Amazon will launch its Echo speaker range in Australia this week.

The big tech trend taking over Aussie homes

News Corp Australia
5th February 2019 8:50 AM
UPDATED 1:53 PM
premium_icon Subscriber only

AMAZON'S Alexa is becoming a serious part of Australian home life. 

It'll check the weather for you. It'll find a recipe for you. It'll turn the lights on and get Netflix queued up on the TV. It'll control your air-conditioning, your locks, your oven, your shower and even your dog's collar if you want it to.

The smart home speaker is one of a few from Silicon Valley's tech giants that are increasingly becoming must-have tech in Australia. 

As it turns out, we really like voice assistants.

News Regional sat down with Amazon vice-president of smart home Daniel Rausch to see why Alexa is taking over tech-savvy Aussie homes.

What sets voice apart for a smart home?

The concept of a smart home has been around a lot longer than Alexa. It's been promised in sci-fi for decades, and been toyed with by tech companies since at least the '70s. 

"If you pull back and just look at the history of smart home, you have a segment that was about to take off for literally decades," Rausch said. 

"Dating back to the '70s, you have your smart home system starting to appear."

More recently, smart phones stepped up the ability to control parts of the home. But Rausch said it didn't take off because it failed to actually make life easier. 

"It wasn't actually more convenient. It wasn't actually simpler," he said. 

"Then you have this voice moment. The interface is simple for the first time. You can all adopt it together, whomever you live with.

"We had this seachange moment where smart homes became actually useful." 

"Within weeks of Alexa launching, we saw customers using the to-do list to turn on the lights."

"These were smart home hacker types." 

In the three years to the end of 2017, Amazon developed Alexa and worked with other companies to create 4000 compatible devices. Things like light bulbs, fans and televisions gained built-in capability to work with the Alexa AI. 

By the end of 2018, it had exploded to 28,000 compatible devices. In 2019, Rausch expects the growth in voice-enabled devices to be even faster.

He said Alexa owners had proven that once they adopt voice activation, their habits don't go back. That includes Aussie users. 

"The appeal of voice access, the simplicity of voice control, the delight that you can get through just being able to ask a question and get an answer simply… or the simplicity of being able to set a kitchen timer while my pasta's cooking and my hands are full," Rausch said.

"These are moments where we observe customers worldwide changing their habits."

"That truly is a universal change." 

Samsung is also breaking into the smart home speaker market with its Galaxy Home, powered by Samsung's Bixby AI.
Samsung is also breaking into the smart home speaker market with its Galaxy Home, powered by Samsung's Bixby AI. Hannah Busch

How is Australia using smart home speakers?

Amazon has only been in the Australian market for a year, and Rausch said it was still early days.

But in a country where tech adoption tends to be slower than America or Europe, smart home speakers are proving popular. 

Rausch said Australians were particularly engaged with devices that manage energy use.

Unsurprisingly, Australians are keen to use smart thermostats. 

"We noted it in the data. You can see that it's popular," Rausch said.

Outside of energy management, Aussie users are much like their US and European counterparts. They want smart home speakers to turn on the lights, play music or get the weather forecast. 

In a few years, Rausch predicts interfaces like Alexa will be an even deeper part of home routines.

"The lights might come on automatically, the temperature might adjust for you. You can imagine where we're going."

"When we launched the first Echo, Alexa could do 13 things.

"So in a few short years, we've gone from 13 things to many millions of things." 

Amazon has already developed settings such as Alexa Hunch and are testing it among US users. The Hunch program allows Alexa to suggest things to do once it's gleaned enough information on user habits and home settings. It's designed to be used in moments of forgetfulness like leaving the lights on in a different room.

For users who might be creeped out by a smart home speaker that is a little too smart, the setting can be turned off.

It's not yet available in Australia but is expected to be here eventually, along with Amazon's other Alexa developments like the home-security feature Alexa Guard. 

Google had a big presence at CES 2019 to show off its smart home AI platform.
Google had a big presence at CES 2019 to show off its smart home AI platform. Hannah Busch

Smart home players

Amazon isn't the only one betting big on smart home speakers.

Google and Samsung both had a big presence at CES2019 in Las Vegas, where we met with Rausch.

Both companies are rivalling Amazon in the smart home speaker market with their own hubs and AI interfaces.

Google launched its home hub to the Australian market earlier than anyone else, with the first device appearing on Aussie shelves in July 2017. 

Samsung's Galaxy Home was revealed to the market last August and is larger but a little sleeker than its competitors. It uses Bixby, the same AI interface as Samsung's range of phones and promises better sound than many existing smart home speakers. But it doesn't yet have an Australian release date.

Apple is also going for a slice of the smart home market with its Apple HomePod speaker. Aimed at a higher-end market keen on sound, it'll set Aussie users back more than its rivals.   

Expect all of them to be increasingly adopted across Australia in coming years.

The writer travelled to Las Vegas as a guest of Samsung Australia.