Who is the control center of the smart home system?

With the popularity of smart homes, more and more rooms are now equipped with smart speakers equipped with artificial intelligence functions, and their functions are basically the same. But what counts as a true control center for a smart home?

Mike Gilbert, head of terminal equipment of Texas Instruments personal Electronic product system, published an opinion article “Battle of Control Power – Who Is the Control Center of Smart Home Systems”, the following is the full text:

With the popularity of smart homes, more and more rooms are now equipped with smart speakers equipped with artificial intelligence functions, and their functions are basically the same. But what counts as a true control center for a smart home?

Recently, more and more digital assistant products such as Alexa and Google have appeared, and consumers have also begun to ask them to perform various tasks and provide relevant information about each room of the home. The first smart speaker (also known as artificial intelligence speaker), launched in late 2014, still dominates the nascent market. Smart speakers combine a wireless speaker system with an AI platform. At first, their main function was streaming music from the cloud. But over the past two years, smart speakers have added displays, cameras, streaming video and home automation to control lights, climate and anti-theft systems.

The emergence of this smart home ecosystem (Figure 1) has made a large number of smart devices in the home redundant. Recent additions such as displays and home automation have led to a change in the form factor of smart devices, and while not yet optimized for the needs of individual rooms, they appear to be becoming more suitable for specific rooms in the home. The smart home market is approaching a tipping point where smart speakers need to be able to adapt to a specific room and coexist with other room-optimized speakers.

Who is the control center of the smart home system?
Figure 1: Smart Home Control Center Ecosystem

Basic knowledge of smart speakers

All smart speakers contain the same basic components (Figure 2):

Who is the control center of the smart home system?
Figure 2: System block diagram of a typical smart speaker with a screen from TI showing the basic components of the smart speaker along with some of the latest additions

enter. Smart speakers use a micro-electromechanical system (MEMS) microphone to capture speech, while a digital signal processor (DSP) runs algorithms such as sound beamforming, noise and echo cancellation. Initial solutions used digital MEMS microphones to output the digitally converted bitstream to the DSP, but this approach sacrificed accuracy and dynamic range. Higher performance solutions use analog MEMS microphones and separate, highly integrated audio analog-to-digital converters (ADCs). These ADCs greatly increase dynamic range and reduce the number of microphones required.

output. The same DSP can also handle the decoding of the digital audio stream, implement the equalizer function and output the audio to the speaker amplifier. The newer loudspeakers use digital amplifiers with integrated DSP for equalization and tuning of specific electrical parameters. In addition, these small DSPs provide different levels of protection for the loudspeakers to maintain sound quality under adverse conditions such as overtemperature and undervoltage at the power output stage. Since the digital audio content is processed on-chip, these amplifiers can reduce power consumption by changing the modulation mode and controlling the path of the power stage (based on the audio content) to the output stage.

Connectivity. The primary form of connectivity required for all smart speakers is Wi-Fi®. Although audio streaming does not require 802.11ac bandwidth, it has become the de facto standard because many of the same system-on-chip (SoC) vendors offer video streaming SoCs. Wi-Fi radio frequency integrated circuits (ICs) typically also integrate Bluetooth®: It not only guarantees the basic rate (classic Bluetooth) for audio streaming of devices such as smartphones, but also covers Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) technology for control and communication between paired devices. With the advent of Bluetooth 5.0 technology, it is expected that there will be new compression profiles that support audio streaming, avoiding the use of classic Bluetooth technology. However, to maintain legacy compatibility, both technologies may be required for some time. Bluetooth 5.0 technology also supports mesh networking, which opens up a bright future for the migration of audio streams between different devices—the smart home of the future will only require one device to act as the audio hub.

add new element

To give consumers a unique user experience, designers add different functions to smart speakers. For example, using capacitive touchscreens in place of buttons allows for more intuitive controls, lower costs, and improved reliability. In some cases, haptic feedback allows consumers to maintain a familiar haptic experience. Since the smart speaker will have different modes (including responding to commands), the colorful LED lighting modes provide visual feedback and add some light to the product. In addition, designers can add ambient light sensors to adjust the output brightness, from the bright light mode during the day to the dark mode at night, to further enhance the user experience.

Next, let’s take a look at some room-specific smart speaker capabilities based on the inherent capabilities of the room and the immediate needs of consumers:

bedroom

As previously mentioned, additional functionality can cause the smart speaker to change its form factor to suit a particular room in the home. For example, a speaker with an LED Display looks like an alarm clock, which is intended for use in a bedroom environment. At this point, Display size and resolution are not important factors, as the display just looks like an alarm clock. But it’s important to adjust the LED brightness based on day and night usage, which requires adding an ambient light sensor.

There is a proportional relationship between speaker size and amplifier power and smaller rooms. Because these rooms are usually quiet, the distance between the speaker and the consumer can be between 1 and 4 meters, and designers can reduce the number of microphones and the complexity of speech recognition algorithms accordingly. If the speaker is in a room where privacy is more of a priority (like a bedroom), the designer may not need a video-calling camera for it.

Since these speakers are usually placed on a bedside table or desk where AC power is readily available, battery power is not essential. However, given the placement of these speakers, it makes sense to add battery charging, which can charge smartphones and smartwatches via USB or wirelessly. Finally, consumers need the ability to connect and control lights, thermostats and security systems at these locations.

kitchen and office

Large speakers with flat-Panel-sized LED displays or short-throw projection displays (Figure 3) are a better option for kitchens or offices. Display resolution is important here, but space is also a priority in mechanical design. Consumers can use Texas Instruments (TI) DLP®Technology’s short-throw projection monitor speakers, placed against a wall or under a counter, for greater imaging in a smaller enclosed area when projecting on a wall or countertop. But designers also need to consider the possibility of placing these speakers next to strong ambient light, such as windows, so speakers placed on kitchen islands or desks need backlit LED displays.

Who is the control center of the smart home system?
Figure 3: Smart speakers with projection displays in the kitchen or office add video capabilities to help create a more immersive experience for users

Installed in one of these locations, consumers can stream high-resolution video to watch recipe videos or TV shows, browse the news or see who’s at the front door. These smart speakers require cameras for video chat and the ability to control lights and thermostats.

While a kitchen or office may not be bigger than a bedroom, it may be moving around or doing a variety of activities or requiring high-fidelity sound, which creates a need for louder speakers and more powerful audio amplifiers. In design, there may be a trade-off between the number of microphones and the complexity of the speech recognition algorithm, shorter distances between microphones, and higher ambient noise levels.

The power consumption of video streaming and display or projection makes battery operation impractical, but the monitor’s larger body size should alleviate thermal issues to some extent.

living room

For nearly a century, the living room has been the center of multimedia news and home entertainment. Today, living rooms include a plethora of wired and wireless devices with which we can interact.

Today’s cable or satellite set-top boxes (or emerging Internet Protocol TVs and set-top boxes), TVs, sound bars and even remote controls, all of these devices interact in some way (including wireless connectivity). Each device has a specific role in the living room and coexists harmoniously with each other.

But smart speakers in the living room and entertainment devices with the addition of artificial intelligence have changed all that. Designers of traditional living room equipment have had to scramble to add artificial intelligence capabilities and (at a relatively slow pace) home automation. This causes the functions of the devices to “step on” each other, creating confusion and potential frustration for consumers, especially when the products do not share the same AI platform.

The battle over the AI ​​control center has set off a wave of competition among manufacturers of audio and video SoCs, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity ICs, audio ICs, MEMS microphones and speakers. However, it is difficult for consumers to imagine how so many devices can coexist, and it is difficult for them to know which device will process which command and which device will provide audio feedback.

In the long run, if the room is larger, having multiple devices with microphones is not a bad thing. If arranged properly, as long as the devices can communicate with each other, the overall beamforming and speech recognition accuracy can be greatly improved. Each device needs to work together, assign (and allow) a single device to communicate with the cloud, and then decide which device will output the audio results. This is not so much a hardware challenge as it is a major challenge in terms of connectivity and AI platforms. This situation requires a mesh network, where each device is registered in the network, adding protocols to the AI ​​platform to determine which devices output audio responses and perform designed functions. With Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and Zigbee protocols all in play, you can see what a tough challenge this is. Adding 5G technology could add to the confusion — but it could also point to answers, which is debatable.

Who will be the winner?

TV makers would argue that TVs are clearly the primary choice for home control centers, but that TVs are not as good as 3D sound technology in terms of audio quality and speaker count, and fail to live up to consumer expectations. Set-top boxes also face the same audio challenges. Standalone smart speakers aren’t connected to a TV, so they’re not the best option either. And the only remaining device in the living room that plays all the media is the soundbar.

Sound bars including Wi-Fi set-top boxes (IPTV) are now available. Consumers can buy these soundbars at retail stores, which offer OTT streaming video-on-demand to anyone who buys a subscription. Other soundbars can be purchased from multi-system operators that offer live TV coverage. Regardless of the type of soundbar, they can integrate an AI voice recognition system, high-fidelity 3D audio and streaming TV. Soon, they will be able to integrate home automation radios and protocols, such as Zigbee, which adjusts dim lighting, and cameras, which transmit real-time information from security systems or video chats.

While this ecosystem of automated smart home control centers doesn’t exactly exist in this form today, it’s coming to us soon. It is the responsibility of the designers of these systems to always revolve around the consumer experience, developing hardware and software to optimize the devices to be placed in the room and to collaborate with other devices through a seamless mesh network between rooms. Systems with this capability will gain a foothold in the market and help the market grow at its current rate (from 1 million in 2015 to 165 million in 2024, a CAGR of over 11%)[1]. And those systems that don’t have that feature will follow 3D glasses on a second-hand sale.

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