Voice Activated Home Automation Systems

Nothing makes residents and managers more nervous about privacy issues than voice activated technology. But hands-free intelligent devices are becoming indispensable nonetheless.

Privacy concerns notwithstanding, experts say voice activated technology will likely reach “must-have” vs. “value-add” status in the multifamily sector in the not-too-distant future.


Google Home Mini

“I think we as an industry are still working through a couple of issues: one, of course, being the privacy issue and consumer acceptance—not everyone is accepting of the voice activated at this point,” says Rick Haughey, vice president of industry technology initiatives for the National Multi-Housing Council

Recently released data from 2020 NMHC/ Kingsley Apartment Resident Preferences Survey, the largest-ever survey of its kind polling the opinions of 370,000 apartment renters, bears this out.

The newly released report states: “While about a third of respondents are neutral about having voice-activated technology, such as Alexa, Amazon’s cloud-based voice service, or Google Home, in their apartments, 43 percent said they were interested in having such technology, and only a quarter of respondents said they weren’t interested. While about a quarter of respondents in the lowest-income cohort said they had voice activated technology in their apartment, half of the highest-income cohort reported that they had such technology in their apartment.”

The biggest hurdle to industry-wide deployment is privacy concerns and the industry’s need to confirm apartment owners and managers are not running afoul of privacy regulations when it comes to who owns the data collected by voice activated smart devices like Alexa or Google Assistant. Also, who owns the actual devices? “All of that still needs to be worked out,” he said.

Broadly speaking, we’re just starting to see the deployment of smart home technology like smart locks, smart thermostats, smart lighting, smart blinds and smart glass, Haughey notes. Voice activated technology, like anything that makes things easier, is the next logical step not only for multifamily resident units but for property managers as well.

For example, Haughey said, voice activated technology could be integrated into building systems so that a maintenance request could be scheduled by verbal command, integrated into the property management system and tracked by smart technology—a door that would record when a maintenance technician entered and exited a unit. When the resident returned, a personal assistant might give the resident a notification of the maintenance visit much like Alexa delivers audible notifications of package deliveries now.  

How Does Voice Activation Work?

Harman/Kardon Invoke Speaker

Engel & Völkers Atlanta CEO Christa Huffstickler this year began employing Alexa as a virtual tour guide. The executive says she used Alexa at home to help with things like creating a grocery list or playing music and thought, “Why couldn’t Alexa help us showcase homes?”

For one, Huffstickler reasoned, Alexa could help remove some of the awkwardness from the sales process such as when prospective clients follow an agent through a model home and the agent points out obvious things like “this is the bathroom” or “this is the kitchen.”

“But there were these certain features that we wanted to make sure that people knew were in the homes,” Huffstickler said. For instance, letting potential buyers know there’s a backlit mirror in the bathroom and soft-close drawers. “So we came up with this idea that we would actually create of list of questions to tell prospective consumers about the properties we were selling while kind of making it a cool interaction with a technology-type experience,” she said.

So far, Engel & Völkers is deploying Alexa-as-sales-assistant in four of five different communities it’s selling, including District Lofts in Atlantic Station, a 138-acre redeveloped industrial site centrally located in Midtown Atlanta.

Huffstickler says industry-standard smart tech features already include items like smartphone-controlled Nest Thermostats, where users can control the temperature from their smart device and smart locks connected to little cameras that enable the owner to control everything via Bluetooth. (For example, if the owner knows the dog walker is coming to walk the dog, the owner can enter an access code from their desk at work to allow the dog walker in or the cleaning service.)

If the existing technology is already intuitive, then the next-gen features are even more so. Huffstickler points to another project at which her company has installed Alexa in the model home tour. At One Museum Place, a luxury condo development in Midtown Atlanta, for example, the garage opens and an individual elevator deploys for each unit owner.

Appliances can also be connected to smart devices where a user can preheat their oven on the way home or remote into the refrigerator to see how much milk is left and also build grocery lists so the owner is able to keep track of everything that is needed while also connecting to Alexa, which can regurgitate recipe options and walk you through creating a meal, Huffstickler notes.

Walt Zerbe, senior director of technology & standards for Fishers, Ind.-based Custom Electronics Design & Installation Association, a trade association of custom technology integrators, said while voice activated technology is great when it works, it’s still not always easy to use.

Some of the pitfalls of voice activated technology are that it doesn’t always understand your voice, microphones need to be installed everywhere in plain view (corners confuse the technology) and voice activated systems can be inflexible (the system may respond to “dining room chandelier” but it may not understand “dining room light,” for example). 

Technology isn’t getting any easier,” Zerbe pointed out. “It’s getting more complex because there are so many choices and so many things you can put together in so many ways.”

Read the December 2019 issue of MHN.

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