It has been five years since Apple’s Siri invention. However, for anyone who owns a smart home, it’s time to give voice assistants the silent treatment.
While Siri amused us for a time with its versatility, it has been overtaken by smarter virtual assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa or Google Now. These next-generation assistants are smarter, faster and more reliable, but they haven’t solved the big problem inherent with voice control — the requisite shamelessness.
For anybody living with a partner, children, flatmates or even a dog, there are only so many times you can scream out “OK Google” before somebody snaps.
A whispered “Hey Siri” to call your mum or start your music may slip by unnoticed, but barking commands to turn on lights requires serious gall.
They bring up a good point. Do you really want to be shouting at your house to turn on your lights while you slip in after a late night out? There’s also the question of utility — what’s easier, talking to your phone and waiting for the command to register or flicking a light switch?
Voice control isn’t the only option on Hue 2.0, of course, but Siri compatibility is the headline feature of the second-generation smart-lighting system. Through the Hue app, users are able to set up and control individual globes or set “scenes” of multiple lights connected through the Hue Bridge. There are a couple of third-party apps that try to improve on this interface or introduce new modes, but no method has been particularly speedy until now.
Transforming the experience
Apple’s soon-to-be-released iOS 10, presently in public beta, embraces the archaic in the pursuit of speed. Rejoice, self-respecting smart-home aspirants, they’ve brought back buttons.
The iOS 10 control centre (the quick-access menu produced with a swipe up from the bottom of the screen) has become a home for all your on-the-fly controls, including a page of software buttons dedicated to smart-home devices.
Nine little icons (12 on iPad) represent your favourite connected devices and allow full control of the device’s functions.
A tap on the button switches devices (“Accessories” in Applespeak) on and off, while a long press brings up a screen of contextual controls. With Hue lights, this defaulted to a brightness slider, with a colour selection wheel one tap away at the bottom of this screen. The buttons can be swapped for scenes, customisable collections of device settings, which are designed using iOS 10’s new Home app.
This process is even better with 3D Touch and Taptics (Apple jargon for the pressure-sensitive screen response in the iPhone 6s). The phone subtly vibrates as you firmly press the buttons, and continuing to hold the screen allows quick brightness adjustment.
To be allowed this degree of precise control without even unlocking your phone is transformative to the smart-home experience.
It’s quick to access and intuitive in a way yelling commands simply isn’t.
The lockdown equation
There’s a trade-off in this simplicity as Apple’s HomeKit platform powering this system presently is under-supported by smart-device manufacturers.
While the controls are powerful, being locked into an Apple ecosystem in your home also isn’t what all consumers will want. Home devices are replaced far less frequently than smartphones, so think ahead if you’re going to dive headfirst into HomeKit.
I expect to see similar fast-control functionality in Android soon, though hopefully with a more open approach. For now, however, smart-home control is simply easier in iOS 10.
For those not rocking iPhones, Hue 2.0 is accessible through Android and its own API command set, making it useful with practically any device. As with their use, set-up is quick and painless.
Once you’ve screwed in your bulbs and fired up the Hue app, a quick click of the Bridge’s single button synchs the lights, no codes required.
Am I proclaiming the death of the voice assistant? Not even close, but as our understanding of people’s interaction with technology evolves I foresee a divide in function rooted in societal norms. Would you ask a human assistant to perform personal tasks like turning on your bedroom light or flushing your smart loo? I don’t think so.