Smart speakers aren’t ready to take over your home, yet

Artificial assistants in smart speakers can do some tasks for you to make your life easier but they are a long way off from turning you into a couch potato. Vinay Ram, a 30-year-old product manager, bought his Echo Dot (Rs4,499, as soon as it was launched in India in November. “I’d seen an Echo a year ago when Alexa could only understand the American English accent, but mine is very responsive to Indian accents, switching seamlessly from Odia, Malayalam and north Indian English accents,” he says.

How smart speakers work in India

Ram who works for a Bengaluru-based smart-home automation company, Silvan, has set up the TV set-top box with Alexa and now asks the device to change the channels for him. Alexa also controls the air conditioner and room temperature and is automated to switch off all lights if the device hears “Good Night”.

Ram’s wife, Sapna who works from home, plays interactive games like Hangman with the smart speaker, and streams music from Saavn. Together, they give Alexa up to 50 commands in a day. Though he loves it, Ram reluctantly admits, “It’s a luxury rather than a necessity.”

According to data released in January by Amazon, Alexa smart speakers now offer integration with more than 12,000 skills tailor-made for Indians using its digital voice assistants, including the ability to play devotional songs, interactive games, services like Housejoy, Zomato, music apps like Saavn and informational apps like ESPNcricinfo—all of them free, without any subscriptions.

Vinay and Sapna can’t do without their Echo Dot. 

Like Ram, Bengaluru-based retired architect Updesh Kaur and her husband, both 70, bought an Echo Plus (Rs14,999, in January during a sale on Amazon, even though they didn’t really need it. Updesh Kaur loves the Plus’ responsiveness, and found it easy to install.

Smart speakers are easy for the older generation

“A week ago, when people came over for dinner, we decided to listen to some Indian music and Alexa just played it for us,” she says. One night, when she couldn’t sleep, she asked Alexa to play soft music all night. “When I woke up in the morning, the device was still playing it,” says Updesh Kaur. There are times, though, when Alexa doesn’t recognize Indian music directors or the names of old Indian movies, much to Updesh Kaur’s disappointment.

The digital voice-assistant market is growing exponentially, with every company aggressively marketing its product. According to research figures released in January by the US’ National Public Media and Edison Research, 16% of Americans own a smart speaker.

The smart speaker race

The last quarter of 2017 saw the launch of Google Home Mini and Home Max and Microsoft’s Invoke (made by Harman Kardon). Apple’s long-awaited HomePod is now available too. All except Amazon are yet to announce plans for India.

However, that did not stop people like Akash Devaraju, the Bengaluru-based founder of a food start-up, from buying Google Home ($99, or Rs6,435 onwards, three months ago and turning his home into a smarter one. He researched and installed Xiaomi Yeelight ($17.99 onwards,—Wi-Fi enabled smart lights—in his bedroom and halls and his Google Home to control them. “I haven’t pressed a switch for months,” he says.

His Spotify account now works with the smart speaker. “It’s my Alfred from Batman,” says the 27-year-old. “I don’t need a phone any more. I use Home to call a taxi, set reminders and alarms, ask the best route to my office, figure my daily tasks, even control lights in my hall and bedroom,” he says.

A global survey of 21,000 people conducted by Accenture in October and November found that one-third of Indian respondents wanted to own a digital voice assistant by the end of 2018. The survey also revealed that 66% of the people owning a digital voice assistant used their phones less and spent less time looking at a screen.

That’s one of the reasons photographer Kishore Lala bought a Google Home in September. “My 13-year-old son has cerebral palsy,” says Lala. “Since the smart speaker doesn’t understand his speech if it’s not clear, Kishore has no choice but to improve his pronunciation.” Six months later, not only has his son’s speech improved, everyone in his family of four (spouse, son, and eight-year-old daughter) interacts with Google Home for everything—asking it to play their favourite music, setting alarms, reminders, searching for recipes and following its step-by-step instructions as they cook, voice controlling their television with Chromecast, asking educational questions and even playing games like Sound Safari, where children learn about different animals, and Lucky Trivia, which has many topics you can choose from.“My children especially love that they can simply ask Google Home about their homework queries rather than browse the net,” says the 44-year-old, adding that since it’s a speaker and all queries are logged in, they’re happy to let the children use it as they want.

There are, however, frustrating restrictions for people logging in from India, as the product isn’t yet meant for Indian markets. For example, you can’t have multiple accounts on the same device or make phone calls—both services available in the US.