Voice Control for Home

The four DIY voice platforms trying to permeate the home currently are:

 


 

Alexa

  • Benefits: Controls more third-party devices than any other platform, and integrates cleanly with Amazon shopping. It also recognizes different voices and adjusts to the behavior of each user.
  • Challenges: Prone to mistakes, struggles to execute multiple commands in a row and is barely available on your smartphone.
  • Conclusion: While Amazon’s platform is the most broadly compatible, the control it provides is relatively shallow. Combined with weak speech recognition, Alexa tends to disappoint beyond basic needs.

 


 

Google Assistant

  • Benefits: Recognizes natural language better than any other, and handles multiple command strings impressively. Like Alexa, it recognizes multiple voice profiles.
  • Challenges: Integrates with far fewer devices than Alexa, and requires a slightly more cumbersome wake word (“OK Google…”)
  • Conclusion: While behind Alexa in its breadth of compatibility, Google Assistant still integrates with the most sought-after products (Nest, Hue, Sonos), and controls them more intuitively than any other platform thanks to its natural speech recognition.

 


 

Siri

  • Benefits: Thoughtfully integrates with Apple products (especially Apple TV), as well as the limited number of HomeKit-compatible devices.
  • Challenges: Integrates poorly outside of the Apple ecosystem, limits users to a single voice profile, and struggles to execute multiple command strings.
  • Conclusion: The obvious choice for the Apple loyalist, Siri’s mediocre performance becomes almost unusable when trying to integrate products outside of Apple.

 


 

Bixby

  • Benefits: Recognizes natural language second only to Google, and handles multiple command strings beautifully.
  • Challenges: Integrates with far fewer devices than Alexa, and comes built into far fewer products than Alexa or Google Assistant.
  • Conclusion: A surprisingly capable platform despite being the least known of the group, Bixby becomes a sensible option for owners of newer Samsung appliances and/or TVs, with which it integrates smoothly.

 


 

Typical Use Cases

Music

Google Assistant, Siri and Bixby are all available in their own powerful speaker (Home Max, HomePod and Galaxy Home respectively), while Alexa comes in a variety of weaker-performing speakers. However, Alexa is built directly into SONOS, the leaders in wireless audio (Google Assistant is expected to follow suit by end of 2018.)

Bixby has a long-term partnership with Spotify that promises deeper integration than the competition, while the rest favor their own music streaming services (Apple Music, Amazon Music and Google Play Music.) However, Apple is the only platform that really tries to lock you into its music service.

 


 

Video

Alexa and Google Assistant integrate with their own streaming dongles (Fire TV and Chromecast), but Google prevents YouTube from natively working on Fire TV while Amazon prevents Prime Video from working natively on Chromecast. Otherwise, they offer the same Apps (Netflix, HBO GO, etc.)

Siri wins by integrating with Apple TV, which is the superior streaming device thanks to its smooth control and intuitive cross-App search.

Bixby is a built-in feature in 2018 Samsung Smart TVs, eliminating the need for a separate device altogether. It also overlays search results (TV shows, Spotify, weather) without obstructing what you’re currently watching.

 


 

Lights, etc.

While Alexa integrates with the most third-party brands, all four platforms integrate with DIY leaders Philips Hue and Lutron Caseta.

More advanced systems for lighting, shading and the rest of the home should be controlled by a smarthome platform. All leading smarthome platforms can now trigger scenes and make adjustments using Alexa and Google Assistant.

 


 

Just For Your Home

Josh AI

While the platforms discussed above try to tackle voice for every application, Josh AI’s singular goal is to master home control. This comes with a few advantages:

  1. Natural language recognition – Since other platforms are listening for every command possible, they require very specific phrasing to categorize and identify your request, rejecting minor variations. Josh AI only cares about your home, allowing more leniency in how you phrase things (“Turn the lights up” = “Make it brighter” = “Lights brighter.“)
  2. Context awareness – Saying “turn the lights on” in the bedroom shouldn’t turn on the whole home. Asking for The Beatles should assume you’re asking for music. Playing ‘Mad Men’ should assume you’d like to resume where you left off last time. Josh AI’s limited focus allows them to accomplish this contextual awareness more elegantly than other platforms.
  3. Privacy flexibility – Josh AI can be switched into conversation mode where it listens to everything you say, allowing you to think out loud as you control your home without constantly using the wake word. Conversely, your privacy can be tightened up with a mode that listens after the wake word but saves nothing to its servers.

Thanks to Alex Capecelatro (CEO of Josh AI) for sitting down with us.

 


 

Other Questions?

Get in touch with us and we’ll be happy to help.

Explained: LED Lighting

When we sat down with lighting expert Gary Gordon, he pointed out 3 common issues in homes and offices:

1. The wrong quantity of light.
2. The space is over-fixtured.
3. There is too much glare.
Here are some important concepts to be aware of before designing your next space:

 


 

Watts vs Lumens

Watts measure power consumption. Lumens measure brightness.

After phasing out power-hungry incandescent bulbs, the two popular choices are compact fluorescent (CFL) and light-emitting diode (LED.) LEDs can put out more lumens using fewer watts. They also last longer and emit less heat. 

 


 

Color Temperature

The warmness or coolness of white light, measured in Kelvin.
  • Warm Light: Anything below 3,500K begins to have a yellowish appearance. This has a calming effect, likely due to our evolutionary attraction to fire.
  • Cool light: Anything above 3,500K begins to have a bluish appearance. Great for focus but terrible for rest, as it controls your circadian clock by reducing melatonin.
CFLs used to provide a warmer, more natural temperature than LED. This is no longer the case as LEDs can be tuned to simulate CFLs, and even adjust throughout the day for a natural feel at all times. 

 


 

Illuminance vs Luminance

Illuminance measures how much light falls onto a surface. Luminance measures how brightly that light reflects off of the surface.

Lighting designers measure lumens per square foot (often referred to as lux or foot-candles) to determine ideal brightness around a room. Ideal illuminance is determined by a space’s purpose, while attention to luminance can help avoid glare and its debilitating effects. 

 


 

Color Rendering

How accurately a light reveals the various colors around the room. Comparing how colors are perceived when illuminated by your light source versus a natural light source like the sun, accuracy is rated on a scale of 1 – 100. This is called the Color Rendering Index (CRI.)

Both fluorescent and LED bulbs vary in CRI from low 60s to high 90s. Lights closer to 60 can appear different from each other even out of the same box. We recommend using lights with a CRI above 90.

 


 

Our Visit to Ketra

With dozens of patents and a remarkable approach to LED lighting, we wanted to check out Ketra as soon as possible to see what all the hype was about. Watch the video to see our experience.

 


 

Other Questions?

Get in touch with us and we’ll be happy to help.

Explained: Cables

Category Cable

The standard for data, every new version gets better at transmitting more of it with less interference. Manufacturers must abide by these standards so that everything works together.
  • Cat5e: The standard of the early 2000s, and the current cheapest way to get up to 1 Gbps of bandwidth (less after 55 meters.)
  • Cat6: 10x faster at 10 Gbps, but dwindles after only 37 meters.
  • Cat6a: Extends that 10 Gbps to a reliable 100 meters.
  • Cat7: 10x faster again at 100 Gbps, but bandwidth drops off after 15 meters and it has one glaring flaw: There is still no industry standard for it. Manufacturers aren’t using Cat7 and another standard might come along before they adopt.
Category cables are backward compatible and use the lowest common denominator of the devices they connect. Speed is limited by the weakest component in your system.

 


 

Fiber

The future of data uses pulses of light instead of waves. Benefits over category cable include immunity to electromagnetic interference, improved security, and the ability to travel much longer distances.

Downsides include price and its inability to carry power (category cable can run power along with data to minimize clutter around many of your devices.)

While fiber is the best choice for future proofing, it’s also the best for 4K video over 100 feet. Anything shy of fiber will compress the color sampling to a noticeable degree.

 


 

HDMI

The current standard for carrying video, audio and basic control short distances across a single wire. It’s not reliable beyond 15 feet (you can find 50 feet high end options with varying levels of reliability), which is why we find it in home theater setups where all components are right next to the TV.

A work-around here is to use a balun or network extender, which converts the HDMI signal to a category cable which you run at a longer distance. Then you convert it back to HDMI at the other end.

 


 

Coaxial (RG6 / RCA)

Mostly found between your wall and the cable box, RG6 connections are problematic but exist because your cable company needs to encrypt the content they deliver for copyright protection.

RG6 is not relevant for TV connections anymore unless you want to use the built-in over air antenna, but we still use RG6 for extending digital audio connections (S/PDIF) and sending line level analog audio to devices like subwoofers and powered speakers.

RCA cables are also technically coaxial cables, and still the standard for unbalanced analog audio sources, like turntables.

 


 

Optical / TOSLINK

TOSLINK is a specific type of fiber cable for audio only. Most songs are delivered digitally yet amplifiers are inherently analog, so the signal has to get converted somewhere. Unfortunately most devices do not convert it well. To keep your signal digital until it reaches a digital audio converter (usually called DAC for short) that knows what it’s doing, optical is a smart interconnect.

 


 

Speaker Cables

The connections between amp and speakers, their effect on sound has been the subject of great debate. We do know that thicker gauge cable will move power better over longer distances (we avoid going over 150 feet in general.) We also know that you need to have high quality components for the speaker cable to have any audible impact at all.

We use 14/4 speaker cable as a standard for all in-wall and in-ceiling speaker runs. 14 stands for the gauge and 4 is the amount of conductors.

 


 

Lighting & Shading

These systems require proprietary cables that run two conductors for power, as well as two conductors for communication. Explore more about Lighting & Shading, or get in touch with us with questions.

 


 

Other Questions?

Get in touch with us and we’ll be happy to help.

New Hire: Michael Dye

This month we’re thrilled to announce the addition of Michael Dye to our team as our new Architect Specialist. Michael has racked up over a decade of experience with Magnolia as a Project Manager, System Designer and Consultation Agent for end users and trade professionals.

Our Architect Specialist role demands a tricky combination of technical prowess and relationship management; A resource who can add real tangible value to the Architects and Designers we interface with on our projects. After meeting Michael it was clear that his passion for the industry, sharpness and absence of ego made him a fit for our culture. However it was his mock AIA Presentation that affirmed Architect Specialist as the ideal role in which to apply his talents.

Michael is well-versed and formally trained in many of our key brand partners (Lutron, McIntosh Labs, Bowers & Wilkins, Control4.) More importantly, he shares Cloud9’s philosophy on technology: Excitement over it’s potential, balanced with a healthy dose of practicality; A bridge between the bleeding edge and everyday life.

Also, we can nerd out with him on speakers and control interfaces. He’ll fit right in.

Conversation: Reddymade

We had the pleasure of chatting with Suchi Reddy of Reddymade Architecture & Design recently. She’s a risk-taker in the A&D field, and of particular interest to us was her drive to push new materials and their properties on projects. Her team in SoHo has conceived of and executed a wide gamut of projects across continents. Take a look at the highlights of our interview in the below video.

Explained: Your Network

Both the most boring and most important part of the connected home. There are three ways to go:

  • Default: Whatever your Internet service provider gives you. All all-in-one box for wired and wireless Internet.
  • Mesh: A collection of small boxes that plug in around your home for stronger, more intelligent coverage.
  • Wired Mesh: A collection of small boxes each hard-wired to your Internet for even stronger more reliable coverage.

Default

least tailored, weakest performance

  • Benefits: Easiest to set up and a single point of troubleshooting.
  • Challenges: A single broadcast point means weaker Wi-Fi the farther away you are. They typically run on default bandwidths, causing competition between neighbors.
  • Conclusion: Adequate for small spaces with one or two devices and no interference (we’ll cover interference later.)

 


 

Mesh

medium tailored, medium performance

  • Benefits: Reasonably DIY, and most decisions happen seamlessly in the background (best frequencies to be on, hand-offs between nodes, etc.)
  • Challenges: Wireless repeaters only repeat the signal that makes it to them, so signal weakens with distance. Also, tech support tends to be very limited.
  • Conclusion: An impressively customizable solution for small to medium-sized homes with a modest number of connected devices.

 


 

Two of the most popular mesh network systems are Google Wifi and Eero. Both offer pretty advanced network settings, grant guest access without sharing your password, let you set bandwidth priority and parental controls. Both are easy to set up and use a really simple App. With a cheaper price and slightly more reliable performance, our preference goes to Google Wifi

 


 

Wired Mesh

  • Benefits: Wiring your access points gives each the strongest connection to broadcast, no matter location. More advanced controls handle large numbers of devices elegantly, as well as the ability to log into each device individually for troubleshooting.
  • Challenges: Wiring takes away the ability to tweak locations later, calling for heat mapping ahead of time to determine where to place access points.
  • Conclusion: The most powerful and reliable approach to home networking. Also the most expensive. Ideal for users with many connected devices or an intolerance for signal drops.

 


Frequency

The two standards for wireless are 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz:
  • 2.4 GHz: Longer distance but slower speeds.
  • 5 GHz: Faster speeds but shorter distances.

2.4 GHz has been a standard for longer. The benefit is backward compatibility. The downside is it tends to get crowded (only 11 channels vs 23 on the 5 GHz range.)

The flaw with 5 GHz is that the higher frequency has trouble going through solid objects like walls and flooring.

The ideal setup is to make sure there are enough access points and run 5 GHz on all of them, while running 2.4 GHz separately for older devices.

 


 

Interference

Microwaves, baby monitors and cordless phones all run on the 2.4 GHz spectrum and can cause interference. Concrete, metal and mirror can cause major interference as well. Finally, nearby Wi-Fi networks on the same spectrum will be competing for bandwidth.

The ideal setup is to test your space ahead of time for potential issues and spread your access points strategically. Once installed, the system should scan and use the least populated spectrum.

 


 

All-in-one Devices

Putting a router, repeater and wireless access point into the same chassis is convenient but flawed, as interference can occur within its own crowded internal components.

Think audio – Separate components (pre-amp, amplifier, turntable) can isolate vibrations and deliver cleaner sound than an all-in-one box. We find the all-in-one solution is sufficient for around 70% of homes.

 


 

Our Preferences

For residences, we like Pakedge for its ability to group and prioritize categories of devices, and remedy issues remotely before they are noticed.

For commercial, we like Cisco Meraki for its granular control packaged in a clean interface, and for Cisco’s extremely fast reaction time to the last Wi-Fi breach.

We also prefer wireless access points that are powered over Ethernet, as running both power and Ethernet to each device can end up looking cluttered.

 


 

Other Questions?

Get in touch with us and we’ll be happy to help.