Below is my contribution to the January 2018 issue of tED Magazine, the official publication of the NAED. Reprinted with permission.

Virtual personal assistants use speech recognition technology to execute voice commands by users. By 2021, 1.8 billion users around the world are projected to use virtual assistants, according to market research firm Tractica. While industrial/commercial applications are growing, a major end-use is residential.

In the home, virtual assistants can provide a wide range of services, such as looking up information on the Internet, playing music and videos, and buying products from online retailers such as Amazon. The most popular platforms are Apple’s Siri, Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa, and Microsoft Cortana, with Facebook M launching in mid-2017.

Now homeowners can control their lighting, shades, thermostats, A/V, and other smart devices using virtual assistant apps and devices compatible with popular smart lighting and home automation systems.

A typical solution utilizes a voice-recognizing virtual assistant device (speaker or phone), Wi-Fi connection, downloadable smart device app, and a compatible lighting control or home automation system. Smart lighting systems are typically plug and play, with simple installation and scalability.

“Until recently, controlling smart lighting in the home boiled down to basic apps and automation,” said Greg Rhoades, Director of Marketing, Leviton Energy Management Controls & Automation. “For example, you schedule a lamp to turn ON at sunset, or you use your phone to turn a lamp OFF after you’ve climbed into bed. Now, technology and advancements have allowed us to control our lights through voice command. Quick, easy, and familiar.”

Incorporating voice recognition with a home lighting system begins with selecting a system that recognizes inputs from, for example, Amazon Alexa (with an Echo device), Apple Siri (with HomeKit), Google Assistant (with Google Home), and/or Microsoft Cortana (with Harman Kardon Invoke).

“Manufacturers have different flavors of lighting and home automation systems, but the great thing with speech-recognition technology is that it’s hardware-agnostic,” said Mark Moody, Product Manager, Vantage Controls, Legrand. “There’s not much difference. These virtual personal assistant speakers are able to control many smart home devices from different manufacturers.”

After installation, the user can use the device to tell the lights what to do, providing a convenient input in addition to any others installed in the home, such as keypads, mobile apps, motion sensors, and other systems. When a user issues a voice command, it travels to a cloud-based service outside the home, which then communicates to the control provider’s cloud service via an application programming interface. The control provider’s cloud service then signals the in-home controller to execute the command. An advantage for lighting control is response is virtually immediate.

Michael Smith, Vice President of Sales for Lutron Electronics (www.lutron.com), said voice integration can dramatically simplify daily routines. “For example, if you walk into the house and you’re juggling kids, packages, and pets, you can adjust the lights with the sound of your voice by simply telling Alexa, ‘I’m home,’” he said. “Or when you’re easing into the weekend, a quick voice command such as, ‘Alexa, turn on Relax,’ will adjust lights, shades, and temperature and start your favorite music to create the perfect mood for catching up on email or reading the news.”

Besides tech-savvy owners, another good market for this technology, Smith pointed out, is people with limited mobility and/or the elderly. Using voice control enables greater freedom and can have a big impact on maintaining an independent lifestyle.

For distributors, they gain an important selling feature for smart lighting systems. “There is an opportunity for electrical contractors and distributors to extend their range of services and become smart home technology advisers,” said Michael Deschamps, Product Marketing Manager, Philips Hue, Philips Lighting US (www.meethue.com). “While installation is simple, many consumers are still looking for support with fixture installs and want assurance that everything will work properly within their homes. It’s important that they learn how everything communicates and what products are interoperable to ensure the best smart lighting and smart home experience.”

Image courtesy of Philips Lighting.

Sample solutions

Leviton’s solutions include Decora Smart lighting controls, a system of switches, dimmers, and plug-in modules for appliances and lamps. Decora Smart with Wi-Fi Technology provides hub-less operation, time-based schedules, If This, Then That customization, free remote control from anywhere, and optional integrated voice control via the My Leviton app, which is compatible with Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant. Decora Smart with HomeKit Technology allows for customizable, hub-less lighting control using an iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, Apple Watch, or Siri.

“The market potential is unbelievable,” Rhoades said. “Voice controls, now that they’re sprinkled throughout all our homes, purses, and pockets, are driving unparalleled demand for third-party services and products, especially smart home.”

Lutron’s smart wireless lighting and shading control systems include Caséta Wireless, RA 2 Select, RadioRA2, and HomeWorks QS. Systems differ in size, functionality, and skill levels for installation, but all are app-based, work with complementary smart home products such as thermostats, and are compatible with popular voice assistants.

“Smart home products are becoming more mainstream every day—they’re also becoming more affordable and easier to maintain,” said Smith. “Lutron’s message to the electrical industry is, ‘Don’t get left behind.’ Anticipate your customers’ needs and help them get started with a smart home.”

Philips Lighting’s Hue system is based on smart lights (color-tuning lamps, strips, luminaires, and controls), an app, and a bridge that works with Zigbee to connect up to 50 light points and 12 accessories. The system is interoperable with more than 600 apps, products, and platforms from other brands and developers. In addition to voice, Philips Hue smart lighting works with Nest, Samsung Smart Things, Vivint Smart Home, Xfinity Home, and other products for a seamless home automation experience.

“Smart lighting is a great place to start when building a smart home,” Deschamps said. “You can see and feel its impact on your home and life immediately.”

Image courtesy of Philips Lighting.

Final word

Moody advised contractors and distributors to keep it simple. “The common pitfalls are a poor network and overcomplicating the system, from commands to integration and configuration,” he said. “The network needs to be robust. Electrical contractors also need to be aware of the added programming and configuration that will go into custom skill environments for voice control. Keep it simple.”