Are cloud-based voice assistants doomed? This seems like a very interesting question to ask if you look at the current state of millions of users of Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa, and Apple’s Siri, but we’re not sure of the future. Google and Amazon backed away from voice assistants recently, with Amazon firing a large portion of the Alexa team due to losing $10 billion a year. Google isn’t quite in the “shoot everyone” phase, but it’s said to be less interested in supporting Assistant on third-party devices, which would be a crippling move given Google’s tiny hardware division. Everyone built these systems with the assumption that the revenue stream would come later, but that revenue never came, and it’s starting to look like the bubble is bursting.
One project that relies heavily on voice assistants at Big Tech isn’t sitting around and waiting for doomsday. The Home Assistant team announces 2023 as the “Voice Assistant Year of the Home Assistant.” This is basically a groundbreaking smart home project that says, “If these voice assistants in the cloud don’t provide Big Tech with a multi-billion dollar revenue stream, that’s okay, we’ll do it ourselves!” There are a few emerging and already open source voice assistant projects, but the Home Assistant team has proven that it can handle a big project. It has a huge, thriving community and enough revenue to have full-time employees, making it a frontrunner for a viable local audio service.
Plus Home Assistant didn’t start from scratch — it went and found the so-called “most promising” open-source voice assistant, “Rhasspy,” and hired lead developer, Mike Hansen, to work full-time on voice in Home Assistant. Hassan will now work for Nabu Casa, the marketing company for Home Assistant. According to Home Assistant founder Paulus Schoutsen, “Rhasspy stands out from other open source audio projects because Mike doesn’t focus solely on the English language. Instead, his goal is to make it work for everyone. This is great as Rhasspy already supports 16 different languages today.” The plan is to support all 62 languages that Home Assistant currently supports, but with voice, all without the need for an internet connection.
Schoutsen says the Home Assistant will keep the scope of the project “manageable” for the time being and will “limit the number of possible actions and focus on the essentials of interacting with your smart home. No web searches, voice calls or gaming.” There is some way the Home Assistant community can use additional features on it, and then it will quickly swell into a Hal 9000 imitation and do a million other extra things.
The problem with all of Big Tech’s audio services is that they have no way of generating ongoing revenue. They really have no way of showing ads, and nobody wants another subscription service. They do generate an ongoing cost, though, due to the server time needed to process all of those voice communications. Google and Amazon exacerbated the problem by selling their audio devices at cost in a bid to win over the voice assistant rush, while hoping an additional revenue stream would come later. Apple launched a high-end Siri speaker, the HomePod, in 2018 at a then-shocking price of $350, but in retrospect that seems more sustainable than what Amazon and Google were doing.
It seems that Google tried to solve this problem with its second-generation speakers, which moved “some” of the audio processing to local chips. Moving some audio processing out of the cloud will reduce server time, but it’s not clear if that’s enough to meet Google’s incredibly high standards for continued product support.
Moving the voice assistant to the host environment yourself allows you to pay those costs at a reasonable price (some kind of hardware to start up and then just the electric bill) without having to worry about the weird and shifting priorities of the Big Tech ecosystem. There are likely to be a host of other benefits as well. The local voice assistant would be great for privacy, and you won’t feel like you’re constantly eavesdropping on the internet in your home 24/7. Home Assistant also proves to keep all of those local results in a much faster experience for your smart home, and Google said the same about limited local voice processing.
Home Assistant already has a text-only “conversation” command system, so it’s a matter of building that and wiring it to the voice input and output. What isn’t clear about this is a hardware solution outside of the usual “stack of wires and circuit boards” that usually dominates open source smart home projects. Part of what makes Google Assistant and Alexa so popular is their selection of good-looking speaker/microphone combos that you can spread around the house without looking like a mad scientist. Home Assistant marketing company Nabu Casa has been filling this hardware gap lately, making plug-and-play server boxes and dongles to bring things like Matter support to the Home Assistant ecosystem. Maybe the speaker can fire.
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