Canadian firms place bets on Amazon Alexa to lift smart home, office markets

It’s likely that many Canadians will be unwrapping either a Google Home or Amazon Echo out from under the tree this year, and some Canadian firms are betting the devices will serve as a Trojan Horse for a new connected ecosystem.

Google Assistant has been available in Canada on Google Home since the Spring and more recently with the Google Home Mini. With Amazon’s Alexa joining it with several Echo devices this winter, the market for access to smart assistants backed by speakers with far-field microphones has caught up to the situation south of the border. Having access to a voice-first interface has spurred the smart home market in the U.S.

Grand View Research Inc. forecasts the voice recognition market to reach $127 billion worldwide by 2024. It is predicting that growth thanks in part to smart home appliances driving demand for a voice-based assistant. (It’s just easier to ask Alexa to turn on your lights than to pull a smartphone out of your pocket, open up an app, etc.) But the proliferation of voice-based assistants won’t be limited to the confines of the home, according to Boulder, Co.-based research firm Tractica LLC. It predicts the number of enterprise users will rise from 155 million in 2015 to 843 million by 2021, representing $15.8 billion in revenue.

Two Toronto-based firms haven’t been sitting around waiting for Amazon to officially support Alexa in Canada. Smart thermostat maker Ecobee has built Alexa’s voice service into its latest ecobee4 model. On the smart office front, digital developer Myplanet has a Virtual Receptionist solution that it’s marketed as an improvement over having an empty front desk.

Expect to see smart home devices become more common now that more smart speaker options are available in Canada, says Casey McKinnon, vice-president of product at Ecobee.

“By creating this frictionless experience in the home around these smart home devices, it eliminates problems that some people have around the control and connectivity of many different devices,” she says. “This is considered almost basic technology now in the U.S. and now that Canadians have access to it, smart home technology will become much more commonplace.”

On the enterprise front, it’s early days for the adoption of the devices in Canada, says Greg Fields, chief product officer at Myplanet. But after the agency’s clients showed a lot of interest in the Virtual Receptionist solution that it had built to fill the empty front desk at its own office, it started offering it as a product. Myplanet says the Virtual Receptionist could be implemented with Google Home or Apple HomePod smart speakers in the future.

“Having Alexa available in Canada means we have an inexpensive high-quality, voice-based AI device that you can put anywhere and start trialing use cases,” he says. “Most Canadian brands have thought about using voice-based applications but don’t have an office champion.”

Myplanet’s Virtual Receptionist can welcome visitors as they enter the front office and answer frequently asked questions about the business. By integrating with an Office 365 or G Suite user list, the software can also help with visitor triage – alerting employees they should come to meet a client or a courier, for example.

Offering the Virtual Assistant is a great conversation starter for Myplanet, which can help its clients build any number of different digital experiences for their employees or customers. But the lead-capture form that invites prospective clients to submit configuration requests shows that there’s a lot of education still needed in the marketplace.

“Most people ask us for an Apple Homepod with G Suite being run on it,” he says. But Apple hasn’t even released HomePod this year and won’t until early 2018.

Still, Fields sees big opportunities for the voice-first assistant field in the enterprise as familiarity is gained with the new devices.

“If these devices do their jobs, it gives us the opportunity to take the tasks that are repeatable and allow a machine to do that instead,” he says. “That gives us more time as Canadians to focus on the things that are really important to us.”

As for Ecobee, it says it’s committed to integrating Alexa Voice Servie into its future products, including smart light switches that it will release in the New Year.

Notes contributed by Alex Radu

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Brian Jackson
Brian Jackson
Editorial director of IT World Canada. Covering technology as it applies to business users. Multiple COPA award winner and now judge. Paddles a canoe as much as possible.

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