Alexa, MHUB + uControl = all your AV, voice-controlled

Amazon Alexa and HDANYWHERE MHUB 4K
Execute commands that actually mean something. HDANYWHERE set to release their Amazon Alexa skills.

 

With the UK’s largest CI exhibition (EI Live!) just around the corner, I thought I’d take some time to blog about what’s been going on inside HDA; our progress with Amazon’s Alexa service, and our plans for its imminent rollout to all active MHUB PRO units globally come early June 2017.

 

The HDA brand mission is to change people’s relationship with home entertainment, improve the audiovisual experience and make centralised whole-home AV more mainstream. We believe a big factor in achieving this ambition will be the ability to use our voice/speech to simply and easily control all our TVs and what we watch on them.

 

I’m going to start with some preamble: embrace voice because this is no fad.

Feel free to skip this and go to why we haven’t launched any skills yet if you want the shorter version!

 

Unlike 3D TV and curved screens, voice interaction is not going to go away. All the major technology companies have their own speech recognition and language engines and they have been refining (and measuring the growth) of this technology via their mobile or consumer hardware. The trend is clear: year-on-year exponential growth in this new UI type.

 

Voice User Interfacing/Interaction (VUI) is going to be the next BIG change in the way we interact with computers. and as home automation/technology specialists you should be thinking about offering or adding this skill set to your armoury of services, or selecting manufacturers that natively support this method of control… nudge nudge, wink wink 😉

 

 

As long as the big players don’t do something stupid like this we can expect to see more voice controlled devices appearing in homes

 

A great example to illustrate what kind of impact voice could have is by looking at the original launch of Apple’s iPhone in 2007. To me, the feature which stood out most was its radical approach to user interfacing. Apple ditched a keyboard, the numeric pad and navigation buttons opting to use a variety of environmental sensors to detect touch, rotation, tilt, proximity and acceleration. With access to all this input data it became incredibly easy to create instantly intuitive interfaces which required almost no training with the beauty in that by simply using the device you were training yourself.

 

That was the genius of Apple’s design. People instantly got it and it has subsequently become the de facto interface method for mobile telephony devices.…and with VUI, I believe, we’re at that point in time just before the release of the original iPhone.

 

From HDA’s perspective, it makes complete sense to R&D voice interfacing and we started provisional work on it as far back as May/June 2016. In Oct 2016, at our X Event in Manchester, we announced that our new hardware would feature functionality that no other brand offered, and that we would unveil new ways to enable your matrix to do much more within a home than ever before. We introduced the world to our vision for smarter, neater AV with the release of MHUB PRO and at ISE this year we showed off our work-in-progress Alexa skills; demonstrating switching between sources and controlling source device content to impressed audiences.

 

In the meantime, Amazon have been busy too; running national TV campaigns promoting home automation using their Echo and Dot devices.

 

… So why haven’t we ‘turned on’ Alexa voice control yet?

Well, I don’t think Alexa is ready for full home automation.

 

It’s clear to me that the Echo and Dot were not designed to serve the home automation market but rather act as a portal to Amazon services or other partners (like ordering a pizza or taxi). Just like gesture alone wasn’t enough on iPhone, Amazon Alexa requires a number of additional tricks added to it in order to serve a home properly. The following is not supported currently:

  1. Voice recognition
    to have some idea who is uttering a command, mum, dad, kids… or a stranger
  2. Voice proximity
    neither Echo or Dot can tell what device I am addressing from proximity or volume. If I shout “Alexa” and there is a Dot in one room and another in the room adjacent, they will both wake and await response. The only way around this is to create dedicated ‘wake words’ for each room, but that’s dumb and unnatural IMO.
  3. Zone context
    there is currently no way to manage where in your home your Alexa device is situated, meaning you have to announce the room you’re in to control devices in that room
  4. Limited support for actual Smarthome functions in API
    this has meant that HDA have had to write custom skills to get the best results. The scope is pretty much limited to turning something on or off and changing your thermostat temperature, more on that later!

 

We wanted to do better than Amazon’s limited and unnatural smarthome skills.

What we didn’t want to do was create a skill that would require you to “turn on cooking” or turn on my “welcome” understanding that, has got us to where we are today. Take a look (or listen) at Control4’s idea of a voice operated smarthome…

 

Most VUI implementations I have seen almost exclusively utilise the limited smarthome skills meaning that you have to turn on your shades instead of open them, or my favourite, “turn on cooking”. It doesn’t sound natural.

 

Here’s our stab at voice controlling your TV with Alexa and HDANYWHERE

We have been pulling our hair out trying to make voice commands short, memorable and intelligent.

 

Notice how most Alexa implementations require you to declare the room they’re in? …ours doesn’t. …And the work required to make that happen is the second reason we’ve not been so quick to release.

 

To me, personally, it is the difference between making a voice command that people might actually use vs a command that might be used because it is new and novel and then ditched after the honeymoon period is over because it is unintuitive and executes very simple commands.

 

A design mantra given to our devs was that if you could execute the command faster by picking up a remote or using uControl then we should not do it.

 

We have focused on commands you are likely to want to say rather than use a remote for and we have lost weeks of time researching how to optimise our voice commands so that they are concise and can execute complex actions (with the help of a uControl Sequence) that would take time to do using a remote control or even multiple remotes!

 

The basic syntax (voice structure) for a command is as follows:

 

  • “Alexa” wakes the Echo or Dot and makes it listen carefully to whatever is said next.
  • “tell my TV to” tells Alexa to target specific HDA functions
  • then a pre-defined command (like increase volume, play, watch) which MHUB understands
  • followed by joining word to make a gramatical sentance (in brackets () and are optional).
  • finishing with a variable to make the command actionable in real time (in square brackets [] and can be anything from a [room name], volume up [25] times, [“BBC”] = 101, [“ITV”] = 103)

 

We have one smarthome skill and that will turn on your TV in any default configuration you want (any channel, any volume, any source, any room), simply say:

 

Alexa, turn on TV/[or any word of your choosing]

 

Whilst watching TV you can say:

 

Alexa, tell my TV to:

-- Play
-- Pause
-- Record/Stop Recording
-- Increase volume/volume up (by) [any number value]
-- Decrease volume/drop volume (by) [any number value]
-- Switch to [your source devices]
-- Go to [your favourite channel name]
-- Watch [any word]
-- Resume in [any room name]

 

It’s so exciting to see it work in real time. I know everyone at HDA really wants to show this off at EI Live! At the show we will be editing what these phrases do in real time via our Pro Remote Management Portal on our HDA Cloud Service, pushing that update to our demo MHUBs at the show and then executing that change immediately using Alexa!

 

Releasing 1st week of June

We are preparing to submit all our skills for Amazon to approve in the next week so that we can rollout support in stages completing by the 1st week in June.

 

Neither Chris, nor I believe our implementation is perfect and there is plenty of work to do, but after release, our development teams will be waiting to tweak code and improve on the natural language flow. Our APIs will get faster, our utterances shorter, with MHUBs actions more intelligent.

 

Alexa; this is just the beginning.

 

Dillan Pattni
(April 27, 2017)

HDA in South Africa

This month Chris and James had a successful visit to South Africa for HDANYWHERE events in Johannesburg and Cape Town launching the new, more premium 2017 product range and uControl in partnership with Radionic Distributors. The two events saw over 50 dealers in attendance, where dealer reception to the new products was enthusiastic. Dealers particularly liked the improved hardware designs, greater signal distance and PoE. It was announced that uControl was already compatible with DStv (S.A.’s primary broadcaster) set-top-boxes and a live demo of the controller-less control system was met with great approval from the saffer crowd.

Chris Pinder said of the trip: “South Africa has a lot of great dealers working on some great HDA projects. It was really enjoyable learning about the nuances of CI business in Africa and meeting integrators who have embraced the HDA brand so enthusiastically. HDA alongside the Radionic family are very committed to supporting this market to the best of our ability.”

Bartho Erasmus of Elite Technologies in Pretoria said: “The Radionic and HDA partnership is really amazing, they assist you with ease no questions asked. I am really excited for the new range of extenders, matrixes and easy control system. It opens up another gap in market for the basic client. Finally a manufacturer that understands the South African market!”
Radionic’s Justin Fothergill commented: “We were extremely excited to launch the amazing new XTND and MHUB products from HDANYWHERE in South Africa. It was also an extraordinary privilege to have Chris Pinder, founder and James Trumper, Head of Sales of HDANYWHERE present to introduce the new products and affirm their commitment to meeting the unique (and challenging!) requirements of our market and listen to the needs and feedback of our dealers. This amazing level of attention to our partnership ensures our greatest chance of success in dominating the South African video distribution market!”

HDANYWHERE joins UHD Alliance

HDANYWHERE is the first HDMI distribution brand to be accepted into the UHD Alliance (UHDA), a global group of device makers and content creators charged with fostering the Ultra HD ecosystem and promoting the benefits of Ultra HD entertainment technology.

Over the past few years, display manufacturers have released Ultra HD 4K resolution televisions. However, many consumers haven’t embraced 4K due to the lack of proper high-quality content. To fix this issue, Hollywood studios, consumer electronics brands, content distributors and technology companies have joined forces as part of the UHD (Ultra High Definition) Alliance.

The Alliance was formed by global companies including DIRECTV, Dolby, LG Electronics Inc., Netflix, Panasonic Corporation, Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd., Sharp Corporation, Sony Visual Product Inc., Technicolor, The Walt Disney Studios, Twentieth Century Fox and Warner Bros. Entertainment.

HDANYWHERE are the first HDMI brand and the first ‘in-between’ source and display device to join the UHD Alliance.

The UHD Alliance was created with the consumer in mind, to focus on helping consumers benefit from a seamless, integrated and high-quality Ultra-HD ecosystem from end to end. The Alliance aims to ensure that all of the links in the chain meet identified premium quality standards and provides information on premium Ultra-HD content and devices that deliver best-in-class home entertainment.

HDA Founder Chris Pinder said of the news: “HDA multiroom systems provide the most fluid and flexible TV viewing experience, without losing a single pixel of picture quality at premium Ultra HD resolutions. The HDA brand mission of changing the relationship people have with AV in their homes is totally in sync with the UHDA’s ultimate goal of providing a better in-home viewing experience to the consumer. HDA are eager to take an active role in the Alliance’s collaborative efforts to deliver a premium entertainment experience throughout the Ultra HD ecosystem.”

The UHDA’s Ultra HD Premium™ logo is reserved for products, content and services that comply with performance metrics for resolution, high dynamic range (HDR), peak luminance, black levels and wide colour gamut among others. The specifications also make recommendations for immersive audio and other features. These advances in resolution, contrast, brightness, colour and audio combine to deliver a premium Ultra HD experience in the home.

 

uControl Headline Sponsor EI Live!

HDA to have a dedicated breakout zone at the show with live hands-on demonstrations, beer tent and the chance to win a fully designed vehicle wrap.

The UK’s biggest trade show for home technology professionals will be held on the 10th-11th May at Sandown Park, Surrey. 

Keeping their focus acutely on the residential smart home market, HDA have innovated IR control within a HDMI matrix so that you don’t necessarily need to add a third party controller. Instead, you can use an app on your phone, tablet or Alexa voice commands to control connected sources and displays, as well as trigger macros. The app is called ‘uControl’ and the inbuilt patent-pending controller tech is called IP2IR.

HDANYWHERE Founder Chris Pinder said:

“We have so many new products to be discovered and experienced in 2017. Being the UK’s best-attended trade event for HTP’s, EI Live! is the best place domestically for us to show off our new innovations. Particularly our universal IR remote app ‘uControl’ and integrated IP2IR technology, which makes the HDMI matrix a far more useful system component.

Our headline sponsorship of the show is intended to reinforce HDA’s belief that in-home entertainment systems are the gateway to homeowners adopting a wider range of smart home products and services. We’re looking forward to working closely with more trade customers to help continue to grow the market.”

HDA’s 2017 product range can be viewed here

Making The Matrix More Useful at ISE 2017

  • Matrix integrated IP2IR controller enables voice control and app like no other. 
  • First 18G solutions cater for the most premium TV experience possible.

HDANYWHERE, situated in Hall 5-R83, will be showing the latest additions to their ‘smarter, neater AV’ 2017 product range. With many HDMI distribution brands targeting commercial, HDA is keeping their focus firmly on the residential smart home market. 

HDA’s first innovation being demonstrated on the ISE show floor is their patent-pending IP2IR control within an HDMI matrix so that you don’t necessarily need to add a third party controller in whole-home AV projects. Instead, you can use HDA’s ‘bundled-free’ uControl app or Alexa to control connected sources and displays, as well as trigger macros. Of course, integration with Alexa is the future, and through the more expansive control ability offered by IP2IR, a macro-based Alexa demonstration like no other mustn’t be missed.

hdanywhere-ucontrol-logo.png

HDA’s uControl app is an impressive freebie. It is programming-free and super simple to set up, offering all the controllability required for most AV scenarios. Once downloaded, users can choose which source they want to watch and where, with all the various functions of each device shown on screen, with familiar button layouts and gesture control. It can be personalised with user-settable zone background images, plus the option for light or dark themes. There is no need for a separate controller as it is integrated into the matrix.

Also being launched is the MAX series of Ultra HD Premium™ compatible products that support full-fat 4K60 8bit 4:4:4 or 4K60 10bit 4:2:0 (HDR10) even over a single Cat6 cable, for the most ‘Premium TV’ experience possible. The first HDA MAX items are an 18G HDMI 2.0 spec matrix switcher and an ingenious 18G-over-HDBaseT long-range HDMI extender with ‘Tipping Point Compression’ (TPC). TPC makes it possible to transmit 600MHz/18G content down HDBaseT’s constricted 10.2G pipe using very light compression, meaning there is no human-perceivable difference in video quality while TPC is active. It’s smart because the compression only becomes active when the input data rate tips over the 10.2G threshold (which in reality, isn’t often) – hence ‘tipping point’.

The last ISE announcement is HDA’s first-ever audio product, the MHUB AUDIO matrix amplifier. A fusion of the best of analogue and digital audio technology in a hybrid device that offers audio routeing, lip-sync delay DSP two-band HF and LP EQ and high quality 50 watt sound amplification. Designed and built in the UK to be a natural companion to any PRO video matrix, also integrates immediately with uControl.

HDA’s 2017 brochure can be viewed here 

HDANYWHERE are situated in Hall 5, Stand R83 (Opposite HDBaseT).

Integrated Systems Europe 2017

TAKING IT TO THE MAX with HDANYWHERE in Amsterdam!

Our ‘smarter, neater AV’ product range continues to grow at a pace in 2017.

 

With many HDMI brands moving focus to commercial, HDanywhere are demonstrating their commitment to the residential market with the introduction of new and truly innovative in-home entertainment connectivity solutions. ISE will be the stage for the introduction of a new matrix, extender and companion audio matrix/amp, plus enhancements to their bundled-free universal IR remote app – uControl.

Premium Progress – New HDMI 2.0 18G matrices and extenders

HDanywhere are the first HD distribution brand to join the UHD Alliance – the group, which includes Dolby, LG, Netflix, Panasonic, Samsung, Sony, THX amongst others are aligned with fostering the Ultra HD ecosystem and promoting the benefits of next generation premium in-home entertainment technology.
In Amsterdam, HDA will be showing a range of Ultra HD Premium™ compatible solutions called ‘MAX’ – Matrices and extenders that support full-fat Ultra HD 4K with HDR and the 18G data rates of HDMI 2.0 spec (that’s UHD/4K/HDR at 60p with 4:4:4 colours), even over a single Category cable for the most ‘Premium TV’ experience possible.

18G over HDBaseT with Tipping Point Compression

Using a new technology, which HDA call TPC, which stands for ‘Tipping Point Compression’, it is possible to transmit HDMI 2.0 UHD/HDR/60p 600MHz/18G content down HDBaseT’s constricted 10.2G pipe using very-light compression, meaning there is no human-perceivable difference in video quality whilst TPC is active. It’s very clever because the compression only becomes active when the input signal data rate tips over the 10.2G threshold (which in reality, isn’t very often) – hence ‘tipping point’.

 

Universal IR control out-of-the-box!

uControl is a universal IR remote companion app for MHUB 4K PRO matrix systems, which incorporates a patent-pending integrated IP2IR controller engine to enable full IR control over connected sources and displays. It is programming-free and super simple to setup, offering all the controllability required for most AV scenarios. Once downloaded, users can choose which source they want to watch and where, with all the various functions for each device shown on screen, with familiar button layouts and gesture control. uControl can even be personalised with user-settable background images for each zone/room and light and dark themes. To re-iterate, there is no need for a separate controller, the controller is built into the matrix itself. (Think Global Caché but with 16 addressable IP>IR ports!)

“Alexa, watch BBC One in the Living Room.”

Of course, integration with Alexa is high on HDA’s agenda. Because of uControl’s wider IP>IR control ability within the matrix, a macro-based Alexa demo like no other mustn’t be missed on the ISE show floor.

Listen up! HDA now do audio…

The MHUB AMP is the first audio product from HDA. A 6×4 DSP audio matrix/amp with integrated 55W amplifier. Designed and built in the UK to be an easy companion to any MHUB video matrix, it also integrates immediately with uControl.

HDA’s 2017 brochure can be viewed here 

We are situated in Hall 5, Stand R83.