Earlier in the summer, Ashwin Karuhatty reached out to a group of connected home integration professionals in the Custom Electronics Design and Installation Association (CEDIA). Karuhatty, part of Amazon’s Smart Home business development team, wanted to encourage integrators to develop new Alexa skills for the connected home. CEDIA’s annual conference was an ideal place to start.
Among those professionals was Jon Stovall. Owner of Bethesda Systems, Stovall is also a division board member with the Consumer Technology Association’s TechHome Division. As an Amazon Prime customer, Stovall found Alexa and Echo technology interesting. But as a home electronics integrator, he’d always thought the technology was more for big-brand, plug-and-play devices, not for customer integrators like himself. Until he discovered Amazon’s Alexa development tools and APIs, that is.
“Know anyone that can build us an exhibit for CEDIA, to showcase Alexa and a ton of smart home device and automation?,” Karuhatty asked.
Stovall was instantly engaged.
Building the Amazon Alexa-enabled home
CEDIA is the leading global authority in the growing $14 billion home technology industry, representing 3,700 member companies worldwide. It serves over 30,000 professionals that manufacture, design, and integrate goods and services for the connected home. It was only natural Amazon’s Alexa and Echo devices should make a splash at the CEDIA 2016 show in September in Dallas, Texas.
With a call to Stovall’s booth fabrication partner in Chicago, Stovall and Thom Kephart, Senior Manager of Events with Alexa, developed a concept for Amazon’s Alexa-enabled home booth. The exhibit would take the form of a see-through house, with clear walls to keep the noisy trade show from interfering with Alexa’s voice recognition. The home would feature a kitchen and bedroom, two scenarios where voice control shines.
While most Alexa skills control an individual device or Smart Home group, Stovall wanted to control many types of devices with a single command. That’s where Control4 and Crestron systems, which Stovall uses in custom integration projects, came in. Systems like these communicate with devices on many protocols and frequencies, and whether the end devices themselves have Smart Home or custom Alexa skills or not. Further, integrators can define macros to perform sequences of many device controls at once.
And now, they can also communicate with Alexa.
“My initial impression that Alexa was only for mass-market products wasn’t true at all,” Stovall says. “Amazon had been working with Control4 and Crestron on their own custom Alexa skills. That meant we could use Control4 to glue together all the kitchen devices, and Crestron for the bedroom devices.”
With the Control4 system and its own custom Alexa skill, Stovall created several scenes to control the roomful of devices with single commands. For example, “Alexa, turn kitchen on” started the coffeemaker, raised the room lights, opened the window shades, adjusted the fan and more. It even turned on the TV and tuned it to a favorite foodie channel.
In the adjacent bedroom, the Crestron system and skill enabled more scenes, such as reading, movie and whole bedroom. These scenes adjusted the lights, the TV, fan and other devices to suit specific moods or activities.
Of course, Alexa can also individually control any supported devices with Alexa using Smart Home or custom skills.
“The coolest thing Alexa does is she makes you comfortable,” says Stovall. “She gives you light. She can turn on the fans. She can raise and lower the temperature. And she's doing that in both rooms because you want those things all over your house.”
Convincing the skeptics… done.
Stovall says being able to use voice control with sophisticated control systems like Crestron and Control4 was important for the CEDIA audience. Many attendees were custom home integrators, leery of how this new technology might affect their businesses.
That changed each time Stovall toured a group of integrators through the exhibit. “Everyone wanted to be a part of it. You could just see all those wheels spinning as the light bulbs went off in their heads.”
He also noted that “VUI” seemed to be a big catch-phrase on the exhibit floor, though most attendees had never heard of a voice user interface before.
“The skeptical integrator folks who came to the exhibit saw the same thing in Alexa that I saw. I mean, it was just, ‘Oh, my God. This is a game changer.’”
The evolution of smart home integration
In Stovall’s view, the Alexa-enabled home was one of the most popular exhibits in the CEDIA 2016 show, and seeing so many smart and IoT devices working together, rather than individually, was one main reason.
The evolution of the smart home will continue, as integrators like Stovall start productizing larger solutions. Using a combination of Smart Home and custom Alexa skills, they can create voice-controlled smart home packages for builders to install in new homes.
Consumers will soon be able to create their own scenes, but there will always be customers wanting the “next big thing” in home automation. Stovall says integrators will continue to blaze trails to accommodate them, then productize the solutions for a wider audience. With innovative systems like those used in the CEDIA Alexa exhibit, anything is possible.
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