Caixin
Jul 12, 2017 04:51 PM
BUSINESS & TECH

Smart Speakers Poised to Wake Up AI-Powered Homes

Chinese tech giants have jumped into the smart speaker market in what will likely be a battle for the artificial intelligence-powered living room. Above, Apple’s Home Pad (top left), JD.com’s Dingdong Smart Speaker (bottom left), Google Home (second from the left), Alibaba’s Tian Mao Jing Ling X1 Smart Speaker (third from the left) and the Amazon Echo (fourth from the left). Photo: Caixin
Chinese tech giants have jumped into the smart speaker market in what will likely be a battle for the artificial intelligence-powered living room. Above, Apple’s Home Pad (top left), JD.com’s Dingdong Smart Speaker (bottom left), Google Home (second from the left), Alibaba’s Tian Mao Jing Ling X1 Smart Speaker (third from the left) and the Amazon Echo (fourth from the left). Photo: Caixin

(Beijing) — What will be the next hottest tech gadget to infiltrate people’s daily lives after smartphones and wearables? Many companies are placing their bets on smart speakers.

Equipped with voice-based artificial intelligence (AI) agents to interface with users, smart speakers are becoming the new darlings of tech firms as they search for competitive edge in the AI era.

The smart-speaker craze was ignited by the 2014 debut of Amazon’s Echo. Supported by Amazon’s voice control system Alexa, the portable speaker responds to users’ verbal orders to play music, read news, report the weather and provide a variety of other services.

Other tech giants soon followed suit. Google Inc. in May 2016 released its own speaker Google Home to compete with Echo. In June this year, Apple Inc. launched its long-anticipated HomePod speaker, shortly after speaker maker Harman Kardon unveiled the Invoke, powered by Microsoft’s Cortana voice-assistant software.

Analysts see tech majors’ foray into smart speakers as a key step to carve out a burgeoning market for their voice-based AI systems, which are expected to become a ubiquitous part of daily life and the hub for people to control all kinds of smart devices from televisions and air conditioners to automobiles by voice command. Market analyst institution Strategy Analytics predicted that the smart speaker market will grow to $5.5 billion by 2022, up from about $1.5 billion this year. By 2022, 33% of families in North America will be equipped with smart speakers, an increase from the current 7%.

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Chinese tech giants are also rushing into the fray. E-commerce giant Alibaba Group in early July introduced its voice-controlled Tmall Genie, an Echo-like smart speaker that can help users place orders on Alibaba’s online stores. Domestic rivals including search giant Baidu Inc. and messaging service provider Tencent Holdings Ltd. are also keen to sell voice-activated digital speakers.

Shen Xiangyang, Microsoft’s head of AI research, said the prevalence of voice-controlled speakers heralds a new technological age. “Conversational AI will bring us to a new world where machines can understand people,” Shen said.

The smart home’s hub

Behind tech giants’ enthusiasm for smart speakers are their ambitions to create new markets for their voice-based AI systems.

Dave Limp, Amazon’s senior vice president for devices, said the company is not only counting on Echo speakers for device sales, but also a wide range of services based on its Alexa voice control system. Echo is a simple device, but the Alexa smart system behind it employs powerful cloud computing capacity, “Echo is the first step toward creating the invisible computer,” Limp told Caixin in an interview.

By saying the trigger word “Alexa” to an Echo speaker, users can activate the system and ask it to do a variety of tasks, such as play music or send messages to friends. When linked with internet-connected appliances, the Echo allows users to do things like turn on the lights in their homes. Through Alexa, users can verbally control products such as Ford vehicles and LG refrigerators. Currently, there are 12,000 services available through Alexa.

Although Amazon hasn’t release any sales figures for the Echo, Consumer Intelligence Research Partners (CIRP) has estimated that Amazon has sold 10.7 million Echo series products through March of this year.

The Echo’s success has pressed Apple, which has operated one of the most popular voice-based AI systems since 2011, to give outside developers access to its once closely-held Siri system.

Analysts said smart speakers are the first step for tech giants to introduce their voice-controlled AI systems into people’s homes and become the nexus for AI-power home appliances.

Along with appliances, furniture can also become part of a smart home system. For instance, a smart wardrobe could automatically sterilize and dry one’s clothing, according to Yang Zhiqiang, chief technology officer of Qingdao Eoroom Technology Co., a smart home subsidiary of Haier Group Corp.

Smart speakers will also evolve by gathering users’ data and analyze their habits. Speakers will use voiceprint-technology to recognize users and provide personalized services, which will be a revolutionary step, just like the introduction of the touch screen was for the mobile phone, said Zhu Mingming, founder of Rokid Inc., a voice-based AI system startup.

The next goal in the development of AI technology will be to make devices capable of communicating with people, so smart speakers will be the test devices to “wake everything up,” Baidu Chairman Robin Lee said.

Tech titans’ toehold

Chinese tech giants had a foothold in the country’s emerging voice-controlled smart home market well before the Western tech firms. On July 5, Alibaba debuted its Tmall Genie speaker, which is similar to the Echo and Google Home devices but only recognizes Mandarin. In its debut in Beijing, Alibaba showed off how the device could order soft drinks and buy mobile phone credits.

Priced at 499 yuan ($73), the Tmall Genie is the first voice-assistant product released by Alibaba under its recently launched technology initiative dubbed NASA. The device is Alibaba’s answer to competing products from domestic tech giants Baidu Inc. and JD.com.

JD.com, China’s second-largest online retailer, made the earliest move among Chinese tech firms toward developing smart home technologies. With its strengthening electronic sales, JD.com in March 2014 launched the so-called JD+ plan, whose goal is to build an app to connect and control all smart devices.

The company later switched its focus to smart speaker development along the same lines as Amazon’s Echo, according to Wei Qiang, head of JD.com’s smart device department. “The potential of the speaker market is huge due to people’s growing demand for music as living standards improve,” Wei said.

In 2015, JD.com set up a 150 million yuan joint venture with voice-recognition software developer iFlytek Co. That year, it rolled out its first smart speaker, called LingLong DingDong — one of the first entrants into the market. Market analysts said 100,000 Dingdong speakers have been sold.

Baidu joined the race in May by launching a voice-controlled family robot called Little Fish, powered by its self-developed voice assistant system DuerOS. Baidu plans to build multiple platforms under the DuerOS system to connect with service providers and devices. The company intends to employ its voice control system in smart homes, internet-enabled cars and smartphones, said Jing Kun, general manager of the DuerOS platform.

Other players such as Tencent and smartphone maker Xiaomi Inc. have also unveiled plans to develop voice-based AI systems and smart speakers.

But are there enough Chinese consumers willing to pay hundreds of yuan for a smart speaker?

Unlike consumers in Western countries, Chinese people eschew home speakers because their living spaces are smaller and they don’t have the same party culture, said Cao Weiwei, an audio industry analyst at Germany-based market research institute GfK

Meanwhile, the lack of unified technology standards of smart home devices has created barriers to connecting different products, according to the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology.

To attract more users, JD.com in June released a new Dingdong speaker priced at 299 yuan. JD.com’s Wei said the company aims to expand sales this year with low-priced products to build up the user base for the Dingdong ecosystem.

Li Zhifei, founder of Google-backed voice assistant start-up Mobvoi, said it will take time for Chinese companies to cultivate the domestic voice-based AI market.

But both industry majors and startups are counting on the emerging market. “I believe voice-based AI technology is the New World. It is like the voyage of Columbus, which not only discovered a new sea route, but also a new continent,” said Wang Chuan, one of the founders of Xiaomi.

Contact reporter Han Wei (weihan@caixin.com)

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