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Smart Speakers and Virtual Assistants: What You Need to Know

Many of us have dreamt of being wealthy enough to have our own butler or personal assistant, few of us ever make enough to turn that into a reality. However in 2020 anyone with a few tenners in their pocket can have their very own virtual assistant. Maybe it won’t prepare breakfast or make you a cup of tea but these nifty gadgets can perform all sorts of useful tasks to make your life that little bit easier.

Speech recognition machines have actually been around as far back as 1911, with the toy Radio Rex. Responding only to one word (his name) Rex would move in and out of his kennel via a spring. Speech recognition has come a long way since 1911, in 2018 Google Speech managed to understand 95% of words that it heard and over the last few years smart speakers have exploded in popularity. Amazon’s Alexa devices lead the way with over 100 million sold worldwide. Almost 70% of smart speaker user’s have an Alexa capable device.

So what exactly is a virtual assistant then? Well put simply a virtual assistant is software that will perform tasks based on commands or questions. You may have heard the names Siri or Alexa being beckoned from across a room or into a phone, these are examples of virtual assistants and they are the names used to interact with them. 

A smart speaker is a speaker that has one of these virtual assistants built into it, so it can listen to voice commands, talk back to you and relay information. All you need to do to start conversing with a smart speaker is to say the “wake word” associated with the device such as “OK Google” or “Alexa”. 

Now some of you may have heard that these devices have privacy concerns, that they spy on you and send recordings of you to the companies that own them. It’s good to have a skeptical mind and to be wary of your privacy but we need to cut through the rumours and get down to the facts. Firstly we need to seperate the words listening and recording. It’s true that the microphones in these devices are always listening, but they are only listening for the specific wake word so they know that they need to jump into action when called upon. 

It’s only once you have spoken the wake word that the device will begin recording you. Once the device has recorded you it will send this information to the cloud where the speech patterns are looked at by a computer to figure out what you’re asking it to do (this is why smart speakers need an internet connection). It may seem as though it’s instantly responding to you but there is a lot of complex stuff going on very quickly behind the scenes. 

Amazon, Google and Apple all offer options to delete the recordings that they have of you. And if you’re concerned about privacy we recommend you make use of this option, some even offer an auto delete service that you can enable.

So what can you actually do with a smart speaker? Well here’s a short list of 5 example uses and commands that should be useful to almost anyone. I’ll use the Alexa pronoun as that’s the device I own but all of the major virtual assistants can perform tasks like these.

  1. Ask if you’ll need an umbrella – One of the first things I say in the morning is “Alexa will I need an umbrella today?”. If you’re planning on taking a trip somewhere you can also ask “what’s the weather like in ____?”.
  2. Set alarms and reminders – I have a terrible memory and asking my Alexa to remember things for me is a life saver. “Alexa remind me to get the casserole out of the oven in an hour”.
  3. Ask it a question – “Alexa which film won best picture in 1954?”, “Alexa who invented paper clips?”. Just two of the questions you can ask your device ranging from pointless fun facts to important knowledge. Ask it anything and it will scan the web for you to try and find an answer. Don’t try sneaking it into a pub quiz however, the robotic sounding voice may give you away.
  4. Listen to music – You’ll need an account on a music streaming service such as Spotify but once you’ve got your device linked to it simply ask for a song and within seconds you’ll likely be listening to it. Much easier than sorting through a pile of records.
  5. Turn your home into a smart home – Especially useful for anyone who has difficulty with mobility using smart plugs you can control all sorts of things around your house with your phone. Turn lights on or off, control your TV or set a timer for your coffee maker so you can wake up to a freshly brewed pot.

Keep in mind this is only the tip of the iceberg, smart speakers have hundreds if not thousands of different uses.

Currently the three most popular smart speaker manufacturers are Amazon, Google and Apple

Amazon being the most popular offer over 150 devices with a virtual assistant built in. Their smart speaker range starts pretty cheap with the Echo Dot (they’re also often on sale if you keep checking Amazon’s website).

Apple is on the more expensive end of the scale with their Home Pod 2. But they boast impressive sound quality so if you’re planning on listening to a lot of music it may be worth the high cost.

Google being the third biggest player in this market has a few offerings and with Google being a search engine giant their virtual assistant is generally considered to be the smartest. If you have a lot of questions to ask then maybe the Google Home or Nest Mini could be for you.

So now you’ve learned a bit about what smart speakers and virtual assistants actually are, some of the most popular devices available today, their history and a few features.. Take what you’ve learned and go further with it, these are just the basics and there are thousands of different ways to make tech work for you. Thank you for reading.

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