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Smart Speakers: The New Face of Faceless Computing
By
Volume 41, Number 6 - November/December 2017

Smart Speakers as Smart Home Hubs

The television commercial shows a man’s foot stepping down firmly on a LEGO block. Ow! He says, “Alexa, turn on the lights.” And the lights come on.

After my son bought an Echo Dot, I marched into his room and demanded, “Alexa, turn on the lights.” Nothing happened.

Well, duh. In order to make the lights turn on with an internet-connected device, the lights themselves must use a Wi-Fi switch. Philips makes a line of wireless-enabled lights called Hue (www2.meethue.com/en-us) as does LIFX (lifx.com).

Other appliances can be turned on with smart plugs, such as the Belkin WeMo line (belkin.com/us/Products/c/home-au tomation). Honeywell and Nest thermostats can also be con trolled remotely via Google Home and Amazon Echo. As always, with Alexa, the user must enable the appropriate skill in order to have its commands obeyed.

Google Home can use Chromecast to enable televisions natively (support.google.com/googlehome/answer/702938 0?hl=en). Alexa can control televisions through something such as the wireless-enabled Logitech Harmony hub (myharmony.com/en-us). With smart speakers, there is no more need for fooling with a remote control.

Shouting Across the Room

It may seem untoward to use an internet interface that responds to commands shouted at it from across the room. Indeed, although the voice recognition technology on these smart speakers is remarkable, they are not designed to understand “natural language.” They work only in context, in completing tasks in response to distinct, structured requests.

Still, as Cheryl Platz points out, there is a real use for a voice-driven interface to the internet. “The biggest and most impactful benefit voice user experiences provide is vastly improved accessibility. Looking for inspiration? Go read the reviews of the Amazon Echo. There are so many stories from mobility-impaired customers, vision-impaired customers, and customers with cognitive impairments about how the device has changed their life at home” (“Voice User Interface Design: New Solutions to Old Problems,” Cheryl Platz, Me dium, Microsoft Design, Feb. 21, 2017; medium.com/micro soft-design/voice-user-interface-design-new-solutions-to-old-problems-baa36a64b3e4).

I can also imagine a use for a smart speaker at the refer ence desk. Instead of my usual (unspoken) snarky response to simple informational questions (“Let me Google that for you”), I could slide Google Home toward patrons and ask them to repeat their query.

On the other hand: Would that put me out of a job? Google? Google?


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Irene E. McDermott is Reference Librarian/Systems Manager at the Crowell Public Library, in the City of San Marino, CA.

 

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