“Alexa, why is voice activation for motorized window coverings one of the hottest trends out there right now? And what do I need to know about it?”
In today’s technology-driven society, more and more people are embracing the possibilities of what is available to them. The latest and greatest innovation coming from the window covering world, is the advent of voice activation. It is hard to believe how fast this technology has evolved in the past few years. It was not that long ago that I was impressing clients with the fact that they could control their motorized shades from a phone from anywhere in the world. At first, many thought it was an unnecessary luxury and that just having the motorized window coverings was more than enough. Oh, how the times have changed. Now, many of my clients are asking up front, “Do you have those shades that can be controlled by Alexa?”
Voice activation was once a futuristic idea reserved for books and movies. Do you remember the scenes in “Back to the Future 2” when the McFly family walks into their home and starts telling it to turn on lights, change TV channels and cook food? With today’s smart devices and the integration of voice control, we can actually make all of that happen. We can even tell our homes to raise and lower our window coverings without having to waste all that time looking for a remote or expending all that energy opening an app on our phone and touching it with one of our fingers. We can now operate our shades without having to raise a finger.
So how does voice control work? In our industry, we need a few items working together to allow voice activation of motorized window coverings. First, we need a compatible motorized window covering. Nowadays, almost all new motors can be linked up with a voice activation system.
Next, we need a device called a hub, or sometimes referred to as a smart hub. A hub is a device that translates a Wi-Fi signal and sends movement commands to the motorized window coverings. There are several third-party hubs on the market, but when it comes to window coverings, I suggest using the motor manufacturer’s hub. Each major motor manufacturer offers their own smart hub that is preprogrammed to work with their motors. They also have their own mobile apps that allow the users to program and operate individual shades, groups of shades, create scene programs (a preset option that tells a shade or set of shades to perform a particular action) and create timers that will operate the scenes. All of these options can be controlled via your smartphone or other mobile device and can be shared with others if you so choose.
Now all we have to do is pair (or link) the smart hub to a voice-activated virtual assistant such as Amazon’s Echo or Google’s Assistant. These devices are basically just microphones and speakers that are connected to a cloud-based server that has voice recognition software and houses all of the real functions of the assistants. That is why these devices must be connected to the internet to work. So when you link your smart hub to your virtual assistant, they communicate via the internet.
Here is a simple breakdown of how the system works. You speak to Alexa and ask her to raise your kitchen shade. Alexa’s microphone records your voice and sends the message to the online sever (similar to a voice to text message). The Echo’s online server deciphers the message using what they call Skills (the Google Assistant calls them Actions) and determines that it is a message for the smart hub. It then sends a message via the internet to the smart hub (think of it as an encrypted email from the server to the smart hub). The smart hub takes the message and converts it to a command and sends the command to the corresponding motorized shade (just like a remote control would).
As you can tell, most of this process is done via the internet. This is why you must create an account for the smart hub and link it to your virtual assistant through its Skills or Actions. By linking the two devices and their apps, you are just allowing the two items to send each other messages.
Although I have tried to explain the system in its simplest terms, there are actually a lot more complexities to how the two devices work together with the motorized shades. Since we are still in the infancy of voice activation as a whole, there are a lot of challenges with converting voice messages to motorization commands. Since window coverings are a very small portion of the voice-activation community, there are not a lot of programs out there that allow for super-smooth conversions of window covering commands. We have several terms for operating window coverings, such as raise, lower, open, close, up, down and many others. So many of window covering smart hub manufacturers have chosen to use the programming of the lighting industry and its simplicity of the on and off commands.
Hubs using these programs allow you to turn scenes on and off. So if you want to operate an individual window covering, you must create a scene for that command and then you can tell your virtual assistant to turn the scene on or off. Basically it is using the command of a light switch (on and off) to operate the window covering. This can create some challenges when naming your scenes in the smart hub app. For example, if I tell my virtual assistant, “Turn on living room shades,” what is going to happen? That all depends on what was programmed in the smart hub scene for living room shades. So naming your commands needs to be thought out and discussed with your client as to avoid confusion and frustration. As the popularity of voice control increases, more Skills will be added and these programs will be easier to use. In fact, some exciting changes are scheduled to be released later this year.
In summary, the use of voice activation is a rapidly growing and changing industry, and I believe it will be around for the long haul. In fact, I believe it will be the main source of communication with most electronic devices in the near future. Now that you understand the basics of how it works, I suggest you start becoming more familiar with these systems by setting them up in your home or showroom. The more you use it, the more comfortable and knowledgeable you will be, and the more systems you will sell. Just remember: If your clients are asking for voice-activated window coverings, they are probably already using voice activation and are comfortable with it, so you should be too.
Interested in learning more about motorized window coverings and all of the options available? Join O’D at the 2023 International Window Coverings Expo on April 19th through 21st for his workshops “WFCP Motorization Certification, Virtual Selling: Grow Your Business with Reduced Expense, and ”Mastering Motorization.”