Alexa, is this all just a fad?

Alexa, is this all just a fad?


According to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, more and more electronic manufacturers in China, like Alibaba, are getting involved in the AI smart speaker market, fueling its growth and begging the question: are talking speakers just a passing tech fad or are they here to stay?


In the US, tech giants, Amazon and Google, dominate the AI smart speaker space with their Alexa-enabled Echo and Echo Dot; and the Google Assistant-powered Google Home, respectively. As the Wall Street Journal notes: “tech giants [and] consumer electronics makers…all see voice-activated products as the gateway to a future where platforms animated by artificial intelligence will power homes, cars and offices. To some, this first wave in the AI revolution already looks frothy.” And that sentiment is seen played out in Apple’s recently announced Siri-enabled smart speaker, HomePod. A late addition to the fray, the HomePod will be available to consumers by December 2017, and it’s capabilities are an indication that it’s entering a rapidly maturing market.


The HomePod’s positioning is geared more towards smart acoustics than smart AI. Yes, users can control the speaker via Siri voice activation, but the majority of the speaker’s smart functions are audio or music related. One reason for investing heavily in smart acoustics is because, so far, smart speakers don’t sound that great. To differentiate themselves from the pack, Apple is attempting to offer an alternative smart speaker for audiophiles, music enthusiasts and Apple loyalists. Will this positioning work? Perhaps. But the fact remains – the HomePod is merely a lateral move in terms of smart home advancement.


For a new technology, innovation in the smart speaker sphere has been fairly stagnant (for more on this, read my previous blog post “A Clear Path for Voice Control”), and many people who were looking to Apple as a game changer in the field were left mostly underwhelmed by the unveiling of HomePod. Therefore, the direction Apple took with it’s smart speaker only adds to the feeling that the smart speaker bubble is about ready to burst, since we’re still getting variations of “more of the same.”


Amazon, on the other hand, has spent this year rolling out AI smart devices that are not just music speakers, though this fragmentation of the Smart-AI market is already looking too niche for sustained growth. Products such as the Amazon Echo Show (an Echo with video capabilities) and the Amazon Echo Look (an Echo with a camera so you can take pictures of your outfits to log in your “virtual closet” and get fashion advice from “experts”) seem more like placeholder products than fully thought-through use-cases. Amazon knows that the design and UI of the Show are flawed (for example, there’s no way to decline a video call, so friends or relatives with a Show can pop into yours at any moment), and Amazon knows that the Look is about as useful as, what’s it called? Oh yeah, a mirror. But Amazon also knows that AI technology is in a moment of stasis, and between now and the next major smart home breakthrough, they are doing everything they can to keep the ball rolling (and capture an exuberant amount of data about its customers).

So, are AI smart speakers just a fad? Is the bubble about to burst? Perhaps the answer to that is a soft “no.” As smart speakers stand today, the use cases for it are fairly narrow, but that doesn’t mean more smart home innovation won’t branch out from it, as many see the smart speaker as playing a pivotal role in the future smart home. There’s a lot that can be done with an AI smart speaker in the future, but the technology needs to catch up to the possibilities.

Come Together, Right Now

Come Together, Right Now


Over the past few years, consumers have started to recognize the convenience and cost-saving benefits of smart home technologies, but adoption has been slow, especially compared to the amount of investment money being poured into the industry. According to Business Insider, “the smart home market is stuck in the ‘chasm’ of the technology adoption curve, in which it is struggling to surpass the early-adopter phase and move to the mass-market phase of adoption.” But what’s the largest barrier to mass market smart home adoption? Is it high prices? Cybersecurity? Limited demand? Nope, it’s not any of those. Rather, research has found that the largest barrier to smart home adoption is…interoperability (a fancy word for how devices work together and communicate with each other).


At the moment, consumers view the smart home as fragmented, and many aren’t willing to invest in any smart home devices until all the kinks are worked out. In an insightful article posted to IoT Agenda, analyst Jessica Groopman sees the current state of the smart home as “just a bunch of smart endpoints” which ultimately is hurting the smart home industry:


The very design of connected products requires interoperability in terms of connectivity, communications and integration protocols. Products should be simple to connect. Period. Despite the reality of a painful lack of standards across devices and industries, the need to equip physical products with connectivity and communications flexibility sets both an immediate and long-term value proposition in place (IoT Agenda).


When smart home companies invest in interoperability, the users win. As Groopman notes: “open integration and interoperability is really about curating a customer-first relationship.” In a previous blog post, I responded to CNBC Technology Product Editor, Todd Haselton, and his irritation that smart home products don’t work together. This sentiment is being felt by consumers across the globe, causing it to be the single greatest barrier to smart home adoption:


Currently, there are many networks, standards, and devices being used to connect the smart home, creating interoperability problems and making it confusing for the consumer to set up and control multiple devices. Until interoperability is solved, consumers will have difficulty choosing smart home devices and systems (Business Insider).


Wouldn’t it be great if everyone just learned to get along? At Blackfire Research, interoperability is our game. A few years back, founder and CEO, Ravi Rajapakse, became frustrated – much like Haselton, Groopman, and countless other smart home gadget enthusiasts – when he realized that there was no seamless way to transfer and share entertainment media throughout his own home. The culmination of 10 years of research is a revolutionary new protocol, The Blackfire Realtime Entertainment Distribution (RED) framework, which can stream 5.1 audio channels and 4K video, simultaneously, across multiple devices – all over the standard WiFi you already have. As well as connecting smart home devices like light bulbs, thermostats and door locks, Blackfire also works as a bridge between your smart home and your entertainment systems – with precise synchronization, low latency for lip sync, and overall reliability. Because, as the research shows, that is exactly what smart home owners want – to be able to mix and match devices that can all work together, while having their music and movies available to them anywhere in the home.


At Blackfire Research, we’re ahead of the curve: we know what smart home owners want and what technological barriers need to be crossed to make smart home adoption mainstream. That’s why all Blackfire enabled products are interoperable cross brands, so you don’t have to worry about your smart devices not working together. Look for our logo on select Harman/Kardon, Onkyo, Pioneer, Integra and HTC devices.

Troubleshooting your Whole-Home WiFi Extender or Mesh Network

Troubleshooting your Whole-Home WiFi Extender or Mesh Network


The top WiFi Router brands have recently introduced Whole-Home, multi-unit mesh network systems (WiFi extenders)  for extending your WiFi coverage across larger buildings. Examples are Eero, Luma, Orbi, Google Wifi and Apple Airport Express. These systems comprise a base-station which is hard-wired to your internet connection, plus one or more extender units that connect wirelessly to the base station and relay the signal further than a single router can reach.


Although the latest Whole-Home systems have resolved many of the reliability issues plaguing earlier mesh networks, there is still a “hand-over” process as a device moves out of range of the base station and into range of an extender unit. For a streaming device, this hand over can sometime cause the WiFi connection to be momentarily lost, resulting in a visible or audible drop-out. Also, these systems can be confusing to configure since the base-station and the extenders may all share a single SSID (network name), and sometimes switch automatically between the 2.4GHz band and the 5GHz band so you often can’t easily tell where your devices are connected, or at what speed.


We’ve put together a few tips to help you get the most out of these set ups.

  1. Make sure that your main base-station router (the unit wired to your internet connection or WAN) is in a central location in your home. In any mesh system, you will get the highest WiFi speed when devices can connect to this unit directly, so it makes sense to place it where it provides the strongest signal to as much of your home as possible. 
  2. Make sure that the extender units are placed where they still have a strong signal connection with the base-station – ideally within sight of the main router. Mesh networks are only effective when each unit can share a strong wireless signal, so avoid placing the extender units at the very limit of the base-station’s WiFi range.
    WiFi Extender
  3. Give your extender a different SSID name than your main router, to show you when devices switch between them.
  4. Check to make sure that your wireless network isn’t being interfered or obstructed by a neighbor’s network. One way to remedy this is to change the channel of your access point or router.


You can check out some routers that Blackfire Research recommends here.

Making the Smart Home Smarter

Making the Smart Home Smarter


In his entertaining recent editorial, CNBC Technology Product Editor, Todd Haselton, experienced, firsthand, the frustration that many smart home enthusiasts have endured for a long time: smart home products that don’t work with one another. Typically, manufacturers don’t want their customers to “mix and match” products, but rather, they “encourage” them to stay loyal to their brand by deliberately limiting compatibility with competitors. But what manufacturers don’t realize is that these “technology islands” are actually discouraging potential users from buying any smart home products at all. Aside from the more geeky early adopters (ok, my hand’s up), smart home gadget users don’t want to invest in a brand and have that brand become obsolete within the next few years (i.e. “choose wrong”) so many people just aren’t choosing at all. As Haselton points out: “How do you choose which one to go with? It’s almost like the VHS vs. Betamax wars.”


A simple solution to this problem, as Haselton notes, is “one single standard that works for everything.” At Blackfire Research, we’ve done just that. A few years back, Blackfire Research founder and CEO, Ravi Rajapakse, became frustrated – much like Haselton himself and countless other smart home gadget lovers – when he realized that there was no seamless way to transfer and share entertainment media throughout his own home. What was once a personal project to create a multi-room entertainment system soon became ten years of research into a revolutionary new protocol, which we call The Blackfire Realtime Entertainment Distribution (RED) framework. The Blackfire RED framework can stream both HD 5.1 audio and 4K video, simultaneously, across multiple devices – all over the standard WiFi you already have. As well as connecting light bulbs, thermostats and door locks, Blackfire also works as a bridge between your smart home and your entertainment systems – with precise synchronization, low latency for lip sync, and overall reliability. Because ultimately, that is what smart home owners want – to mix and match devices while having their music and movies available to them anywhere in the home.


Oh yeah, did we mention that Blackfire enabled products are compatible with each other, even across brands? Just look for our logo on select Harman/Kardon, Onkyo, Pioneer, Integra, and HTC devices. It’s just one of the many ways Blackfire Research is making the smart home a whole lot smarter.

Getting the Most out of your Router

Getting the Most out of your Router


In my two previous blog posts, I recommended purchasing either the ASUS RT-AC56U or the ASUS RT-AC68U; explained why I chose the ASUS RT-AC68U router for my own home; and walked you through the setup of 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands for best performance. In this post, I’m going to show you how to tune your router to avoid wireless network traffic from other routers near by.

First off, how do WiFi frequency ranges and channels work?

The 802.11 standard allows wireless devices to be backward compatible, interoperable, and to work internationally. After WWII, the radio frequency spectrum in most countries was strictly controlled by the government, and was mostly allocated to police, military, and emergency service use. By the 1990’s, gradually, some of the high frequency (or “microwave”) spectrum was being derestricted. The 2.4GHz band became available in most countries around the world, and so it was adopted for several wireless technologies, including cell phones, Bluetooth devices and of course – WiFi. Now, nearly 30 years later, 2.4GHz band has become a very busy part of the spectrum indeed. The newer 5GHz WiFi band still has the advantage of much less data traffic – but due to physics, has the disadvantage of having a shorter signal range, meaning, the rooms in your home furthest from your router will have a noticeably weaker signal.

Both WiFi bands (2.4G and 5G) are divided into individual channels, each spaced a few megahertz from the next. By default, your router will automatically jump to the first channel it finds. However, you will get the fastest WiFi performance if you first check which channels have the least traffic and then manually set your router to that channel.

Avoiding the Busy Channels

First you’ll need to download a WiFi Analyzer app. If you have an Android smartphone, there is a free WiFiAnalyzer app that works very well. Unfortunately, there is no convenient free app like this for my iPhone, so I used my Windows 10 laptop to download an equally effective WiFi Analyzer app from my browser, free from the Microsoft App Store.

Once you download an app, you can see which channels are currently being used. Let’s start with the 2.4GHz band.

Here is the WifiAnalyzer app screen for the 2.4GHz band. My router is the one called BFRX-BUTTERS (the SSID I chose for the 2.4GHz band):


The ASUS router had auto-selected Channel 3, which is right on top of two other routers – probably my neighbors’ WiFi. As you can see from the image above, the channels above 6 look much clearer. So I opened up the ASUS router Configuration Page, which you can find by typing this local address into your web browser:


Under Advanced Settings, I selected the “Control Channel” pull-down menu, and instead of “Auto,” I selected “Channel 11” to force my router to operate in the clearer part of the spectrum:


which means my router is much less likely to conflict with 2.4GHz band signals from other routers:


Next I checked the 5GHz band, which is much less busy; it looks like my neighbors have not yet taken advantage of newer routers like mine:


In the image above, my router (BFRX-BUTTERS_5G)  has been auto selected to Channel 161 which is in a clear part of the band (note that the channels between 48 and 149 are not available for WiFi). To make sure it doesn’t auto select another channel, I decided to change the 5 GHz band setting from “Auto” to fix it at “Channel 161” anyway, using the same method as before:


Once you’ve switched your 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands to clearer channels, you’ll experience less interference from other networks – meaning that you can seamlessly stream music or videos throughout your home, wirelessly, with much less chance of pesky dropouts.