May 2016

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A Sleeper Technology for BAS?

Smart Phone Apps Might Not Be In Your Future

Andy McMillanAndy McMillan
Strategy Consultant
BACnet International

Contributing Editor

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I bought my wife an interesting Christmas present last year.  It was the latest techno-gadget from Amazon called the “Amazon Echo.”  In less than a minute I was able to connect it to my WiFi network which the Echo uses to play music, provide information, news, sports scores, weather, and much more.  But what’s interesting is how I get it to do these things.  Basically, all I have to do is ask.  The Echo has seven microphones and beam forming technology so it can hear me from across the room.  It responds in a natural voice with robust sound that supports pretty reasonable music reproduction.  What’s really cool is that it can even understand and respond to commands while it’s playing music I requested.  When I want to give the Echo an instruction, I just start my request with the word “Alexa.”  The technology that makes this work is called “far field voice recognition” and it just might be a sleeper technology for building automation systems.

More Complexity
Intelligent buildings, IoT and LED lighting controls are all moving in the direction of denser sensor coverage and ubiquitous networking.  At the same time there is a rapidly increasing body of data to support the idea that the built environment can have a dramatic impact on the people it’s meant to serve.  For example, Philips SchoolVision is a dynamic lighting solution for education that has demonstrated meaningful change in educational outcomes through appropriate teacher selection of different lighting profiles based on student tasks and behavior.  Other studies have shown that giving patients control over their environment (including lighting) reduces hospital stays.  Even commercial office space is not immune.  Studies show that employees are more productive overall when they have the ability to control environmental factors in their work area.  So it seems like a safe bet that building occupants will have more control options and access to controls for their building.

To APP or not to APP?
The current thinking is that people will access systems that give them this type of control through apps on their smart phone.  And, maybe they will.  But after playing with the Amazon Echo for a few months I’m not so sure.  I used to check the weather in the morning with an app on my phone.  I rarely do that anymore.  It turns out it’s much faster and easier to just say, “Alexa, what will the weather be like today” and instantly get the day’s weather report read to me.  It leaves my hands free to continue shaving, getting dressed or whatever else I might want to do.  The same is true with news summaries.  I used to take a quick look at CNN and a few other news sites at the start of the day to get the highlights.  Now I just ask my Echo to read me the highlights from the news feeds I care about.  

Another area where the Echo has changed my user interaction model is casual music.  To play some background music I used to access Pandora on my phone paired with a Bluetooth speaker on my desk.  There is no need for that anymore.  Now I just say. “Alexa, play 80’s music” or “Alexa, play some Beach Boys songs” or “Alexa,  play the ‘Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress’ song” and I get exactly the music I requested.  And, if I want to, I can even configure my Echo to access my Pandora account to get music from my own Pandora channels. 

Another way I can use the Echo is to ask it to get information for me rather than firing up a browser and doing a search.  Requests like, “Alexa, how far away is the moon” or “Alexa, who was Magellan” or “Alexa, what is Moore’s law” instantly get me the information I want.  Again, it’s faster, simpler and more convenient than using my phone to do the same thing. 

The Bottom Line
Reliable Controls So, what does all this mean for building automation?  As the capabilities of intelligent buildings increase, so will the complexity of the user interaction.  Occupants will have more control over their environment so the need for simple, easy and intuitive interaction models will be increasingly important.  It could just be that far-field voice recognition will serve occupant needs for system interaction better than smart phone apps.  The same might be true of building engineers.  Building engineers will have to deal with more complex systems that are linked in various ways with multiple cloud services.  We might find that talking and listening to a device across the room will prove to be a better interaction model than touch and tap on smart phone apps.

Smart phones and their associated apps have become a defacto standard for user interaction with cloud services and through them, to many devices.  It’s hard to remember a past without smart phone apps (even though they have existed for less than 10 years!).  It’s also incredibly easy to project the future just by extrapolating the phone app trend.  However, my experience with the Amazon Echo has me wondering if there might be a new trend starting … one that relies on far-field voice recognition and conversational interaction rather than the touch and tap we have so rapidly adopted through smart phones. I asked my Echo about that but the response I got was simply “I can’t find the answer to the question I heard” … so I guess we’re just going to have to wait and see what the future brings.

As always, the views expressed in this column are mine and do not necessarily reflect the position of BACnet International, ASHRAE, or any other organization.  If you want to send comments to me directly, feel free to email me at andysview AT arborcoast DOT com.


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