Are digital assistants like Amazon Echo, Google Home more talk than action?

google home

The Amazon Echo, Google Home and self-driving Tesla are certain to be the Next Big Things if you believe everything you read. You don’t do that, of course, which is good. That’s because these exciting new technologies aren’t exactly setting the world on fire in terms of consumer demand.

A new study from the Pew Research Center finds that fewer than half of adult Americans surveyed have used a digital assistant, and most of them aren’t frequent users. Those who do use digital assistants tend to do so through their smartphones, not through the in-home two-way speakers like the Amazon Echo.

In fact, 42% of U.S. adults say they use voice assistants on their smartphones while only 14% of the public has used a voice assistant on a computer or tablet, while 8% say they use them on a stand-alone device such as an Amazon Echo or Google Home, according to the survey.

As for self-driving cars, while the press and marketing types are excited, public attitudes are a big cooler. A survey conducted for Allianz Travel Insurance found only 22% of consumers are “very interested” and only 32% are “somewhat interested” in self-driving cars. In fact, self-driving cars rate lowest for travelers “very interested” and highest for “safety concerns” among those not interested when compared to all other future travel methods in the survey, including so-called flying cars.

Just you wait

While most consumers start out using voice assistants to play music or answer simple questions about the weather or the time, the real promise of the technology lies in its ability to control systems throughout the home and in the car, workplace and elsewhere — as voice-driven remote controls, in other words.

It’s already possible to lock and unlock your doors, turn the lights off and on, start the coffee in the morning and control the thermostat, all by using your voice. But most consumers haven’t gotten to that point yet and a big part of the reason is that it’s still a fairly daunting systems integration challenge to get all this stuff to work together the way it’s supposed to.

Also, door locks and security systems are not exactly playthings. Like self-driving cars, they need to work properly to ensure consumers’ personal safety. While the current systems are no doubt capable of doing that, they are not without flaws.

In a recent Washington Post article, Geoffrey A. Fowler told of installing the program that lets Amazon delivery workers unlock your front door and leave packages in your front hall. The system sort of worked but the lock turned out to be the weak point. It tended to stick.

AT&T installed its latest and greatest security system in my Northern Virginia home not too long ago. It includes a number of whiz-bang gadgets that have not lived up to their promise, starting with the front-door lock. Like Fowler’s, the device tends to stick, which could leave the door unlocked — or even open — when the system thinks it’s closed and locked.

AT&T has been completely useless in fixing this. A vice president called me recently and said he would come out and examine it personally but didn’t show up and didn’t call to cancel.

Not quite seamless

These little examples illustrate what can become a major problem — getting different components to work together seamlessly. There are already some very good products on the market, SimpliSafe among them, that make it simple to set up a home security system. Others worth looking at include FrontPoint and Vivint.

Eventually, there may be a single system that lets you play the latest Sia release, turn on the coffee, turn down the thermostat and feed the dog. But unless you’re an avid tinkerer and digitally conversant, that day is not quite here.

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About the Author

James R. Hood
James R. Hood is the editor and publisher of FairfaxNews.com. A former Associated Press editor and executive, he has more than 50 years of reporting experience.