Qualcomm voice SoC could extend smart speakers beyond the big four

Voice-activated digital assistants have been at the forefront of the battle for the consumer web experience, between Google, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft. But is it possible that a broader ecosystem of these devices will emerge, as it did in handsets? Qualcomm may be taking a step to enable that, with a system-on-chip targeted at voice-controlled devices, and having the potential to usher new vendors into the space.

The existing offerings are designed to work within the individual vendors’ garden walls. Apple, predictably, keeps Siri for its iPhones and new HomeHub. The AI-enabled software from its rivals – Google Assistant, Microsoft Cortana and Amazon Alexa – can be deployed on other companies’ hardware (Amazon recently got Alexa onto Huawei smartphones for instance, following the failure of its own handset). But in the home, the assistants are far more tied to their inventors’ own hardware, in the shape of smart speakers like the Echo or hubs like Google Home. They have APIs to encourage third party apps, but they are not fully open, leaving a possible space for new entrants.

Some operators have announced their own home assistants, but real innovation in this market will come from involving lots of start-ups, which will drive the market to embrace thousands of voice applications, which in turn will create the ecosystem enrichment needed not just for smart speakers, but for voice assistants in many other guises, to take off. They can still use the web giants’ AI engines in the cloud, but can innovate on device form factor, design and functionality to a far greater extent than the four majors with their largely copycat offerings.

Qualcomm has facilitated more companies getting into the device market by offering up its own chip platform, initially for smart speakers, but with other products in its sights. The key is that many voice-activated devices do not require a high end smartphone-class processor, which adds to the cost (start-ups, unlike Amazon, cannot afford to offer their speakers and hubs as loss leaders).

It showed off its Qualcomm Smart Audio Platform at its voice and music developer conference in Shenzhen in China last week, saying it brings together processing capability, connectivity options, voice user interfaces and premium audio technologies in two SoC variants plus software, so that OEMs can pile into this market. This is the type of move that could drive high volumes, a multiplicity of products and competition to push down pricing.

The voice elements of the Qualcomm SoCs support multi-microphone, far-field voice, making highly responsive voice activation, as well as using beamforming technologies. The software also incorporates echo cancellation, noise suppression and ‘barge-in’ capability. You still want your voice assistant to hear you even if your music is playing loudly and other people are singing along to it.

Qualcomm calls its multi-room audio technology AllPlay and said it supports whole-home audio music streaming. Speakers can be configured to play synchronized music across multiple rooms, different music in multiple speaker zones, and multi-channel wireless surround sound to multiple speakers in the same room. Apple just wants you to put separate $350 HomePods in every room.

Consumers can play music from streaming services including hi-res 32-bit/192 kHz content, local music libraries on mobile phones, or DLNA media servers. Moreover, the new platform supports Qualcomm aptX HD audio technology, which is designed to deliver 24-bit high definition wireless audio over Bluetooth.

Qualcomm also introduced in Shenzhen the CSRA68100, the company’s next generation Bluetooth audio platform for premium wireless speakers and headphones, offering four times the DSP processing power of its predecessor, along with a powerful 32-bit dedicated developer application processor.

So the smart speaker market, which is the focus of the landgrab for voice assistants, is now enabled with an SoC which can be used to push out hundreds of devices, many of which will allow a choice of natural language API, which may prevent the voice ecosystem becoming as proprietary as the common browser. Hands up who doesn’t want voice to become a battle ground purely for the big four? Not so loud my voice assistant can’t hear me.

This analysis was first published in Faultline Online Reporter, Rethink’s weekly publication offering analyst insights into developments in the digital video, multiplay and TV markets. For more information or a free trial, please contact Simon Thompson on [email protected]