone technology for clear sound capture, data compression for efficient wireless transmission, and automatic speech recognition engines.

The vendor has also been responsible for developing TiVo voice remotes in North America, featuring an embedded UE979 dual RF chip to reduce power consumption, modeless IR control between the TiVo device and other connected devices, and a dedicated Netflix button.

It appears Universal Electronics and Dish Network have a CES love affair of sorts – we wonder if that trend will continue next week.