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What will be the smart home's killer user interface?

Voice control is a contender.

A Google Home device on a bedside table.
At its I/O developer conference, Google introduced Google Home, its answer to Amazon's Echo.

Every tech revolution is sparked by a killer user interface. For personal computers, it was the mouse combined with the graphical user interface (GUI). For smartphones, it was the multi-touch screen. In my industry, the burning question is, "What will be the winning UI that brings the smart home to a mass audience?"

Based on the developments at the most recent CES, there is growing momentum surrounding a truly human interface — the voice. A number of companies in the smart home space, ourselves included, have unveiled integrations with cloud-based, voice-controlled services such as Alexa for Amazon Echo. And Google is getting in on the voice-activated assistant game with its new product, Google Home, which was announced yesterday at the company's I/O developer conference.

There is palpable consumer interest in voice control — the home of science fiction lore has captured people’s imaginations for decades.

What’s behind this sudden flurry of activity? For one thing, there is palpable consumer interest in voice control in the home. The home of science fiction lore has captured people’s imaginations for decades. There is an undeniable appeal in talking to your home and having it obey you, but consumers have had to wait for the technology to catch up to this idealistic vision of the future.

After years of slow progress, it appears that future is finally within reach. Technology leaders like Microsoft, Google, Amazon and Apple have doubled down on improving their virtual assistant services and have built expansive ecosystems around them. Voice recognition technology — specifically far-field — has matured and seen significant improvements in performance in tandem with the consumer’s growing comfort with talking to machines. This combination paves the way for a voice-controlled experience in the home, which is arguably the most fertile ground for this application.

Here are a few reasons why I believe voice UI will enable the smart home to reach the market penetration of seminal product categories like the PC and smartphone:

Voice UI in the home will democratize home management. There is no mouse, touchscreen or remote to master with a voice interface. It presents a navigation structure that is natural, intuitive and easily accessible. The only prerequisite for managing a smart home becomes knowing how to speak.

Voice UI will be the killer interface for the smart home because it puts this advanced technology at the fingertips (or rather, the tip of the tongue) of every consumer. Tech savvy is no longer a necessity for smart home customers. Age also becomes a non-issue. Voice control has already made a big difference in my home. I’ve been surprised to see how quickly my children have taken to conversing with Alexa, underscoring the universal understanding of a voice-based interface.

Voice UI in the home will unlock a new level of simplicity. When the Xerox team demoed their mouse to Steve Jobs, it featured three buttons. The product was intended for experts, but Jobs saw its mass market potential. He also knew it needed a simpler interface to ever catch on with consumers, the majority of whom were unfamiliar with computers at the time. He ordered Apple’s designers to reduce the mouse to a single button, and the rest is history.

Smartphones and tablets have become the key connectors that allow people to observe and control their home’s happenings from anywhere.

Mobile devices have played a similar role in expanding smart homes beyond intrepid DIYers and early adopters. Smartphones and tablets have become the key connectors that allow people to observe and control their home’s happenings from anywhere. But for some, these devices can seem as intimidating as a mouse with three buttons would have been. For instance, just over one in four seniors (27 percent) in the U.S. owned a smartphone in 2015.

Given the pivotal role smart homes could play in prolonging aging in place for the retiring Baby Boomer generation, voice UI will significantly reduce the complexity of home management. This won’t happen overnight — voice control will need to become ambient and pervasive in every room — but it will add tremendous value to homeowners’ lives.

Voice UI in the home will drive the compelling use cases the industry is currently searching for. NextMarket Insights recently reported that the smart home industry’s successful entry into the mass market will depend on widely popular applications of the technology. Voice will play a pivotal role in pinpointing these use cases and fulfilling core needs inside the home.

The current remote control capabilities of smart homes add value — as anyone who has armed their security system from a phone while on vacation thousands of miles away can attest — but they place a burden on the user. While today this technology can process basic commands ("Turn off the lights"), voice control truly shines when it can execute a series of context-aware actions by understanding human intent ("I’m going to sleep," which turns off the lights, locks the doors, arms the security system and turns down the thermostat). Voice UI will be instrumental in bringing new applications to market.

A revolutionary experience. After witnessing the demo of the Xerox mouse and GUI, Jobs jumped around shouting, "This is the greatest thing. This is revolutionary!" While that reaction may have been the result of his disbelief that Xerox was willing to grant him access to a crown jewel, it also highlights the wonder of interacting with a new interface for the first time. A similar experience is in store for millions of consumers who will finally be able to live out the futuristic scenario of controlling their home with their voice.

As chief strategy and innovation officer at Vivint Inc., Matt Eyring oversees the Vivint Innovation Center and leads the company's strategy and growth initiatives for the smart home. Before joining Vivint, Eyring was the managing partner of Innosight, a global strategy and innovation consulting firm. Reach him on LinkedIn.

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