Control Systems: Hear and obey

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In the past, the introduction of the iPad shook up the control systems market. Now, voice enabled control devices are poised to have a similar, if not greater, effect. Are manufacturers ready for the change? Paul Milligan speaks to those involved.

The control systems market has had an interesting time in recent years. The iPad caused a seismic shock when Apple introduced it to the world in 2010. To date around 400 million iPads have been sold. On the surface here was something that could replicate a professional touchpanel, for a quarter of the price. This led to years of articles proclaiming the imminent death of the touchpanel.

The counter-argument at the time from the likes of Crestron and AMX was that there would always be a market for professional touchpanels and that the iPad would simply drive more interest towards a high-end solution for people looking for them (the same argument used now for Microsoft Surface Hub and touchscreens). It is hard to argue that eight years later this is how things have panned out.

Control system manufacturers have seen year-on-year sales continue to grow and the vast majority of meeting rooms, regardless of size, have some form of control installed. Either fitted to the wall or as a handheld device within the room. While the iPad didn’t spell the end of the touchpanel, it did have a sizable impact on how they feel and how they work.

Now, there is another form of technology on the horizon that could have a similar sized impact on control systems – voice control. Again, like the iPad, this is being driven by consumer products such as Amazon Alexa and Google Home. While voice is not an overnight sensation, the fast adoption of these technologies will drive change in this market.

Matthew Buck, regional sales manager for Crestron UK, says: “We’ve had voice integration for years, but bringing along the skillset of a company like Amazon has meant we can take it to a completely different level.”

People are setting up their own control systems, and seeing the benefits of voice control for themselves. As we have seen with other technology, what will happen next is that they will start demanding it in their places of work too. So what type of impact will voice control have on the control space? Could it become the default way to use a control system?

Vincent Boca, RTI’s dealer experience manager, says: “Voice control is having a profound impact, it’s creating opportunities for an otherwise diluted space. For existing companies, if you aren’t a player in the voice control space, it can create the perception that your technology is outdated.”

Voice control is also changing the landscape specifically in Asia Pacific. Manoj Manchala, director – technical for RTI Corporation Asia, gives details regarding the impact: “We’re seeing increased adoption of voice recognition hardware, software, and devices in the Asia Pacific market. There’s consumer demand for voice-activated appliances, including lights and thermostats, as well as home security and automation products.

Amazon Alexa and Google Home are the two most used voice control systems in Asia at present. A report by iProspect, Dentsu Aegis Network’s global digital performance agency, says 62% of smartphone users across Australia, China, India, Indonesia, Japan and Singapore have used voice activated technology in the last six months and 54% did so in the last month. The voice technology market has quickly scaled in adoption across the mobile population. As per the report, India (82%) and China (77%) have emerged as the leaders in voice adoption among field markets with Indonesia (62%) close behind. The market is expected to reach USD2,754.38 million by 2025.”

So, if the demand is there is that translating to actual orders? Yes it is says Buck from Crestron: “In the last four to six weeks we have seen a sudden upturn in companies who want to get rid of touchpanels and interfaces in their presentation and meeting rooms and want to move solely over to voice activation.”

There is also a belief that the residential sector will play the role of early adopter with the commercial sector to follow. Manchala from RTI says: “The residential market will lead adoption of voice control in smart home applications. Currently, voice control is very rare in commercial deployments likely because of the network infrastructure MNC’s follow in addition to security protocols.”

However, while everyone we spoke to agreed voice control would have a big impact they also believe there are a number of caveats that need addressing first.

Keren Lipshitz, director of control and solutions at Kramer, says: “The main obstacle [to it becoming the default] is that current voice control options are based on commands such as ‘Alexa, turn on the lights’, and do not respond to a more natural way of speaking.”

Lipshitz has already seen some improvement in voice control technology with the addition of ‘routines’, the use of which allows users to predefine scenarios such as “movie time”. This single command activates a series of actions – dimming the lights, setting speaker volume, turning on the TV etc.

She says: “While this is progress it still requires the user to be aware of the available pre-defined scenarios and learn the relevant commands. As long as we are in the residential market this isn’t a major issue. However, it gets complicated once we move to a commercial environment, which hosts random users. Can we really expect anyone who walks into a conference room to know the available commands and scenarios? Of course not. That’s why we need voice control which enables the use of any kind of syntax as a command. Only then will we see voice control widespread across the commercial, and specifically corporate, markets.”

Jason Lapthorne, applications engineer, AV and control, EMEA, from AMX by Harman is another seeing installers experimenting with voice control, and this is in turn driving more enquiries. But like others we spoke to, Lapthorne is aware some issues need to be addressed and says: “I think it will be difficult for voice in the education and corporate markets, mainly down to security. Essentially you have an open microphone that is always on, and it’s connected to the internet. There are huge legal and security matters around voice (that need to be solved) before we see it taking off in the corporate world. It records what you say, then you have data protection and privacy issues around that. Who owns that data? Currently anything you say to an Alexa or Siri is then owned by Amazon or Apple.”

Similar concerns are brought forward by Lipshitz from Kramer: “Some may say Alexa is listening to all we say, and they are partially right. Alexa is considered to be an ‘always-on’ device. The devices constantly listen - waiting for the user to say a ‘wake word’, and as a result it can hold a second-long voice recording which it constantly discards and then replaces until a wake word starts the recording process. As not every wake word issues a control sequence it may happen that private conversations are recorded. This issue is not yet solved and is one of the reasons professional customers will not easily adopt voice control.”

However, Manchala from RTI believes that these issues can be overcome: “Voice enabled devices have created new privacy and security vulnerabilities that could potentially expose personal details, and the recent hacking of Alexa is of concern for IT security. But I believe it is a oneoff case. When configured properly, these devices do not present more risk than a smartphone or laptop.”

The view on whether voice will become the default to control AV within any given room is probably best summarised by RTI’s Bova: “As far as it being the default, we will have to wait and see. Clearly this is not a fad. However, it needs to be more intelligent with the ability to learn the speech habits of users.”

The move towards using your voice to control AV equipment is part of a larger shift in the last five years, which has seen manufacturers prioritise ease of use over functionality. So, is the design of the front end now the crucial aspect of any control system?

Lipshitz from Kramer says: “Barry Schwartz argues in his book (The Paradox Of Choice – Why More Is Less) that eliminating consumer choices can greatly reduce any anxiety for shoppers. This is evident with control systems as well. The more options we provide the user with the more we over-complicate the user experience. And there lies the challenge for us manufacturers. It’s up to us to find the delicate (some might say impossible) balance of flexible and all-encompassing system that answers the user requirements but without compromising on ease of use.”

But with voice control things are improving already with regards to front-end design and Lipshitz continues: “Lately we’ve seen a shift with various control systems being based on drag and drop builders and this is the first step in that direction. With a properly designed drag and drop builder, the user doesn’t lose functionality.”

Simplifying the front-end design of control panels is vital because without it the pro AV industry will just repeat the past mistakes of videoconferencing, which overcomplicated the very simple requirement of seeing and hearing the person on the other end. Lapthorne from AMX says: “We were guilty in the past of copying everything your remote control could do. We don’t need all those buttons, people use the same four or five buttons and that’s it, time after time.” To emphasise this change of thinking Lapthorne revealed the new AMX experience centre doesn’t feature any touchpanels on the wall (Creston has also made the same change to its showrooms). He adds: “We now look at the user’s journey - When you walk into a room what happens? What happens when you walk into a room and what happens to that room when you are finished and walk out?”

One giant step to improving the control experience could be the emergence of AI. How close are we to getting truly smart room control i.e. meeting rooms that react to your presence in the room? AMX has been working with IBM Watson for a few years now and the system has already shown it’s capable of learning and adapting. Lapthorne says: “It learns phrases, so if you say ‘it’s a bit dark in here’ it will turn the lights on. There are trigger words, and it’s much more conversational (than command-based systems).” AMX is currently looking at ways to track user’s previous behaviour to improve the next experience. Lapthorne says: “RMS already monitors individual users to see how they use each room (preferred volume level etc). At the moment to change that it would need some programming so we can tailor make it for their environment, but we could use AI to make that easier in the future. It’s there at the moment, it just needs some time and some tweaking.”

Crestron is also doing something similar (learning your behaviour to better the next outcome etc.) with its PinPoint app. This is surely the way forward for control systems, you walk in a room and it knows who you are, what volume, lighting, heat etc. setting you like and gets the room ready for you five minutes before you enter. All you will need to do is simply turn on your device once you are in the room.

Speaking of devices, how has the emergence of BYOD affected the user interface of control systems? Lipshitz from Kramer says: “Manufacturers understand that BYOD and control cannot continue to live as separate entities in the commercial environment. We are witnessing a rise in ‘control brains’ (software to control the home and office alike). Companies are now offering the option to secure the ‘brain’, an application that just like any other can run on any device based on iOS, Android and Windows.”

In many cases the control system user interface is being replaced says Bove; “by intelligent systems that can anticipate BYOD and provide an easy way to integrate devices, replacing the user interface of the control system with personal products. The demand for BYOD integration is now considered a necessity versus a luxury.”

The irony with control becoming intelligent is that it’s now moving from an easy to use device sat on the meeting room desk into something working in the background. It was always designed to be the glue that held everything together says Lapthorne but is now evolving into something smarter: “What we are seeing now is control is taking a step back, it’s becoming more invisible. The actual perception is that there is no control in the room, it’s just happening. The reality is that everything is happening at the back end.”