If you get a kick out of bossing around Alexa, Siri, or Google Assistant (brands of Amazon, Apple, and Google respectively), you are already on the cusp of ambient computing. They are eager to please you as your dedicated and subordinate assistant. They are ready to serve your every whim (even trying, sometimes hilariously, to guess your next wish). Very quickly, these devices earned the tag of smart. This is thanks to a voice recognition interface able to identify voices, words, and commands, learn your wishes and grant them. The next logical step was to have these smart devices interface with other smart devices. This created the beginnings of ambient computing.
A standalone smart device is to ambient computing as an organ is to a human body. It is one component of a larger integrated system that works in harmony to function smoothly and efficiently. While the heart is an amazing organ essential to daily living, it’s pretty useless without a brain, lungs, kidneys, circulatory system, and so on. Our body is a living example of what ambient computing can be for your home or office; a fully functional, integrated system that serves your needs and wants.
A Day in the Life of an Ambient Computing Home
Let’s breathe some life into your home by creating a basic ambient computing environment.
Wake up time! Your 7-year-old loves to start the day with his favorite playlist of Disney songs; your 14-year-old daughter no longer moans and grumbles under the sheets because her latest pop idols are crooning her awake. For Mom & Dad, smooth morning jazz is the perfect way to gently nudge them out of bed.
Behind the scenes, appropriate lights have been turned on, along with heat or air, and coffee is brewing when you enter the kitchen. The kids grab a bowl of cereal while you and your mate cook up some eggs and toast. Once finished, everyone drops their dishes in the dishwasher and gets ready for their day.
Everyone has time to make their farewells to each other. They can enjoy the fact that there is no longer that mad rush to remember everything and shoot out the front door.
8:30 AM to 4:30 PM
The house may now be emptied of its human occupants, but the home continues to function as programmed. It still washes dishes and turns off the heat or air. It can also randomly switch lights on and off throughout the house to simulate activities of humans at home.
As everyone settles in after their days at school and work, your house perks up and begins its evening duties. Daylight dims outside and selected rooms begin lighting up. The thermostat kicks in to set the right temperature throughout the house. The kitchen gets less heating because of the heat generated by the stove and oven.
You are notified that the casserole you put in the oven before heading off to work is done cooking and ready to eat. Everyone gathers at the dinner table and talks about their respective days. The casserole is perfect, everyone is stuffed; another delicious dinner served on time!
Settling in for the night, ready for a little entertainment. No need to scroll through the channels and services; you covered that over the weekend when you planned out your TV viewing for the week. Just sit down, turn on the TV, and start watching your favorite shows.
Kids have gone to bed, you and your better half relax in your room for a bit before dozing off. You catch up with each other, then you remember about a new appointment tomorrow. You then notify your voice-controlled device of the new date and it confirms that it is now on the calendar. Off to sleep you go.
11:00 PM – 6:00 AM
Everyone has a perfectly restful sleep while your home quietly hums with its nightly duties. This includes turning on alarms, locking doors, and monitoring the temperature in each room.
This is a simplified version of what your home will perform when it is set up with ambient computing. Even better, you can add more smart devices over time. As your needs change or expand, so does the capabilities of your home. As you enjoy the new freedom you have discovered, don’t be surprised if you start thinking of other tasks you would love to automate; chances are you will find a device that does what you want.
Major Ambient Computing Players
While many other tech firms are clamoring for a position, the three major players in ambient computers are Amazon (starring Alexa), Apple (featuring Siri), & Google (with Assistant); this should come as no surprise to anyone even slightly aware of the tech industry. Let’s take a quick peek at what each company has on offer (showing no prejudice, they are listed alphabetically). For brand loyalists, it may make no difference what other companies are offering, but it never hurts to know what’s out there.
The Amazon Collection
Amazon got a jump on the competition when it introduced its voice-controlled device: the Echo, with Alexa as your hostess. Now there is a range of Amazon Echos to serve varied needs: Echo Show, Echo Look, Echo Dot (with a Dot for the kiddies), and the Echo Plus. All of the Echos intelligently communicate and cooperate together, one of the first to present a basic ambient computing model.
Apple now also showcases the Dash Buttons and the Firestick (with its varied permutations) and has many outside sluggers like August, GE, Lenovo, LG, and Triby partnering with them on Alexa-driven devices. The gaping hole in their battery of smart hardware lies in wearable devices; a couple of independent companies offer Alexa-enable devices (the CoWatch smartwatch and Bragi Dash hearable), but they are not making enough waves to warrant serious inclusion in the wearable category for Amazon.
The Apple Collection
Apple’s HomePod took longer to come on the scene, but with its dedicated user base, they came up to speed in good time. The HomePod (controlling iPhones, iPads, Apple TV, and Apple Watch) relies upon Siri to take care of business. Siri also moonlights as DJ for iTunes and store manager for Apple Music; if you want to snag the latest and hottest album and play it on day one, Siri will make that happen for you.
With the Apple Watch having surpassed FitBit in sales, they have a captive crowd dying to have their smart devices working and playing together to best serve them. Its proprietary position on hardware makes it nearly impossible for outside companies to become an integral participant in Apple’s ambient computing model.
The Google Collection
Google is positioned quite differently than Apple and Amazon. When it comes to artificial intelligence and voice recognition (along with natural language processing and knowledge graph technologies), no one can outdo them. Also, with its fingers in the pies of Android devices and wearables, along with the fact that it has a greater mastery over language than any other group, and the even more salient point that “Google” is now a verb and synonymous with searching the Internet, it’s not surprising they have introduced their own suite of a products and services.
Even though it doesn’t get the same press as the Echo and HomePod, their Nest devices let its user create their own ambient computing systems. Their Google Nest products cover a wide spectrum of smart devices, including the Nest Hello Smart Wi-Fi Video Doorbell, Nest Learning Thermostat, Nest Secure Alarm System, and Nest Hub with Google Assistant.
The Future of Ambient Computing?
These three Goliaths may have carved the initial path of ambient computing, but other major players like Samsung and Microsoft as well as a slew of unknown upstarts are also flooding this insatiable market. Loyalists may stick to Apple and Amazon, but Google has already broken the proprietary rule by partnering with any and all developers and producers able to take advantage of their broad range of software and hardware. Many may adore and swear allegiance to Amazon or Apple, turning their homes and offices into extensions of their preferred brand, but there is another legion of users who prize their independence and enjoy stringing their own varied devices together instead of dedicating their homes and offices to a single company.
At Helpful Home, we are enthusiastic supporters and intrepid explorers of everything that forwards the agenda and future of ambient computing. We would love to hear from you, answer your questions, and share your tips and experiences with our other users.