Today’s Apple announcements came and went without any mention of an “always-on” listening device where Siri could command your smarter home by just using your voice. Could it have been another “smart speaker”? Or an “air freshener”-esque device like the soon-to-be-released Google Home product? Or is the mystery product still sitting in Jony Ive’s secret lab?
Or maybe not. What if Apple isn’t even working on such a device? Let’s take a deeper look at how Apple is positioning its personal assistant, Siri, and its home automation strategy in general to see what the company might be up to.
While basic voice control has been enabled on Macs and iPhones going back more than a few years, Siri is still relatively new. Siri debuted with the iPhone 4s in October 2011 but was more quirky and fun than truly helpful. With iOS 8 in 2014, “Hey, Siri” debuted for the iPhone 5s and later and enabled you to talk to Siri as long as the device was plugged into power. With iOS 9 in 2015, the iPhone 6s/Plus and later devices gained “Hey, Siri” functionality without needing to be plugged into power, along with training Siri to only respond to your voice. Finally, in 2016, the new macOS Sierra gains Siri functionality for Apple’s desktop and laptop computers.
And, oh yes, Apple eliminated the headphone jack on the iPhone 7 and introduced its new headphones: the totally-wireless AirPods.
Plus, did I mention that iOS 10 includes HomeKit and Apple’s new Home app? It’s a vastly superior version of HomeKit compared to previous iterations, and the inclusion of Home and its widgets make iOS 10 the first major operating system to include built-in home automation capabilities.
I promise, no more history and no more teasing. So what does this all mean?
Where Amazon and Google have introduced “far-field” listening devices that can interact with you wherever you might be in a room, Apple continues down the path of adding an “always-on” personal assistant to most of its devices. Macs and the Apple TV can’t listen to you constantly yet, so you still have to “call up” Siri manually.
Of course, Apple’s business model involves selling more devices and not relying on Prime memberships or ad revenue, like Amazon and Google, respectively. But seriously, for those who are fully indoctrinated into the Apple ecosystem, having multiple (recent) iOS devices around your home and possibly an Apple TV can give you fairly ubiquitous Siri coverage. I personally use “Hey, Siri” on an iPhone 6s Plus a few times a day. And , and overall, it’s relatively reliable, even from across the room. In combination with traditional home automation controls and apps, I do use Siri to trigger scenes and perform individual control of certain devices.
Apple is quite bullish on security and privacy, which makes sense that you can lock “Hey, Siri” to just your own voice. In a multi-iOS device home, that could cause some issues, but perhaps Apple will enable multi-user-trained Siri in the future. The Amazon Echo is not voice-dependent, and thus I’m always concerned that someone will scream through one of my doors and windows and start controlling all of my devices. I’m not sure about Google Home at this point as no one has experienced it yet.
What could Apple’s home automation ecosystem look like in another year or two? Well, Apple prides itself on designing creating personal experiences through its products. So, take a look at the below scenario:
If you happened to have the above-mentioned set of multiple iOS devices, could they understand you and your home better than just a single device? What if Apple implemented something similar to Zuli’s Presence technology, which triangulates your position in your home based on Bluetooth. Perhaps Apple might snatch up Zuli and its patent portfolio and integrate it into HomeKit. By doing this, or if Apple invents its own “secret sauce,” Siri could be aware of where you are in your home just by the location of your devices, and potentially by analyzing the sound waves of your voice. This, along with being able to identify where your devices are based on the relative distance from your Wi-Fi router, could make for some very impressive home automation technology, without requiring you to replace or upgrade your existing smarter home components.
The above scenario is dependent on at least one electronic component tracking your position all the time. And that could easily be an Apple Watch, or the newly-introduced AirPods. Both the Apple Watch and the AirPods are wireless interfaces to Siri, which is also the interface to your home.
While some of the above might be more than a few years away, and require Bluetooth 5 for better battery life and reliable position detection, it’s definitely a possibility. In many science fiction television series and movies, crew members of starships in the future tend to wear communication devices that usually double as location transponders. We could be getting to part of that futuristic future faster than people may have predicted a few years ago.
A future smarter home could understand you just by your wearable devices, and detect your location, mood (by health sensors), time of day and use other data points to make interacting with your home more seamless, useful, convenient and fun. Only time will tell.
Until that day comes, we’ll still just be barking commands into these “always-on” listening devices and hoping that our personal assistants are actually listening.