Consuming trends

Consumers are increasingly turning to connected devices to perform tasks they once would have done on a PC.

Connected devices, including smartphones, tablets, consumer electronics and so-called machine-to-machine (M2M) connectivity, are driving innovation in the industry and capturing the public’s imagination.

If you need confirmation, just visit any electronics store. The area dedicated to PCs is likely to be deserted and the crowds are looking instead at tablets, e-book readers and smartTVs.

But for these connected devices to appeal to the mainstream of consumers, manufacturers know they will need to develop products that are as simple and intuitive to use as a traditional consumer device — such as the humble toaster.  Natural Language Interaction (NLI) will thus play a key role in making the connected revolution a reality for consumers.

This revolution will extend far beyond smartphones and tablets, which currently grab most of the limelight. Electronic e-book readers and portable navigation devices have grown rapidly to be the most common consumer M2M devices today and are already shipping in millions.

Handheld gaming consoles, personal tracking devices and wellness devices are promising categories as well, according to a report from Berg Insight.

The research firm predicts that the number of consumer M2M devices with cellular connectivity shipped in Europe will grow from 7m in 2011 to almost 38m in 2016.

But what exactly is the connected revolution about? It can best be summarized as a broad range of consumer devices and M2M applications made possible by broadband wireless, advances in electronics such as mobile chips and smart sensors, and consumer-friendly user interfaces such as NLI.

M2M applications have been around for a while. A decade ago, I recall a Finnish mobile technology firm demonstrating an application that allowed Finnish consumers to remotely pre-heat the sauna in their weekend home by sending an SMS message to the sauna control unit, connected to the (then) GSM network by a M2M link.

But the advent of smartphones and the incorporation of NLI technology into the M2M mix open up many more opportunities.

A good recent example I came across is a voice-controlled garage door opener app developed by a British electronics enthusiast – see video here. The user speaks the command “Open the garage door” into their smartphone and the door opens, as if by magic.

While the application may seem to fall into the “better mousetrap” category, it does offer numerous advantages over traditional RF-controlled door openers.

For example, I once lost the door opener gadget that gains access to the communal garage of our apartment block. To get it replaced was not only expensive but also time-consuming as the manufacturer has security procedures to establish that you are a legitimate owner

Perhaps the biggest drawback with a traditional RF door opener device is that if it is lost or stolen, an opportunist thief can gain access to the garage.

In the case of a door opener app, that is less of an issue as people are less likely to mislay their smartphone.  Even if they do and a thief discovers it has a door opener app, their attempts to activate the door are likely to fail as their voiceprint will be different.

The door opener app was developed using an open-source program that extends the capabilities of Apple’s Siri, but it could be adapted to work with any mobile speech-enabled NLI technology, such as Teneo Mobile.

The hardware that drives the door opener circuitry was built around the Raspberry Pi, a tiny Linux microcomputer that sells for just €30.

Much has been written about the Raspberry Pi and it has been so successful that it is currently out of stock. The UK government hopes to turn kids on to programming by adopting the Raspberry Pi for computer lessons at schools.

To be fair, few consumers have the programming skills – or indeed interest –  to turn their smartphone into a DIY door opener.

Nevertheless, it is a great example of how the connected device revolution is democratizing innovation and stimulating new ways of interacting with the world using natural language technology.

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