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At CES, New Digital Assistants Restart Smart Home Race
Click:465 Date:2017-1-7 11:39:44
  For years, the biggest names in tech crammed the Consumer Electronics Show floor with fridges, light switches and microwave ovens to preview a futuristic world where you could control every appliance in the home with your voice.

  But most of these products, bogged down by glitchy software and hard-to-navigate interfaces, failed to go mainstream.

  This year may be different. Aided by new artificial intelligence software that makes it easier for gadgets to understand speech, tech giants led by Amazon.com Inc. are locked in a race for dominance of digital home assistants.

  "People are a bit disappointed with assistants, because there are no clear use cases," said Greg Gerard, creative chairman of Holi, which is debuting a $199 smart alarm clock called Bonjour. "We have one.”

Gerard must show regular consumers the value of smart assistant technology. But he doesn't need to convince big technology firms, which all believe voice-based interactions with devices will explode in popularity. Almost every major tech company has or will soon introduce a digital assistant product powered by AI. And they're making a concerted effort to spread the technology everywhere.

Alphabet Inc.'s Google is using CES to tout tie-ups with its smart Home speaker, a device similar to Amazon's Echo. Microsoft Corp. has invested heavily in its assistant, Cortana. Samsung Electronics Co. is set to unveil its assistant tech for its phones and other devices in 2017. Last month, Facebook Inc. Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg showed off a smart home assistant he said he coded himself. 

Behind the scenes at CES, these tech behemoths will fight to get their voice-based systems into televisions, cable boxes and every home appliance, not just smartphones and PCs. Analysts expect several dozen announcements around voice-systems at this week's event in Las Vegas, including new functions for internet-connected devices and cars. Ford Motor Co. unveiled an integration with Alexa on Wednesday. 

Then there are the specialized assistants, ranging from the Bonjour clock, which Gerard said will arrive later this year, to a personal home robot from startup Jibo -- a compact, futuristic device designed to recognize human emotions, said company Chief Executive Officer Steve Chambers.

Research firm Tractica estimates about 40 million homes will use a voice-activated digital assistant by 2021. 

Amazon's version, Alexa, introduced in 2014 on the Echo speaker, works with more than 6,000 applications, according to a company spokeswoman. On Tuesday, Amazon announced a partnership with Whirlpool Corp., adding voice command capabilities to Whirlpool washers, dryers, ovens and refrigerators. 

Amazon has built an effective developer outreach strategy and introduced a $100 million investment fund for startups creating products around voice applications. Unlike other tech peers, Amazon has a dominant sales channel for its voice-assistance partners.

"Amazon has been brilliant about it," said Mark Beccue, an analyst at Tractica. "They might be the best trigger to the smart home, to making it a mass-market product." 


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