The various articles that I have written about CEDIA 2017 in San Diego collectively do not capture what was surely the biggest news at the show: The complete embrace of Amazon Alexa as the voice assistant of choice, and the Echo Dot as the physical device of choice, for controlling anything and everything related to home automation and AV entertainment.
Now, it was not as if Amazon had some huge booth full of its Echo brand devices conversing with one another; artificial intelligence is not here… yet. But it is fair to say that there were plenty of Echo Dots scattered throughout the show floor.
One example of a company that fully embraced Alexa is Origin Acoustics, which came up with a clever distributed-audio product called the Valet system. It’s all about putting Echo Dots in your ceiling and consists of a brackets, baluns, and a dedicated four-zone (8-channel) 75 watt-per-channel amp ($1500) that leverages Cat5 cable to bring power to the dot and return its audio output to the multi-zone amplifier. It’s an easy-to-install way for a custom integrator to add spy… er I mean useful farfield microphone arrays to a multi-room streaming audio system. Welcome to the future!
Origin Acoustics developed a system for putting Echo Dots in your ceiling
All kidding aside, a key catalyst to making Echo the center of attention is what Amazon did just before CEDIA; it sent out an update that enabled multiroom music streaming with Echo devices. No wonder Sonos didn’t bother to show up on the convention room floor!
Actually I’m half-kidding about Sonos. You can control Sonos with Alexa, and the company is one of four (also Sound United, Bose and Samsung) that are working with Amazon Alexa to develop software for deeper integration, so I think the company is riding the wave and not missing out.
App-based wireless multiroom audio is a niche that Sonos practically invented, and for a while it owned almost the whole pie. But now, which Sonos’ share is sure to shrink, the pie is about to become much larger.
At the Sonos booth, attendees found a sign telling them to leave the building. Is it Alexa envy?
The point is that Amazon has given itself every advantage by popularizing the Alexa Voice Service quickly, achieving ubiquitous consumer awareness before any other platform. Sure, people know Siri, but you need to spend on Apple gear to get that. Alexa is the superstar in 2017. Another way Amazon is ahead is in making Alexa capable of controlling so many different systems. The system’s “skills” are sets of instructions that allow it to communicate with various third-party products to achieve seamless automation, and Alexa has more of them than the (distant) number two most popular virtual assistant at the show, Google Home.
One of the more interesting observations about the Amazon Echo Dot, which sells for 50 bucks or less, is addressed by posing the following hypothetical question to CEDIA attendees: how much would the Dot cost if it had been invented and sold by the custom install and custom integration industry that the show represents? Estimates ranged from $150 to $1000, mostly depending on which company was presumed to be its inventor. That speaks to how Amazon is a game changer, economy of scale informs its research and development effort. Meanwhile it has an unprecedented platform for marketing and distribution, which is how the Echo line beat out Bose and made Amazon the #1 seller of speakers in the U.S.
What I personally love about the Echo Dot is it makes multiroom streaming unbelievably simple, and you can add it to a wide variety of speakers, or a stereo system, or soundbar… anything that accepts a stereo analog signal. Much like the also-inexpensive Chromecast Audio, it frees you to use the gear you want, to listen to what you want, when you want, by just asking for it.
And yes, you can do the same thing with other virtual assistants, but no other platform has a device that includes far-field voice recognition at the extraordinary low cost of the Amazon Echo Dot. Google missed out in not having something equivalent. So… if you are reading this Google, please give us a Chromecast with voice assistant capability and an optical-digital output.
It’s too early to tell what the precise impact of Amazon will be upon the companies that exhibit at CEDIA, especially the ones that are all about multi-room distributed audio. But there’s no question that expensive, proprietary automation solutions for residential applications are being disrupted. Crestron used to have the biggest booth at CEDIA, and now it has simply been gone for a couple of years as it pursues commercial applications for its products. In its place, at least in the consciousness of show attendees, is Amazon.
In summary, I suggest that if Alexa is listening to you right now, tell it that it is doing a great job. After all, I’m sure you want to be friends with your future digital overlord. You know the day is coming, resistance is futile.