The Cortana smart home: Your need to know on Microsoft's voice assistant

Would you let Microsoft's AI assistant into your home?

The Cortana smart home

You can already talk to Cortana, Microsoft's digital, voice based assistant, in your home using your smartphone or PC. This is different, though. Last year Microsoft unveiled its plans, after months of teasing, for a Cortana powered smart home. The real deal. It's not letting Amazon have all the fun anymore.

This space is already pretty crowded with Alexa, Google Assistant and Siri jostling for our attention and playing nice with pretty much every gadget and appliance we might allow into our apartments or houses. So Microsoft has plenty of catching up to do and it's not level yet.

Microsoft reckons 145 million people already use Cortana and it does have some advantages over the rest; for instance, it integrates with Microsoft software which could be really useful for work planning.

To start using Cortana in your home, it's worth noting that you need to first be running the Cortana app on your phone - iPhone (iOS 8.0 or higher), Android (4.1.2 or higher) or Windows Phone (Windows 10) - or else on your PC (Windows 10).

Here's what you need to know about how Cortana works in the home.

Cortana and the smart home: Your essential guide

What can Cortana do?

So what can Cortana do in the smart home in 2018? We'll run down a few features that are arriving with the Harman Kardon Invoke (below) as this is what we expect to see from most Cortana devices from now on. If the features list looks familiar, that's because how Cortana works in the home is very similar to Alexa and Google Voice.

The main features are as follows: you can control things like your music, smart thermostat and smart lights via Cortana voice commands and you can ask questions and receive answers from the web - check the news, weather and traffic, set reminders and manage your calendars.

Cortana uses natural language processing so like the other AI assistants, you should be able to have a conversation with it rather than barking specific commands. For instance, it knows that "I need a taxi" and "call me a cab" mean the same thing. Cortana is generally quite accurate at voice recognition though we'll be testing it thoroughly when we get our first smart speaker in for review.

One of the most interesting features is Skype calls. Cortana devices in the home will let you make Skype voice calls to landlines, mobile phones and other Skype devices. This shows that it's bringing Cortana on a par with Amazon and Google which have both just announced a similar voice calling feature. Like these two rivals, Microsoft may limit this feature to block incoming calls being sent to your home speaker. Makes sense.

As for new-ish Cortana features, Cortana is now able to sort through your emails - even a mix of work Outlook mail and personal Gmail, say - and then read out summaries of the most important ones to you (very Her).

Cortana and the smart home: Your essential guide

Cortana Skills

As with Alexa Skills, Cortana is getting its own set of Skills to expand the smart home controls available through the Cortana devices.

Cortana Skills, like Google Assistant's Actions, will be available without the user needing to download them and there will be a Skill directory to discover new third party services. And if you give your permission Cortana can use what it learns about your preferences and schedule to tweak recommendations and experiences.

The Skills Kit went live in public preview in February 2017 for developers so by the time we see the first device(s) this fall, there should be plenty to get going with. Microsoft is also trying to woo devs who have already been involved with Alexa by creating a simple method, using its Bot Framework, to port Amazon Skills over to Cortana Skills.

At Microsoft's Build conference last year, we got a few early names with 46 Skills at launch. Weather app Dark Sky is on board so you could say "Hey Cortana, ask Dark Sky for today's weather forecast" to start using it. There's also already a Domino's Skill so you can start ordering pizza once you've linked an account. (That's the only sort of setup required).

The early preview list also included Skills for OpenTable, TuneIn, iHeartRadio, Food Network, StubHub and Skyscanner. Since then we've seen bigger names including Spotify, Fitbit and Expedia join the Cortana club - there's also a lot of smaller/naffer Skills - and a decent selection of smart home names - Nest, Insteon, Philips Hue, Wink and Samsung SmartThings.

A nice new feature is skills chaining which allows Cortana to link together common actions. The example Microsoft uses is that if you book tickets to an event, Cortana can suggest you add it to your calendar.

Cortana and the smart home: Your essential guide

Cortana devices

Here, Microsoft is way behind Amazon and Google - all talk and (almost) no tech. So far we have one Cortana powered smart home speaker that has been properly launched, in the form of the Harman Kardon Invoke. It's a cylindrical smart speaker that was released in the US at the end of 2017.

The metallic-looking Invoke comes in two colours - Pearl Silver and Graphite Black - and features a blue, glowing light on the top. This is referred to as 'Cortana lighting' but Harman also talks about a 'touch to surprise' user interface on the top of the speaker.

Harman Kardon refers to it as a voice activated speaker with all the features listed above. The Invoke projects sound at 360-degrees and Harman promises that the sound will fill a large room. Indeed, in our best smart speaker test, the Invoke's sound was far superior to the Amazon Echo.

The Cortana speaker also features Harman's 360 Sonique far-field voice recognition tech which uses seven microphones, together with noise reduction and echo cancellation to pick up what you're saying even when it's noisy.

The Cortana smart home: Your need to know on Microsoft's AI assistant

The second Cortana device we know about is Johnson Controls' future-retro looking Glas smart thermostat.

As well as voice controls and that 5.9-inch semi-transparent OLED display, it runs Windows 10 IOT Core and features include checking and changing the temperature (obviously) plus getting info on energy data, weather, calendars and also air quality. Glas will cost $319 when it goes up for pre-order in March.

What's coming next

More Cortana devices are coming, that's what. We know that HP is building its own Cortana powered smart speaker but that's still shrouded in mystery. Partners including Intel, Qualcomm, Allwinner, Synaptics and Tonly are helping to build reference designs for Cortana in the home too.

More promising is the list of new device partners that Microsoft told people like ZDNet at CES: Lifx, Ecobee, Honeywell Lyric, Honeywell Connect Comfort, TP-Link Kasa, Geeni and a biggie - IFTTT. That doesn't mean we will see Cortana-friendly lights and thermostats super soon, just that Microsoft has secured these partnerships alongside the existing Skills for controlling Nest, Hue and SmartThings.

In terms of categories, Microsoft says we should expect more Cortana speakers, smart appliances, fridges, toasters, thermostats and even connected car tech via the Cortana SDK. With the Amazon Echo Show featuring a screen and Google's new smart displays, it's only a matter of time before we get the Microsoft version of that.

On a side note, Microsoft also launched its Home Hub feature on its Windows 10 PCs - this will boost Cortana's functions, helping to manage shared family PCs too. It is also encouraging PC makers to integrate far-field mics that will pick up voice commands from across the room, though Amazon is also planning to take advantage of this.

As we mentioned, we also expect to hear a lot more about Cortana Skills as well as details on smart home controls and Skype calling between now and the end of the year. Both Amazon and Google have been pushing out minor updates to their smart speakers, going toe-to-toe over the past few months so we reckon Microsoft will make sure there's no feature or Skill that the Echo or Home has that Cortana doesn't.



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