The Cortana smart home: Your need to know on Microsoft's AI assistant

You could be chatting to Microsoft's AI assistant in your home by the end of the year
Need to know: Cortana smart home

You can already talk to Cortana, Microsoft's digital, voice based assistant, in your home using your smartphone or PC. This is different, though. Microsoft recently unveiled its plans, after months of teasing, for a Cortana powered smart home. The real deal. It's not letting Amazon have all the fun anymore.

This space is already pretty crowded with Alexa, Google Voice and Siri jostling for our attention and playing nice with pretty much every gadget and appliance we might allow into our apartments or houses.

Microsoft reckons 145 million people already use it and it does have some advantages over the rest; for instance, it integrates with Microsoft software which could be really useful for work planning.

To start using Cortana in your home, it's worth noting that you need to first be running the Cortana app on your phone - iPhone (iOS 8.0 or higher), Android (4.1.2 or higher) or Windows Phone (Windows 10) - or else on your PC (Windows 10).

Here's what you need to know about how Cortana works in the home.

What can Cortana do?

Cortana and the smart home: Your essential guide

So what can Cortana do in the smart home in 2017? We'll run down a few features that are arriving with the Harman Kardon Invoke (below) as this is what we expect to see from most Cortana devices from now on. If the features list looks familiar, that's because how Cortana works in the home is very similar to Alexa and Google Voice.

The main features are as follows: you can control things like your music, smart thermostat and smart lights via Cortana voice commands and you can ask questions and receive answers from the web - check the news, weather and traffic, set reminders and manage your calendars.

Cortana uses natural language processing so like the other AI assistants, you should be able to have a conversation with it rather than barking specific commands. For instance, it knows that "I need a taxi" and "call me a cab" mean the same thing. Cortana is generally quite accurate at voice recognition though we'll be testing it thoroughly when we get our first smart speaker in for review.

The most interesting feature, though, is Skype calls. Cortana devices in the home will let you make Skype voice calls to landlines, mobile phones and other Skype devices. This shows that it's bringing Cortana on a par with Amazon and Google which have both just announced a similar voice calling feature. Like these two rivals, Microsoft may limit this feature to block incoming calls being sent to your home speaker. Makes sense.

Cortana Skills

Cortana and the smart home: Your essential guide

As with Alexa Skills, Cortana is getting its own set of Skills to expand the smart home controls available through the Cortana devices.

Cortana Skills, as on Google Home, will be available without the user needing to download them and there will be a Skill directory to discover new third party services. And if you give your permission Cortana can use what it learns about your preferences and schedule to tweak recommendations and experiences.

The Skills Kit went live in public preview in February for developers so by the time we see the first device(s) this fall, there should be plenty to get going with. Microsoft is also trying to woo devs who have already been involved with Alexa by creating a simple method, using its Bot Framework, to port Amazon Skills over to Cortana Skills.

At Microsoft's Build conference, we got a few early names with 46 Skills at launch. Weather app Dark Sky is on board so you could say "Hey Cortana, ask Dark Sky for today's weather forecast" to start using it. There's also already a Domino's Skill so you can start ordering pizza once you've linked an account. (That's the only sort of setup required).

The list also includes Skills for OpenTable, TuneIn, iHeartRadio, Food Network, StubHub and Skyscanner. These Cortana Skills are in early preview and we'd expect that list to get a lot larger in the next few months.

Cortana powered devices

Cortana and the smart home: Your essential guide

So far we have one Cortana powered smart home device that has been properly announced, in the form of the Harman Kardon Invoke. It's a cylindrical smart speaker that will be released in the US only this fall.

The metallic-looking Invoke comes in two colours - Pearl Silver and Graphite Black - and features a blue, glowing light on the top. This is referred to as "Cortana lighting" but Harman also talks about a 'touch to surprise' user interface on the top of the speaker. We don't know what it's made out of aside from that Harman says it is "crafted from premium materials".

Harman Kardon refers to it as a voice activated speaker with all the features listed above. The Invoke projects sound at 360-degrees but aside from this, and Harman's promise that the sound will fill a large room, we haven't heard much about the specs.

The Cortana speaker also features Harman's 360 Sonique far-field voice recognition tech which uses seven microphones, together with noise reduction and echo cancellation to pick up what you're saying even when it's noisy.

There's no official price yet but if you're interested in the Invoke, you can register your interest to be notified when it goes on sale.

What's coming next

More Cortana devices are coming, that's what. We know that HP is building its own Cortana powered smart speaker but that's still shrouded in mystery. Intel is helping to build a reference platform for Cortana in the home too. Microsoft says we should expect more Cortana speakers, smart appliances, fridges, thermostats and even connected car devices via the Cortana SDK. With the Amazon Echo Show featuring a screen, it's only a matter of time before we get the Microsoft version of that.

On a side note, Microsoft will also launch a Home Hub feature on its Windows 10 PCs - this will boost Cortana's functions, helping to manage shared family PCs too.

As we mentioned, we also expect to hear a lot more about Cortana Skills as well as details on smart home controls and Skype calling between now and the end of the year. Both Amazon and Google have been pushing out minor updates to their smart speakers, going toe-to-toe over the past few months so we reckon Microsoft will make sure there's no feature or Skill that the Echo or Home has that Cortana doesn't.

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