Smart Entertainment in the Smart Home (2017)

By Arsham Hatambeiki, Universal Electronics Inc.

The connected home has evolved in many exciting ways. Expedited growth of more affordable and compact computing power, and expanded connectivity have enabled rapid growth of “smart” devices capable of offering new services and creating new ecosystems within the home. Many entertainment devices take advantage of this connectivity to create a cooperative ecosystem of apps and features covering different forms of content delivery as well as smart home services, resulting in a series of new compatibility requirements. Defying popular belief, new does not always replace the old and quite often can be an addition. Most homes contain a wide array of traditional devices that are not connected and are now mixed in with the newer connected devices with enhanced capabilities such as voice control.

Based on a QuickSet Data Insight study, more than half of the television (TV) installed base in the United States are five years or older. This varying level of “smart” and interactivity causes discontinuity and confusion for consumers in accessing and controlling each device to enjoy their content.[i] This obvious gap in a common approach to interactivity has created an area of opportunity for device manufacturers and service providers. Consumers need a simple and unified approach to interacting with their devices at home, new and old, connected or not, offering a reliable experience with all.

The delivery of entertainment content has been particularly affected by continued improvements in Internet connectivity speeds and processing power in devices. Innovative startups and well-known names in entertainment alike are looking for a winning edge to lead consumers to their content and their services. Content providers are offering a dizzying array of almost unlimited content, available through multiple channels, and some exclusives to a single channel. The starting point in content discovery for consumers now includes necessary decisions such as which app and on which device, and finally, the main question-- what to watch! Today consumers are expected to decipher where and how to access a specific service or content, which app on which device through which control interface, a constant context switching from one content source to another, adding friction to daily TV watching activities. Friction in the user experience will cause fatigue, and users will then quickly stop using a device or service and revert back to the previous methods they understand; after all, watching TV is supposed to be fun. A consumer will naturally be attracted to devices that offer a consistent and reliable experience in finding content and services. This has created an opportunity for service providers and consumer electronics manufacturers to provide an elegant solution to this daily problem.

Successful solutions, with wide adoption, have taken the realities of the home ecosystem into consideration, providing a reliable experience across the installed base of old and new devices in consumer's home. As an example, while in the first generation Apple TV attempted to address the user experience and TV compatibility with a single protocol such as High-Definition Multimedia Interface Consumer Electronics Control (HDMI-CEC), the second generation now includes multi-protocol support including limited infrared, for TV control; an improvement, but still not the ideal experience for a mainstream product.

Trend-setting set-top boxes from Dish Network and Comcast have employed techniques to automate the set up experience and make their content reachable with a single touch, while smart TVs have offered a unified discovery and control experience across different content sources and services to manage the daily activities. Some well-known brands also offer universal content search solutions that focus on the experience on a single device, searching across a catalog of content offered by installed apps and channels, while others strive to unify the experience across devices and services through a combination of content recognition techniques and pre-defined indexed catalogs.

Leading consumer electronics companies are already benefiting from providing a unified interface to interact with different devices and services, taking hold of the starting point in the users’ daily content consumption experience. This unique position has enabled new business models and revenue opportunities. Solutions such as dynamic media recognition offered by Gracenote and Shazam, or device centric whole-home discovery and control capabilities have enabled consumers to automatically discover and interact with all points of access to content and applications in the home through a single point of control (a voice assistant; a touchscreen device, or a remote control). These capabilities are offered through set-top boxes, TVs, game consoles, smart home gateways or any connected device offering a service.

Media recognition systems rely on a database of content to dynamically identify matching signatures against live or recorded content. A successful solution, as a device-centric approach, will complement this approach through device specific knowledge, and provide a unified discovery and control interface for devices in the home, through different communication mediums, including High-Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI), Internet Protocol (IP), and different wireless protocols such as 802.15.4, Bluetooth, and widely used Infrared.

At its core, the ideal solution would enable anyone to enter a room, seamlessly discover all nearby devices and services offered by these devices, and interact with these services through an intelligent, simple and natural interface. It should operate independently of any framework tied to specific devices,access protocols or proprietary software ecosystems.

A complete model of a device is the most basic, yet necessary, building block of a knowledge graph representing devices and services in a home that can add context to all user actions. Viable platforms rely on algorithms that utilize a knowledge graph of devices with varying control capabilities, communication interfaces and protocols, each identifiable with unique fingerprints.

At the most fundamental level, a capable solution automatically discovers nearby devices through different communication mediums, generates unique fingerprints and matches them to the knowledge graph, to serve up a full range of capabilities. Beyond control, this knowledge graph also adds the much needed context to all user commands and actions, making dynamic capability discovery of nearby devices possible.

This highly versatile approach to supporting a unified customer experience lends itself to a wide range of brand strategies. Companies such as Comcast, Dish Networks, AT&T, Microsoft and LG Electronics have widely divergent approaches to offering services, but they are all trying to reduce friction in consumption of their services and enhance the customer experience.

In the discussion that follows, we begin by exploring market conditions driving the need for a holistic, automated approach to connected-home device management, followed by a look at how service providers and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) are meeting that need. In later sections we’ll review the enhanced capabilities required to power content discovery across devices, and better smart home services.

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