Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman and Ian King report Apple is moving forward with plans to develop an Amazon Echo-like smarthome device based on their Siri virtual personal assistant.
Citing “people familiar with the matter,” the Bloomberg report indicates the project started over two years ago, and has moved beyond the research and development stage, and is now in prototype testing. The device is said to be designed to control appliances, locks, lights, and other smarthome features. The sources warn Apple hasn’t yet finalized plans for the device, and could still scrap the project.
The company is attempting to differentiate itself from Echo and Google Home with more advanced microphone and speaker technology, two people said. Some of the prototypes in testing include facial recognition sensors, another person said. Apple has acquired the facial recognition startups Faceshift and Emotient over the past two years, which may help the device act based on who is in a room or a person’s emotional state.
Besides serving as a controller for other smart-home devices, the speaker would theoretically be able to process many of the Siri commands available on the iPhone. For example, users may be able to ask the device to read e-mails, send text messages and Tweets, and stream content from Apple Music. Apple has also considered integrating mapping information into the speaker, another person said, potentially allowing the device to notify a user when it’s time to leave the house for an appointment.
The Amazon Echo has proven to be a surprise hit, and its technology is now featured in three products from Amazon, and is also in the works for a number of third-party devices. Alphabet, Inc. (Google) is also working on a similar product, Google Home, expected to be released later this year.
An Apple spokesperson has declined to comment on the project.
Apple reportedly made an earlier attempt to include Echo-like functionality into the Apple TV, which would have required users to shout commands to the set top streaming box, much like users do with Amazon’s Echo. That approach was dropped in favor of using a voice-capable remote control, which was included with the fourth-generation Apple TV when it shipped in the fall of 2015. (The Amazon Echo does include a remote for Siri Remote-like commands.)
The new device is said to be a collaboration between Apple’s hardware division and the Siri team. Sources told Gurman and King that Apple engineers have been secretly testing the new gadget in their homes. This is standard operating procedure for new Apple products, as Apple CEO Tim Cook has remarked that he tested the iPad for six month before its debut. Apple employees are said to have tested the fourth-generation Apple TV for around a year or so before its release.