Which voice in your fridge? Makers pick virtual assistants

FILE PHOTO:    An Amazon Dot is shown on top of a Hopper at the Dish Network booth during the 2017 CES in Las Vegas
FILE PHOTO: An Amazon Dot is shown on top of a Hopper at the Dish Network booth during the 2017 CES in Las Vegas, Nevada January 6, 2017. REUTERS/Steve Marcus/File Photo

January 13, 2018

By Paresh Dave

LAS VEGAS (Reuters) – Who would you rather have in your fridge? Alexa, Cortana, or some as-yet unknown virtual assistant?

Manufacturers of appliances and other products are considering factors such as ease of use and language support as they pick voice technology from what they view as a wide open battle between Alphabet Inc’s Google, Amazon.com Inc and others.

Consumer demand is surging for the ability to summon music, order food and control lights by voice commands. Amazon.com’s Alexa voice assistant is the early leader and could spur up to $12 billion in Amazon sales in 2020, Stifel, Nicolaus & Co analysts projected this week.

Amazon and Google combined have sold more than 30 million home speakers with virtual assistants, according to analyst estimates, and the firms are working with hardware partners to get the same software into more devices.

Hardware makers’ varying strategies and decisions, described in interviews with Reuters at this week’s consumer electronics industry’s CES conference in Las Vegas, reflect differing strengths of Google, Amazon and peers.

Google Assistant attracts them with its expertise in answering complex questions, its ability to adapt to different settings and broader language support. Alexa can be used to command more devices, is associated with making purchases, and has become a household name. Microsoft Corp’s Cortana is optimized to work with its services, including Skype.

Apple Inc, whose Siri assistant features on millions of iPhones, has yet to weigh in on the market.

Assistant makers are scouting for partners and offering technology for free, expecting to capitalize on their brand’s deeper integration into customers’ lives. An advanced microphone can add as little as $8 to the cost of a product, according to chipset maker MediaTek Inc.

Neither Amazon nor Google is forcing exclusive deals, hardware executives say, with the understanding that consumers may prefer a different assistant in different settings.

LG Electronics Inc chose Google for televisions it unveiled this week, but opted for Alexa in refrigerators because of its online shopping functionality.

BIG BRANDS NOT ONLY PLAYERS

When Lenovo Group Ltd decided to create an assistant-enabled screen last summer that would sit on a kitchen counter like a mini-TV, it turned to Google. That was due to a many-year relationship that would help the PC maker get the product in stores fast, said Jeff Meredith, senior vice president for consumer computers and smart devices at Lenovo.

The biggest brands are not the only players in voice assistants.

Television maker TCL Corp is turning to video set top box manufacturer Roku Inc, which makes TCL’s TV operating system and has data on TCL customers that could improve personalization, said Chris Larson, senior vice president for North America at TCL.

Roku’s assistant will be less complicated than Google or Alexa, and TCL had to stick to one assistant because it would too expensive to support multiple models, Larson added.

JBL, by comparison, offers several speaker models, each with a different assistant.

People can use a speaker with Cortana for Skype calls and access to their Outlook work calendar, said Michael Mauser, president of lifestyle audio at JBL parent Harman Kardon, a Samsung Electronics Co subsidiary.

Users who want multiple speakers find Google’s linking functionality more appealing, he said.

Ford Motor Co’s announced a year ago that Alexa would come to cars. That followed outreach by Amazon, which had seen social media posts about people using the portable Echo Dot smart speaker in their vehicles, said David Limp, Amazon’s senior vice president for devices and services.

(This version of the story corrects title given by company in paragraph 11.)

(Reporting by Paresh Dave; Editing by Peter Henderson and Daniel Wallis)

  • GRComments

    I’m not about to allow my fridge to have control over what I eat. I don’t want the food police telling me what’s good for me and what isn’t. Or keeping track of midnight snacks.

  • JustmJustm

    Well this will be popular with 20 somethings…..
    Me lol. Keep my food and beer and wine cold and i am fine none of that junk pls in my home…..

  • landy fincannon

    Yea, buy your daughters wi-fi Barbie’s while you’re at it.

  • TYvets

    creepy

  • TYvets

    creepy

  • bucketnutz

    These devices are like welcoming a wiretap into your home that the Government has access to. If you think for a minute that the NSA isn’t collecting the data being collected by these devices, then you know nothing about the NSA.

    • Think 2 Moves Ahead

      Similar concerns about Onstar type auto systems. They do have advantages to drivers however we have been warned never to discuss certain work topics while in a rental car because you are not just two coworkers driving. Similar the US intelligence services used to turn on the microphone in telephones to listen in. The phone which is hung up can still have an active microphone.

      • S Mol

        The old fashioned phones can’t – when you hang up, you’re physically disconnecting the wires from the network. New phones, however, can be hacked.

      • JustmJustm

        Yes i know about it in the Navy it was widely used
        Back in the early 80s….
        Listened conversations when the phone was on the hook….
        You wonder what they can do today???

    • JustmJustm

      You hit the nail on the head
      I feel exactly the same….

  • Scott Henke

    None, but ever since I was a kid I always wanted to open my fridge to discover it’s really a portal to another dimension like “Ghostbusters”.

    • HarryObrian

      Agree, None. We have an old handed down Westinghouse round top from the 1940’s still working in the garage and it gets more use than the kitchen one. Only had to replace the door seal in the last 20 years.

  • S Mol

    A few months ago, I read about police/FBI subpoenaing audio recordings from these digital assistants in a murder case. That means they’re RECORDING everything that’s being said. Of course these boxes need to be actively listening all of the time for commands, but if they’re also RECORDING everything, I don’t want them anywhere near me. Too many unscrupulous hackers out there could grab information from the “idle” recordings.

    I’m about to buy a fridge, coincidentally, and I can guarantee I will NOT be interested in one with any Internet integration. I just want one to efficiently keep my food cold.

    • Disgusted by the Misleadia

      If you read about the case, you would have found that Alexa (the device in this case) isn’t recording everything.

      When in standby mode, the device listens for the “wake word”. In this case, it’s “Alexa” or “Amazon”. The device does this entirely locally, buffering the last second of sound. It doesn’t upload anything.

      Once the device hears “Alexa”, it lights up and starts recording. Your subsequent voice recording is uploaded to servers for analysis and interpretation, and performance of the command. This history is available on your Alexa account, so you can see exactly what it recorded.

      In the case in question, the murder suspect voluntarily gave Amazon permission to provide the information to police. And, it doesn’t appear the police expected to get any recordings — they were interested in using any commands (like “play music”) sent to Alexa to construct a timeline of the night of the murder.

      Don’t believe it? If Amazon Echo was actually recording and uploading everything, I promise you would have heard about it. Security researchers would have detected and announced it long ago.

      • S Mol

        While that makes more sense than the story I read, I still don’t know why they are recording events. Who cares what commands I issued and when? As a developer, I understand the benefit of “anonymous usage data,” but this would not be anonymous, and therefore I wouldn’t like it recorded.

        • Disgusted by the Misleadia

          You probably aren’t interested in all commands. But, one of the things Alexa can do is order things from Amazon. The recording establishes who made the order (and when).

          There’s a “parental lock” on the feature, but there has been at least one case where the lock wasn’t enabled, and kids ordered themselves some expensive toys.

      • And you can delete the recordings.

  • Roy Beane

    If they want to really freak people out, put Bill Clinton’s voice in it…….”Well, hello there, darlin’…..you come here often? Wanta see my van? Hillary’s out of town for a few days and I thought we could……”

    • Think 2 Moves Ahead

      His new pickup line, I’m free while Hillary is in prison. I need the drill Sargent voice to do 20 pushups and 50 sit-ups for looking at the ice cream.