Week in smart home: Microsoft to build Cortana smart speaker

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Microsoft to build Cortana smart speaker

Welcome to another edition of the Week in Smart Home, our collection of top stories and interesting asides from the week that was. The market is really hotting up, as the likes of Microsoft, Google, Amazon and Apple go head-to-head for domination of our abodes with their smart home ecosystems.

Every Saturday we indulge some of the speculation around the world of the smart home – and this week the rumour mill is in fine fettle.

We've got whispers that Microsoft could be joining the smart speaker fray, the latest from a busy week at I/O (Google's annual conference) and details of why your Alexa speaker could be listening to secret, inaudible commands. Read on for a full rundown.

Week in smart home: Microsoft to build Cortana smart speaker

Microsoft building Cortana smart speaker

Microsoft is working on its own smart speaker, according to leaked papers obtained by German site WinFuture. With Amazon and Google running away with the smart speaker market – and Apple in hot pursuit – it seems that Microsoft wants Cortana, its own voice assistant, to muscle in on the action. There’s precious little detail, and it might be that these papers refer to a project that’s since been ditched in Redmond, but no-one would blame Microsoft for wanting to get Cortana out there.

Cortana has fared well in side-by-side comparisons to Alexa and Assistant under testing, and it’s certainly no slouch. Aside from integrating into Windows 10 – and other Microsoft products – Amazon has also developed Alexa to play nicely with Cortana, enabling you to hand-off features such as to-do lists, email search and office-based tasks. Those kinds of corporate features are becoming a niche for Cortana, which has also gained the skill to tell who's talking in a meeting and assign tasks to the correct people.

And while the Harmon Kardon INVOKE has hit the market with Cortana inside, it seems that Microsoft is sitting on great technology while its rivals take all the market. This could be about to change.

Week in smart home: Microsoft to build Cortana smart speaker

Google Assistant gears up

It’s been Google I/O this week and unsurprisingly a lot of the focus has been on Google Assistant. The voice assistant has been treated to a big PR push from Google, which has signed up John Legend as new voice (weirdly), announced timings for new Smart Display speakers, and also teased a brand new Assistant-based service called Duplex. The feature enables Assistant to make calls on your behalf, booking hair appointments or a slot to get your Chihuahua’ groomed. It’s also frankly a bit terrifying.

Check out our full run down of the more imminent Google Assistant features, including updated Routines and Actions.

Week in smart home: Microsoft to build Cortana smart speaker

Alexa’s secret commands you can’t hear

How’s this for creepy: researchers have found that Alexa and Siri will respond to commands hidden in music and TV commercials, which are inaudible to the human ear. Using frequencies in white noise that our pathetic, non-AI ears can’t detect, researchers from University of Berkley were able to add items to shopping lists and dial phone numbers.

Obviously, there’s a potential for abuse here – or at least some subliminal marketing japes at the expense of smart speaker owners. Amazon and Apple both reasserted that there are security controls around accessing private or sensitive information, and services are moving towards identifying users via their voice. That may be as well, but these kinds of studies do little to quell the feeling among many that this whole voice assistant thing is a bit Big Brother.

AI and voice assistants are moving at such a rate, however, we’d bet this isn’t the last time we hear of relatively simple hack flummoxing smart speakers.

Week in smart home: Microsoft to build Cortana smart speaker

August expands Alexa functionality

Another week a slightly new feature has hit the August smart lock – this time for Alexa users. The company now enables you to unlock your door using Alexa, barking a quick “Alexa, unlock the front door” and then speaking your four-digit PIN.

Given that the August Doorbell Cam has its own Alexa visual skill, it means you can view who’s at your door on an Echo Show or Echo Spot and then unlock the door for your visitor, without leaving your sofa. That’s what we call progress.

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