Google Home vs Amazon Echo vs Apple HomePod: Heathrow bemes the first UK airport to get Amazon Alexa skill

The sci-fi vision of a connected home is quickly becoming a reality: both Amazon and Google have launched smart assistants, with an Apple offering based on Siri announced at WWDC 2017.

These products are designed to act as standalone hubs for your digital life. Voice activation systems allow users to ask questions, perform tasks control their IoT appliances, without even having to touch their phones.

We look at how the three major smart assistant products compare to each other, based on the information we’ve currently got. We'll be updating this article as and when we know more so please stay tuned...

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11/01/2018: Transport technology company the Voyage Team has collaborated with Heathrow Airport on a new skill for Amazon Alexa that provides flight information.

Heathrow has become the UK's first airport to get the feature, which allows travellers to ask Amazon's virtual assistant about flight status inforformation, gate updates and details about arrivals and departures.

The two organisations put together a joint project team to explore ways artificial intelligence could be used to improve efficiencies in Europe's largest airport, which resulted in the development of the new Alexa skill.

The skill, which users can access through the Echo speakers, takes information from an estimated 1,300 aircraft movements that happen daily at the airport.

Currently, Heathrow works with more than 84 airlines, so it's constantly inundated with flight data. The Alexa skill aims to sort this information, and it can, the organisations claim, "understand queries related to multiple carriers and interpret alphanumeric codes".

The skill taps into information taken from Heathrow's internal data hub, which is responsible for managing flight schedule information. Customers can access the Alexa skill alongside the official Heathrow website and mobile app.

Stephen Glenfield, senior digital manager at Heathrow, said the airport is constantly looking at ways it can improve customer information services through technology.

"Delivering detailed flight information directly to customers within their homes is another fantastic milestone in improving our digital experience," he said.

"Launching the first airport-specific Alexa Skill in the UK ensures easy access to the latest flight information, helping passengers to plan their journey more effectively and improve their experience from start to finish."

Dave Wood, client Director at the Voyage Team, praised the partnership. "We have worked with Heathrow since 2005 and have a shared focus on providing the best experience for Heathrow customers," he said.

"Alexa is an exciting new frontier in customer service, and by adding an Alexa Skill, Heathrow is ensuring that it is serving technology-savvy customers and is ready for the growing trend in voice based services."

Graham Fletcher, head of research and development at Cubic Transportation systems, told IT Pro AI initiatives like this could revolutionise the transport sector.

"As AI continues to evolve, we'll see digital assistants make their way into new into the transport sector such as in train stations and airports, where high volumes of commuters can benefit from automated, real-time assistance," he said.

"Virtual ticketing machines with human guides are already being trialled in stations across the globe, and it's easy to see how this technology can be enhanced with AI, especially for routine queries, frequently asked questions and directing travellers to local points of interest around cities.

"AI will certainly make these experiences more conversational and reduce the strain on staff, but the key to a successful customer experience will be ensuring a seamless escalation from a virtual bot to a human agent, should a traveller require more personalised guidance."

20/11/2017: The launch of Apple's eagerly awaited HomePod smart speaker has been pushed back from December to early 2018, as it "needs a little more time" to be developed.

The HomePod, which initially appeared at Apple's WWDC event in June, was slated for release in time for the Christmas shopping surge, placing it in a great position to take on the likes of Amazon's Echo and Google's Home smart speakers. However, that has now changed, with the device perhaps proving more complex to produce than initially thought, though Apple hasn't given a specific reason.

"We can't wait for people to experience HomePod, Apple's breakthrough wireless speaker for the home, but we need a little more time before it's ready for our customers," an Apple spokesperson said, speaking to CNET. "We'll start shipping in the US, UK and Australia in early 2018."

At £349, the HomePod promises to be able to deliver Siri-enabled features using some groundbreaking audio hardware, although the specific IoT functions have been kept hidden so far.

Apple needs to have something compelling to show when it releases the device early next year, as its steep asking price risks pushing customers towards the more attractive price points of its rivals, which offer similar features at almost half the cost.

What we do know is that one of its biggest selling points will come from the HomePod's 'Spatial Awareness' feature, a technology that allows the device to automatically detect the space around it, adjusting the audio to best match its surroundings. It also supports Apple Music and will be able to access your library and recommend content based on your history.

06/11/2017: The BBC has announced an interactive audio drama pilot set to be released on voice devices.

Henry Cooke, a producer part of the BBC's R&D team, wrote that the company has teamed up with Rosina Sound to create audio for the story.

Cooke wrote: "The project took shape collaboratively between R&D and Rosina Sound - together, we listened to existing interactive audio stories and, taking inspiration from computer games like The Stanley Parable and Papa Sangre and authors like Franz Kafka and Douglas Adams, the piece evolved into a comedy science fiction audio drama."

He also added that in the pilot users will be able to play an active part in the story with their voice, to make it feel like they are having a direct interaction with the characters.

Cooke said: "We haven't come across any other interactive stories like this on voice devices, and we're excited to see how people respond to it."

The BBC has built a "story engine" which allows them to release the same story across different voice devices. For now, it will be released on the Amazon Alexa and Google Home but Cooke wrote it may make its way across to Microsoft & Harman/Kardon's Invoke speaker, or Apple's HomePod and other devices as they come along.

The pilot is scheduled to be released on BBC Taster before the end of the year.

The BBC trialled AI voice capabilities on iPlayer with Microsoft back in August. Users could issue voice commands to login to the service by saying their name and a phrase.

Operating system

The Amazon Echo is powered by Alexa, an AI core built on AWS' cloud infrastructure. It’s essentially a voice-operated digital assistant, but thanks to machine learning algorithms, it’s designed to get smarter the more you use it, adapting to your vocabulary, speech patterns, and usage habits.

Google Now has been part of the company’s ecosystem for a while now, but it’s now been upgraded to become the Google assistant. Like Google Now, it works across the whole Google portfolio, including Android, ChromeOS and the new Google Home. It’s designed to respond in a natural, conversational manner to voice queries, and is also powered by cloud-based AI technology.

Google Home vs Amazon Echo vs Apple HomePod: Heathrow bemes the first UK airport to get Amazon Alexa skill

Apple was the first major company to introduce a digital assistant into its devices, with the launch of Siri. iPhone users can interact with their apps through Siri, and as of recent software upgrades, can also use Siri voice commands to control their Apple TV. This is what underpins Apple’s HomePod, allowing users to ask questions, control music playback and interact with HomeKit devices.

At the moment, the Google Assistant is the most useful of the current crop, with a wide range of commands, tasks and integrations with various services. It also understands context, meaning you can string consecutive requests together. However, it loses points for its speech engine, which doesn't sound quite as smooth and fluid as Alexa.