This year, the dominant story in the smart home so far - and tech more broadly - is the Amazon Echo, Alexa and the growing excitement over voice interfaces. The tech industry has proclaimed this the era of the voice interface, and the exuberance has only intensified over the past month as Google announced their own smart home speaker/virtual assistant with a voice interface, Google Home.
As someone who's been researching next-gen interfaces for the past couple years, I wholeheartedly believe what Amazon and Google are doing here - as well as what Apple started before that with Siri - is game changing. That said, I also believe voice isn't the only interesting next-gen interface and would argue that visual interfaces could be just as important - in fairly short order - as voice in the home.
The first thing most think of when it comes to image-based interfaces for the home is the Kinect, Microsoft's motion recognition system which utilizes a camera for gesture recognition. While the Kinect was one of the first modern mass-market visual interfaces, I tend to think of the Kinect as more of a motion sensing controller system, while I see a visual interface as something bigger, something that ties together deep learning around image recognition, motion sensing, machine vision and AI to create an interface to tap into contextually driven recommendations and content, connected commerce, and smart-home powered scenes that leverage the visual interface's understanding of the consumer and environment around it. And its this bigger definition of the visual interface where I think Apple is poised to make the first big splash, as soon as possibly next week.
Why? Well, the most obvious indicator is the recent rumor that Apple has been developing an answer to the Amazon Echo and Alexa, and while many are focused on how it will perform as a voice virtual assistant, the rumors also stated the Apple device will have a camera. Most folks speculated this could mean Apple will come out with some sort of home security lite product, but I tend to think Apple's going to try and make to make its new smart home device the first whole home, smart home visual interface.
The second reason I think Apple is headed down this path is the company has quietly been making visual AI and machine learning acquisitions over the past year. The first was Perceptio, which had been developing AI based image recognition technologies. The acquisition largely flew under the radar at the time, but I think we may see some of the technologies developed by Perceptio show up next week at WWDC.
Perceptio wasn't the only visual machine learning company acquired by Apple, however. They also bought a company named Emotient earlier this year, which had been working on technology around facial recognition and human emotion recognition based on visual inputs.
Combine those two companies, and you have the foundation for a visual interface that would enable contextual experiences based on what it sees, whether that's playing the specific playlist for a person through Apple Music or turning on lights or unlocking the door using a HomeKit powered smart home.
Lastly, while I think Apple has lost a little of its mojo as of late, I still think the company is an innovator and a proud one at that. To simply create a voice-interface powered virtual assistant like the Echo just feels to me like it's not quite enough for a new Apple product.
So sure,while Apple may show a product that, like Echo, uses a voice interface like Siri to tap into the power of a virtual assistant, I also think Apple will very likely unveil what could be the first next-generation visual interface for the home next week at WWDC.
Michael Wolf is the Chief Analyst for NextMarket Insights, where he advises smart home, home security and IoT companies on business models and strategy.Subscribe to his newsletter to get posts like this in your inbox. Also, check out theSmart Kitchen Summit.