Hello, Bixby: Samsung launches 5th virtual assistant platform, SmartThings-embedded Wi-Fi router

Bixby's "home screen"

Bixby's "home screen"

Samsung surprised no one this week with the launch of the overly-anticipated Galaxy S8 and S8+ smartphones at its Unpacked event, featuring the much-rumored Bixby digital assistant. Most citizens of planet Earth have been eagerly waiting for another virtual assistant to use, since the four existing platforms of Siri, Cortana, Alexa and the Google Assistant just didn’t give everyone enough choice.

Sarcasm aside, we first heard about Samsung’s new assistant platform late last year after they purchased Viv Labs, whose founders originally created Siri. Since Viv was a ground-breaking AI assistant platform, the rumor mill started churning out many stories and predictions of what Bixby would be able to do. As it turns out, according to Mashable’s interview with Samsung Mobile CTO Injong Rhee, Bixby is currently doesn’t implement anything from the Viv acquisition—but they will be integrating Viv’s technology in the future.

The new Samsung Connect app

The new Samsung Connect app

So, what can Bixby do at this point? (We’ll keep the focus to the smarter home as much as possible.) On the new Galaxy S8 smartphones only (for now, at least), Bixby is designed to be context-aware and aware of what you’re doing on-screen at a particular moment. Beyond helping a user take photos, or taking a screenshot (“capture this”) and sending it to a contact, Bixby can, of course, help with connected devices, too. And evidently, Bixby is supposed to become a true assistant platform that can be embedded into many “smart” devices according to reporting from The Register. Bixby will evidently be able to interact with 3rd-party apps, allowing a user to perform many tasks in an app via voice. On the privacy front, Bixby will evidently “live in the cloud”, and that may concern some users.

The basics of Bixby and home automation are pretty simple at this point. Commands such as “Hey Bixby, dim the lights” or “turn on the TV” should work well, although that’s assuming you have something that is Samsung-branded. And that, of course, leads us to SmartThings, which Samsung famously purchased several years back.

Hello, Samsung Connect (and Samsung Connect Home)

Samsung introduced a new app called Samsung Connect, which will, drumroll please, connect you to all of your connected things, all in one “perfect” app. They didn’t explain whether this would be a better experience for existing users of SmartThings, or whether Samsung Connect would work with anything outside of the Samsung or SmartThings universe. (Although, to be fair, SmartThings is indeed compatible with a very wide selection of smarter home devices and services.) Will Samsung Connect be a better experience than the SmartThings experience? (Or replace it?) We’ll find out in time.

Samsung Connect Home Wi-Fi Router

Samsung Connect Home Wi-Fi Router

Samsung also introduced a new product called Samsung Connect Home. And, surprise, it’s not just a Wi-Fi mesh router system but it also includes a SmartThings hub. Connect Home will be available as just a single device or a 3-pack of Wi-Fi “pucks” similar to the Eero and Google Wi-Fi systems. It has long been wondered as to when the SmartThings acquisition would start to bear fruit, and now it appears Samsung is ready to go full-throttle on bringing things together. There will also be a Pro version of the Connect Home, which will feature much faster Wi-Fi throughput. All versions will include Bluetooth 4.1, ZigBee and Z-Wave radios to communicate with all of your connected things. (Hopefully Samsung is using the latest Bluetooth chips which can be software-upgraded to support Bluetooth 5.) Pricing and availability of the Samsung Connect Home was not announced.

Our Take

At this point, it does sound like a good attempt by Samsung to join the rest of the world with an integrated home automation platform and a solid virtual assistant. Samsung hasn’t really been known for their software, so if Bixby and their “Connect” efforts are successful, it could really level the playing field. Everyone seems to want a virtual assistant that is truly context-aware, is ridiculous easy to talk to, and understands your life without being creepy. If Bixby can eventually do this, it will win. If it’s limited largely to just the Samsung world, then that would be quite limiting. And to become truly helpful, Bixby will also need to become part of a "smart speaker" from Samsung, similar to an Amazon Echo. But overall, we’re still secretly betting that Google will win this race for the best virtual assistant.

And speaking of Google, here’s a final thought: Since four out of the five virtual assistant platforms have actual names, will Google ever rename its “Assistant” to something that’s more catchy than “The Google Assistant”?

(Smarter Home Life has reached out to Samsung Mobile for additional information on Bixby and Samsung Connect / SmartThings and will update this piece accordingly.)