A virtual digital assistant is software that can perform tasks for consumers such as looking up information on the internet, playing media and buying products online. It uses speech recognition technology to respond to voice commands.
Amazon Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Google Assistant and Microsoft’s Cortana are the most popular virtual assistant platforms. Market research firm Tractica estimated 390 million people used virtual assistants in 2015 and projected this number to grow to 1 billion in 2018 and 1.8 billion in 2021.
An increasing number of lighting control and home automation manufacturers now offer voice recognition as an input for their systems. Until now, smart lighting in the home was controlled using apps and devices such as keypads, dimmers, switches and sensors. With these methods, homeowners can operate and schedule their lighting. By using a system with a compatible virtual assistant app/device, users can now also control their lighting, shades, thermostats, audio/video, and other smart devices using voice commands.
The benefit, of course, is convenience and enhanced lifestyle. The same benefits of automated home lighting control but with a simple and familiar additional control input. The leading markets are tech-savvy homeowners, people with disabilities and the elderly, who have limited freedom of movement. Voice control boosts the cool factor for smart lighting and may even serve as a discussion point—did you know you could use Siri to control your house? For contractors, voice control provides a selling feature for home automation, with lighting control a strong first step that provides benefits that are immediately seen.
Recommending lighting and home automation always begins with the home’s users, their lifestyle and their needs. Many homeowners are likely to start with just a few devices and grow from there based on gaining comfort with devices that are providing value. Exterior lighting is a likely first candidate along with indoor spaces where occupants spend most of their time, such as the kitchen, dining room, living room and bedrooms. As the customer gets comfortable, they can work their way up to more systems and ultimately a home-automation hub that ties everything together.
For voice-controlled lighting, what’s needed is a lighting or home control system, compatible virtual assistant device (phone or speaker) and app, and a robust Wi-Fi connection. These assistants are control-manufacturer-agnostic, meaning they are compatible with a range of products. Examples of lighting and home control systems compatible with various virtual assistants include Sylvania Smart+ lighting from LEDVANCE, Osram’s Lightify; Leviton’s Decora Smart with Wi-Fi Technology and Decora Smart with HomeKit Technology; Lutron Electronics’ Caseta Wireless, RA 2 Select, RadioRA2, and HomeWorks QS; and Philips Lighting’s Hue system.
Using commands such as “Alexa, turn lights to 50 percent,” users can switch, dim, select tailored scenes, or in some cases, change the color of their lighting. If extended to other systems, user commands for scenes such as “home” and “relax” could create custom combinations of lighting, window shades, temperature, and media such as music.
User voice commands pass through the virtual assistant’s external cloud-based service to the control provider’s cloud-based service, which interoperate using an application programming interface. The control provider then sends the appropriate control signal to the controller in the home to execute the command. Control response should be almost immediate.
Many manufacturers offer wireless software updates to simplify delivery of upgrades and security patches. An interesting possibility for home control is If This, Then That integration, which enables systems to respond to each other without the need for user intervention; for example, if a surveillance camera detects motion, the porch lights could automatically turn on.
Smart lighting is typically plug and play and relatively simple to install. For one solution, the contractor swaps out light switches with smart switches then uses an app to connect all devices. Manufacturers offer training on how to install and set up these systems. One way to get comfortable is to try it yourself with a few control points.
While installation is somewhat simple, different systems offer varying levels of size, scalability, hardware, and simplicity. This requires appropriate matching to user needs, installer’s skill level and application characteristics.
Education is necessary to learn manufacturers’ systems, how devices communicate, what they’re interoperable with, and how they’re set up, as many owners will want assurance everything will work properly. For voice control, the contractor will also need to gain familiarity with how voice commands must be phrased, as there is currently no standardized phrasing for these commands.
Virtual assistants and voice control use is expected to continue to grow, which will impact and add more value to home automation. Electrical contractors who invest in getting to know these systems will likely become more competitive with customers seeking automation’s benefits.