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By Thomas Baekdal - September 2018

Smart Voice Assistants and Smart Homes ... from the past

One of the big trends that many publishers are talking about is the future of voice and the whole trend around connected smart devices in our homes. But, since it's Friday, I want to show you something slightly geeky, but also quite funny. It's about the history of smart home automation ... from 20-40 years ago.

One of the amazing things that we see today is how much that is happening regarding smart devices and assistants like Apple Siri/HomeKit, Google Home/Assistant, Amazon Alexa, and Microsoft Cortana.

You can now tell your phone to unlock your front door, to turn off the lights, to play some music, to buy groceries or, from a publishing perspective, to read the news to you. And, because of this, many publishers are now putting together teams to figure out how to do something with this new market.

This is all very interesting, but what's funny is how none of this is that new.

Sure, we are now reaching a point where the technology has gotten sophisticated enough to be useful, and where the form-factor is starting to make sense. But the trend is very old.

I was reminded by this when I came across a wonderful video on YouTube (embedded below) about the X-10 Powerhouse home automation system from 1975. And also the Hal2000 'voice-controlled' assistant from the 1990s (using the same technology).

So, what could you do with these? Well, you could do all kinds of things. You could control your electrical devices (like your lights), you could get the latest traffic reports, stock quotes, news stories, or TV listings ... by voice!

This was Alexa 20-40 years ago.

Below is the video I talked about. It's 20 minutes long, but if you are interested in this 'new' trend of home automation and voice assistants, you should watch it. Not only is it quite fun to see how far we actually were 20-40 years ago, and how little has actually changed with the modern devices that we see today. But also, this tells you a lot about how trends evolve.

And remember to see the last part of it where he tries out the voice commands. So funny.


Isn't this amazing?

So, the trends usually aren't new.

Instead, trends happen in several stages over a very long time.

First, we have the 'imagine if...' stage of a trend, where we have no idea how to do something, but we wish it were possible.

The second stage is the early invention stage, where we actually figure out how to do something technically, but it's very inefficient and it doesn't fit into how people would use something, so it never really takes off.

This is then followed by a very long and often very slow 'incubation period' where the trend just simmers in the background of people's minds. This period can last 20 years (or more) ... like in this case.

Finally, we then get to the 'let's make it work' period of the trend, where people already know how to do something, but now they are trying to find a way to solve the problem of actually making it work in a way that is useful to people. This part of the trend phase is fascinating because now we are not talking about technology anymore, but about people's habits and consumption patterns.

This is where we are today with Amazon Alexa. The technology is already here. But now the big question is how to make it useful and how to adjust it to fit into the right moments of people's lives.

And, finally, we have the 'new normal' phase of a trend, where it's now just something we use without really thinking about it.

We are not quite there yet with smart home automation or voice assistants, but we are getting there. But as you can see from the video above, this trend has been coming for a very long time. And this is true for every trend.

The key is to understanding where we are in this process. And for voice, we are now in the nearly final phase where it isn't about inventing the technology anymore, but all about figuring out how to make it useful.

So, as a publisher, your new 'voice' team shouldn't focus on experimenting with how to invent the technology as if this trend is an entirely new thing that we have never seen before. They should instead focus their time thinking about people and your audience.

In other words, we already know 'how', and the technology is already refined enough to be useful, but now we need to figure out 'why'.

Why would people use this? Why would it create value for your audience? Why would they have a moment like this?


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Thomas Baekdal

Founder, media analyst, author, and publisher. Follow on Twitter

"Thomas Baekdal is one of Scandinavia's most sought-after experts in the digitization of media companies. He has made ​​himself known for his analysis of how digitization has changed the way we consume media."
Swedish business magazine, Resumé


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