LG's Putting Alexa in Everything (Except Phones)

By Sascha Segan Features PCmag

Alexa has a body and a face now, and she looks a lot like Eve from the movie WALL-E. In a meeting at LG's Seoul headquarters, we got a closer look at LG's upcoming robot home hub, which could be the center of an Alexa-enabled home when it comes out early in 2018.

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LG is preparing two robot SmartThinq hubs (pronounced "Smart Thin Q," by the way), and while it's still figuring out functionality, they'll both hook into new LG appliances and third-party electronics with Alexa, according to product sales manager Wez Sookyum Kim.

"The mother and daughter hubs, they share the same features and the same functionality," Kim said. "The one with the bigger screen can watch movies and videos. The smaller one, you would take to your office or on a picnic."

The hubs have cameras above their screens, potentially for face tracking and face recognition, and they "dance" by wiggling around adorably when you play music.

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Why a robot and not just a speaker, or—like Samsung's SmartThings hub—a box? Kim said the bot form was "more interactive," something you're more likely to talk to and relate to.

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I don't usually see products from major manufacturers this early in their development, and Kim was pretty open about the potential features they're trying out. The small hub/speaker will have a battery pack and either its own 4G module, or it will connect to your phone via Bluetooth. The larger one is designed to sit in your home, and it'll have Wi-Fi, Zigbee, Z-Wave, and Bluetooth to connect your gadgets.

"We're still in the early stage of concept planning; things could change!" Kim said.

The hubs currently run Android, but LG isn't married to any particular OS platform. "We've had meetings with Google. Even [LG's own] webOS is an option for us down the road," Kim said. "At IFA we had the Windows refrigerator, and at CES we had the webOS refrigerator."

Alexa vs. Bixby?

LG's flagship G6 phone uses the Google Assistant, not Alexa, so LG has clearly left a door open to using Google as a primary partner. But LG's Alexa partnership gives it an easy way to hook together its home appliances with the most popular third-party smart home brands, which generally have existing Alexa skills.

Kim confirmed that LG has "a bit of privileged" access to the Alexa service, which could give it abilities beyond most third-party skill builders. So while LG has its own sensors, smart bulbs, and motion sensors, Alexa lets it connect with brands that are more popular in the US, like Philips and Honeywell.

"It's relatively difficult to penetrate the [smart home] market in the US," because of existing big brands, Kim said.

LG's open approach is a counter to Samsung's Bixby voice control system, which Samsung CTO Injong Rhee said will appear on Samsung devices first.

This year, all of LG's higher-end home appliances will be Wi-Fi-enabled, reps said. The company is focusing on making its smart home gadgets easier to set up and connect to each other, with deeper AI features coming a few years down the road.

AI is coming first to LG's robotic vacuum cleaner, which is learning to avoid objects in a room. I kicked back with a few LG reps and speculated about what it could do in their other product lines. For washing machines and dishwashers, it could monitor electric rates during the day and make sure to do your wash when power was cheapest, for instance.

"Saving money is a huge reason to adopt smart appliances," LG spokesman Ken Hong said.

By 2020, your fridge could analyze what's inside it, cross reference that with online receipes, and download a recipe program to your oven. "Everyone in this industry is trying to figure out what people really want. The one who gets it properly will be successful," Kim said.

This article originally appeared on PCMag.com.