Raising the IQ of Multiroom Smart Speakers

Raising the IQ of Multiroom Smart Speakers


At CES this year, many products on the show floor, from microwaves to automobiles, had either Alexa or Google Assistant (or both!) built in. And from what we saw, multiroom, Wi-Fi speakers were no exception. Since Amazon unveiled their flagship voice-activated smart speaker, Echo, in 2014, the audio industry has been drastically shaken. Although they don’t generally produce the best sound quality, smart speakers have become hugely popular. And now, many smart speakers are gaining hi-res audio abilities, like Google Home Max and Apple’s HomePod. And that’s got audio manufacturers worried. In a market dominated by smart speakers (in addition to the roll-out of smart speakers with enhanced audio abilities) CE companies have no choice but “to stay relevant in a Wi-Fi speaker market dominated by Amazon- and Google-branded smart speakers” by designing products that “feature microphones to detect voice commands and come with either Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant built in” (Sound and Vision).


While most audio manufacturers begin to launch multiroom Wi-Fi smart speakers that either incorporate or compete with Google and Amazon’s technology, here are a few key concepts to keep in mind:


Buffering Bummer

Most popular wireless speakers run on conventional Wi-Fi protocols which have to queue the data. This means that it takes several seconds for the first song to fill the buffer before it begins to play. While the first song plays, the system is already buffering the next song to minimize gaps. This is fine until you change the queue before the system can re-buffer. This certainly poses a problem for folks who want to use these wireless, smart speakers in a multiroom set up. Enter Real-Time Packet Management (RPM): the Blackfire solution to buffering. RPM uses a special multipoint, real-time feedback signal from each speaker to monitor the effects of noise on the audio data stream, which allows a much shorter queue and much less buffering.


Get In Sync

Regardless of how “smart” a Wi-Fi speaker is, problems will always arise when it comes to synchronizing multiple speakers in a multiroom set up. Problems facing a standard method of synchronization include: 1) performance that is tied to the performance of the network environment and 2) the more devices you have on a given network, the slower it runs, producing an extended lag between speakers and between your TV and the speakers – even total dropouts. Traffic Independant Synchronization (TIS) is Blackfire’s patented synchronization technology that can be used to sync any number of wireless devices, from multi speaker 5.1 audio systems, stereo systems, smart speakers, and even your entire home theater. Blackfire’s TIS technology always maintains latency between audio and video pairings and among the speakers themselves. And with TIS, the sync of the speakers will remain undisturbed by heavy network traffic.


Interfere Interference

Wireless, multi-speaker systems that use conventional Wi-Fi protocols are more susceptible to interference and heavy network traffic, which causes music to break up and for speakers to go out of sync. Dynamic Stream Balancing (DSB) is the way Blackfire makes the best use of the available Wi-Fi bandwidth. DSB monitors special multipoint, real-time feedback signals from each speaker to identify the effect of noise on the audio data stream. By precisely identifying which packets are statistically most likely to be affected, DSB uses the available Wi-Fi bandwidth to selectively, and predictively, resend data to the most vulnerable speaker before interference can cause any audible drop out.


The Blackfire Realtime Entertainment Distribution (RED) framework

Combining individual entertainment systems to work together (to create a truly connected smart home) is non trivial – it requires precise synchronization, low latency for lip sync and a general reliability over standard Wi-Fi (the best and most commonly used communication protocol for the home.) With The Blackfire Realtime Entertainment Distribution (RED) framework embedded into wireless smart speakers, users can finally enjoy a truly connected home. With voice commands, you can ask any Blackfire enabled device to play music, wirelessly and synchronously throughout the home, in groups, and on multiple devices. The Blackfire RED framework also supports low latency and multi-channel, which other wireless solutions do not.


Voice service solutions require a high performance, multi-room solution like the Blackfire RED framework, which can allow multiple devices to respond to voice commands, simultaneously, and can be integrated into a broad spectrum of high quality voice service applications.


The Blackfire RED framework enhances the performance of smart speakers and does what no other solution has done before. Our partners have already stepped into the future, leveraging Blackfire’s technology in their products. Now is your chance, too. Join the Blackfire revolution today.

CES 2018 Wrap Up

CES 2018 Wrap Up


Blackfire Research is back from Las Vegas, where we spent the entire second week of January at the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES). This year was packed with productive meetings in our official CES Suite at The Venetian Hotel and Casino. However, we did manage to get down to the Sands Expo and Las Vegas Convention Center to check out all the cool, new tech for 2018 – here’s what we saw at CES this year and our takeaways from the show:


Hey Google

If last year’s CES was dubbed “The Amazon Home Takeover,” this year could be summarized by one simple greeting: “Hey Google.” The search engine giant was everywhere this year: literally. They had a massive 3-story booth right outside the convention center, and at every booth that featured products touting Google Home smart speaker/Google Assistant functionality, a Google representative was there, donning a white jumpsuit fresh out of George Orwell’s dystopian vision of 1984. But Google’s overwhelming presence at the show paid off: this year, all eyes were on them. From Whirlpool appliances to smart speakers with video displays, you couldn’t escape the latest “Google Home Takeover.” Amazon was present at CES of course (Whirlpool also featured appliances with Amazon’s Dash Buttons built-in, which is pretty neat and useful) but if a winner had to be chosen for CES 2018, Google would be voted “Best in Show.” Speaking of which…


All (Robot) Dogs Go to Heaven

Sony has brought back their popular Aibo robot dog and everyone at the show couldn’t have been happier. This very good boy is new and improved for the AI age with a camera on his nose so he can recognize members of his family (awww) and find his bone (awww). He also features a camera on his back to help him navigate the house to find his charging station. With touch sensors on his head, back, and chin, he can respond to touch like any ‘ol dog would: by wagging his tail, moving his head, and stomping his widdle feeties. With his adorable LED-lit eyes, this is by far the best, and most realistic, pet robot on the market. Unfortunately, Sony hasn’t announced plans to sell Aibo in the US anytime soon. Doggonit!


A Picture’s Worth A Thousand Words…

This year, we’ve officially stepped into the world of 8K. But since 4K is barely a thing yet (because there’s hardly any 4K content available still) Samsung has gone around the issue of total lack of 8K content by unveiling it’s Q9S 8K TV with AI Upscaling, meaning, that this TV can convert any content into 8K resolution. And from firsthand experience, we can tell you that 8K resolution is pretty darn good. The picture was so incredibly clear that jaws dropped during the demo. Another Samsung showstopper this year was their enormous, bezel-less The Wall: a 146-inch modular MicroLED TV.


Honorable Mentions & Takeaways

5G cellular technology, the latest and greatest approved standard, wasn’t on display much at CES this year, mainly because the hardware needed for it isn’t quite ready yet. There were a few booths demonstrating it’s super-fast capabilities, but overall, it was all quiet on the 5G front at CES. But don’t expect that to last long: with 5G technology coming to the main service providers fast, it’s sure to be all the rage at next year’s event.


Once again, this year’s CES felt more like a car show than anything, with a plethora of smart, autonomous vehicles on display (some of which seemed to be taken straight from an episode of Black Mirror). Also, Wireless charging was big this year, especially since Apple announced their commitment to the Qi Wireless Charging standard last September.

Overall, between the rain and loss of power, this year’s CES was a bit chaotic. But we still managed to see some pretty neat tech that was useful, inspiring and – we hope – becomes available soon (we’re looking at you, Aibo!)

Music Review: Charli XCX, “Pop 2”

Music Review: Charli XCX, “Pop 2”


Charli XCX has a voice that’s inescapable. The English born pop star rose to fame in 2013 after lending her vigorous vocals (and serious songwriting skills) to Swedish DJ duo, Icona Pop, on their hit single “I love It,” and again the following year on rapper Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy.” That same year, Charli XCX’s first international solo hit, “Boom Clap,” was released as the lead single off “The Fault in Our Starsalbum. Charli XCX’s signature style is a unique mixture of pop, punk, and electro, and that’s mainly what helps her stand out from the other, overwhelmingly formulaic, pop acts of today. With her latest mixtape, “Pop 2,” Charli XCX presents a vision of the future of pop music: a deluge of exceptional collaborations, unconventional melodies, and cool, relatable lyrics. Standouts include opener “Backseat” (ft. Carly Rae Jepsen), “Out of My Head” (ft. Tove Lo and ALMA), and “Track 10.” Overall, “Pop 2” offers a strong start for pop music as we head into 2018 – and hopefully, other pop artists can keep up the pace.

The Future is Wireless

The Future is Wireless


It’s hard to imagine a world without wires, but that’s precisely where we may find ourselves in the next few years, with 2018 serving as an especially pivotal moment in wireless adoption and breakthroughs. For years, manufacturers have promised an end to “wirey, tangled-mess woes,” but it’s looking as if they are now making good on their promise. With the prevalence of Wi-Fi in homes, cafes, airports, and basically anywhere else you may find yourself needing internet, the need for physical network cables, like ethernet cables, have pretty much become obsolete. And speaking of cafes and airports: many of them now offer free wireless charging stations.


Since Apple unveiled their commitment to the Qi wireless charging standard in their latest iPhones this past fall, the wireless charging industry, which had been plagued by a lack of standardization, seems to be siding with Qi from here on out. Soon after the big Apple announcement, Powermat, who provide wireless charging mats at Starbucks, said that they will add Qi compatibility to their product. But Apple isn’t the only company who has sided with Qi: Samsung (Galaxy S8, Note 8), IKEA, and a plethora of automobile manufacturers have began to support Qi wireless charging. Who else will begin to support this standard in 2018? We expect a lot more manufacturers to follow suite. However, this sort of charging isn’t technically wireless (the charging mat still needs to be plugged into an outlet). But there are a few companies who are creating charging options that are truly wireless, such as Energous, Ossia, and Wi-Charge. (To learn more about these companies, check out this blog post).


To the irritation of many users, smartphones are doing away with the 3.5mm audio jack, paving the way for the exclusive use of Bluetooth wireless headphones (unless you use a dongle to plug your wired headphones into your phone’s Lightning port or USB-C port). But companies like Apple and Google would rather you spend $150+ on a pair of their wireless AirPods or Pixel Buds. And unfortunately for all us audio-enthusiasts out there: the audio quality produced by Bluetooth headphones is worse than a wired headset because audio is re-compressed over Bluetooth. So, the extinction of the audio jack on the smartphone may solve the problem of having to untangle your headphones before each use, but it significantly cheapens the user’s listening experience.  


But there are many things to look forward to in the years ahead: there’s the expansion of wireless charging for laptops and 5G wireless services, just to name a few. And we’re sure to see many more innovations down the road, because wireless technology is essential to the smart home of the future. But one thing we know for sure: with Blackfire technology embedded into a smartspeaker, smart TV, set top box, smartphone and more, the whole home can be wirelessly connected. Combining individual entertainment systems to work together, creating a truly connected smart home is non trivial – it requires precise synchronization, low latency for lip sync, and a general reliability over standard Wi-Fi (the best and most commonly used communication protocol for the home.) Something like this has not been done before – until now.

Blackfire provides the industry’s only wireless and entertainment-centric infrastructure software framework built from the ground up to both overcome the limitations of Wi-Fi when used for media applications, and meet the needs of wireless entertainment-related consumer applications and products. It’s not enough to merely have Wi-Fi connectivity between consumer products. Real-time exchanges of entertainment content require a common framework that can work reliably over Wi-Fi, and has a rich set of features for a broad spectrum of entertainment products. Blackfire technology also supports low latency and multi-channel, which other wireless solutions do not.


It may be hard to imagine a world without wires, but with Blackfire in your entertainment devices, cutting the cord has never felt more seamless.

Revenge of the Smart TV

Revenge of the Smart TV


According to research firm Parks Associates, 45% of U.S. broadband households own a Smart TV, “making it the most commonly used platform for streaming video content among this group.” Additionally, roughly 60% of the those surveyed said that the device display on a Smart TV is easier to navigate and easier to find content than other connected devices, such as a set top box (STB).


Despite the high praise from devoted users, overall sales of Smart TVs, including those with 4K/Ultra HD resolution, have plateaued in recent years. “As a result, we are seeing new partnerships among device manufacturers focused on ways to improve or refresh the UI [user interface] of the smart TV, to make the device easy to use and a single point of content in the living room,” says Jennifer Kent, Director of research quality and product development at Parks Associates.


Additionally, streaming services are only gaining in popularity. Thanks to engaging, original content and an abundance of mainstay classics, streaming services like Netflix and Hulu are gradually killing cable. Data from financial services company Raymond James “shows that 31 percent of Internet users polled in November cited a streaming service such as Netflix or Hulu as their primary source of video content, up from 24 percent a year ago and only a few percent behind the 35 percent of survey respondents who named cable as their primary video source.” (Sound and Vision) That means, now, more than ever, entertainment device manufacturers need to start designing their products with streaming at the forefront.


Another feature that has been gaining traction over the last few years is voice control, and we should expect to see more entertainment devices, such as Smart TVs, unveil voice control functionality in 2018. Research from Parks Associates shows that “consumer demand is pushing voice control into the connected entertainment area” fueling it’s growth in the market.


This study proves that instead of having many disparate devices that play media throughout the home, consumers want to have access to all their entertainment content – such as music and video streaming services – from one central place. And what better place than the living room TV? Establishing the living room TV as a central hub from which all entertainment content can be easily accessed (and sent out to other devices in a multi-room setup) cuts down on the confusion for what can be played from which device. It’s time the TV stepped into the 21st century…

Implemented into the home’s central Smart TV, Blackfire’s revolutionary new protocol, The Blackfire Realtime Entertainment Distribution (RED) framework, allows users to to create a wireless, whole home entertainment system. With the Blackfire RED framework embedded in wireless speakers and the Smart TV, users can finally enjoy a truly wireless, connected home. The Blackfire RED framework is the most synchronous, reliable, and cost effective wireless solution on the market, and can be integrated into a broad spectrum of high quality voice service applications as well. Many companies have already stepped into the future by leveraging Blackfire’s technology. Now is your chance. Join the Blackfire Revolution today.