27 LG WK7 cSmart speakers may be cool, but the technology on sale now is just the start. Current offerings are limited only to what they hear, and then they don’t know if it’s an actual human or a radio. Maybe even a parrot. Next generation smart speakers will respond to your deeds as well as your words because they’ll be watching you.

In May researchers at the Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh demonstrated an idea they call SurfaceSight, which is intended to give smart speakers vision as well as hearing. The researchers, led by Chris Harrison and Gierad Laput, fitted SurfaceSight to an Amazon Echo speaker and this prototype bounced revolving electromagnetic waves around its vicinity and, by measuring how long they took to return, built up a 360-degree image of what was around it. It can thus be trained to recognise hand gestures and respond to them.

27 LG WK7 eBut the software doesn’t just cover gestures, it can also identify common household objects. This means, for example, that the device can detect cooking utensils and ingredients laid out on a work surface and check that everything is available to prepare a specific dish. If it detects a smartphone it can pair with it to access music and data.

Swipe the air and it can skip a music track or change an image on a powerpoint presentation. And while it cannot (yet) recognise individual people, it can recognise how many people are in the room and in which direction they’re facing, which is handy if you’re worried that your presentation may not be getting the attention it deserves. It can even tell those rude rear-facing people to pay attention.

This opens a can of worms with privacy (my speaker is not only listening to me, it’s also watching me), which is why the developers have restricted its field of vision to what’s in its immediate vicinity. This, they admit, restricts its utility significantly.

There is separate research going on in training smart speakers to recognise particular sounds. If it hears breaking glass, for example, it can tell you someone is breaking into your house. The downside is that if it hears you un-tabbing a drink can on a hot afternoon it may just send you an ad for beer.

Not all smart speakers are created so smart. Take LG’s $299 WK7 XBoom, for example, which interacts with Google Assistant. This has been developed in association with premium audio brand Meridian and promises high resolution sound, up to 24-bit/96-kHz resolution. It’s compatible with several digital audio formats and hooks into your Wi-Fi easily and fast. And it sounds good. But not with Bluetooth, which I suspect will be the channel of choice for most users.

On Bluetooth the music is flat and boring. I lost interest in it, my mind wandered. Was it me? I put the same music through the stereo and bam, there was the involvement again, rich and full. Turned out the WK7’s Bluetooth is standard SBC and the sound upscaling software couldn’t save it.

27 LG WK7 aI didn’t go to LG about this, I went to Meridian. I said that I was surprised a product with Meridian’s name on it used SBC rather than Bluetooth aptX-HD. Did they know about this when they signed off on it? Meridian’s director of marketing, Katy Bradshaw said that the WK7’s core function is voice control and “it is not positioned as a premium Bluetooth speaker.”

Given that it’s fitted with a 24-bit/96 kHz high-res audio DAC and LG’s website talks of “heart stopping high-fidelity sound”, well, you could have fooled me.

First published by smh.com.au July 2019.


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