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The Alexa Podcast - Episode 5

Co-hosts: Bradley Metrock (CEO, Score Publishing) and Kevin Old (software developer, LifeWay)

Guest: Aaron Emigh - CEO and co-founder, Brilliant

Duration: 27 minutes, 59 seconds

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[intro music]


Bradley Metrock: [00:00:11] Hi, and welcome back to The Alexa Podcast - Episode 5. My name is Bradley Metrock - I'm CEO of a company called Score Publishing, based in Nashville, Tennessee. My co-host is Kevin Old - Kevin, say hello!


Kevin Old: [00:00:26] Hi everyone.


Bradley Metrock: [00:00:27] Kevin, great to be back with you. Kevin is a software developer for LifeWay, here in town. Kevin, it feels like it's been a while.


Kevin Old: [00:00:34] It has certainly been a while.


Bradley Metrock: [00:00:36] Looking forward to being back in the saddle with you. We've got a fantastic guest today: Aaron Emigh of Brilliant. Aaron, say hello!


Aaron Emigh: [00:00:45] Good to be here. Thanks for having me.


Bradley Metrock: [00:00:48] Aaron, what you're doing is really fascinating. And what I'd like to do, just to start the show off, is for you to describe to us and the audience...give us your 30-second elevator pitch on what Brilliant does, so the audience can understand.


Aaron Emigh: [00:01:04] Brilliant is a new kind of smart home control. It lets you control any smart devices in your home, via touch and voice, from anywhere in the house. It does that by replacing a standard light switch, so it provides a smart lighting system out of the box. And then, on top of that, it gives you a touch control, right there where the switch used to be, and a voice control as well, which includes access to Alexa.


Bradley Metrock: [00:01:31] We talked a little bit before the show got underway about how a lot of great companies have the origin story of how the founder or the founders needed something, or they wanted something. They went to the marketplace expecting it to be there waiting on them. It wasn't, so they had to create it themselves. That is the story with Brilliant. Share with us a little bit about how you guys got started.


Aaron Emigh: [00:01:58] Yeah absolutely. And I think I think you're absolutely right that that's something that is a common thread amongst a lot of companies that got started....because companies that are started not as some sort of abstract idea, but rather to fulfill a genuine need, tend to better reflect a need because it's real, it's something that the founders felt themselves and felt passionate about and knew exactly what they wanted to bring into the world because they wanted it themselves.


Aaron Emigh: [00:02:23] And that is what happened with Brilliant. I was taking some time off after I sold my last company and I was working on a home remodel project and at the same time I was talking with my co-founders about what we wanted to do next. I was putting in a lot of different smart home devices into my house and I liked them individually but I was finding that the more I put in the house the less I liked using my house. It was getting kind of artificial. It was strange that if I'm sitting on my sofa and I want to dim the lights in the room that I'm sitting there in or I want to lock the door that I would have to go get my phone and authenticate myself and launch an app and navigate some menus and move a slider. And it seemed like these things that were supposed to be making my life simpler and better were in fact complicating my relationship with my house. I realized what I wanted was something that was very simple, that lived all through the house as a sort of an ambience computing capability that was just always there.


Aaron Emigh: [00:03:21] Except it would be there because it's so necessary. Not just for the homeowner but imagine you're a guest in somebody's house. You don't have the right app installed. You don't have the right authorizations or you're a kid, you don't have a smartphone yet. So it's just sort of a necessary thing, in my view, toward using the house and I was kind of surprised that when I went out looking for it I found that there wasn't any such thing. I researched it a lot and I talked with people who were very active in the smart home market and they all said, "Wow, you're right. That would be a really great thing if only it existed." That was before the Echo had come out, before Alexa came out. So I think they've done a good job of providing those first steps toward ambient computing in the home. Still we feel like the whole picture has to incorporate touch and it has to be ubiquitous throughout the entire home.


Bradley Metrock: [00:04:09] One of our VoiceFirst FM Shows is This Week in Voice and we keep track of all the different stories going on in voice technology every week. And Amazon makes that a little tough to keep up with because they come up with...they're constantly rolling out new features. And my question for you is how has Amazon's leadership in the marketplace and constantly coming out with new things shaped the way that Brilliant and your core product has evolved since that point?


Aaron Emigh: [00:04:38] Well Amazon has done a really good job of maintaining relationships with those companies that they've identified as doing something interesting with Alexa. We've been fortunate to be amongst that population from the start. Something that Amazon is good at as a corporation is really approaching these kinds of things like a startup would. So I actually think it's easier to work with a company that's innovating fast and is rolling out new stuff and is trying new things because that's the way we are. That makes it very easy to understand because we're both just trying to make something and make something good. A lot of large companies move at a much slower pace, it's harder for them to introduce new things due to the way that their organizations are structured. Amazon keeps the teams pretty nimble. And I think that's been a big plus for us because you know they're thinking about rolling out touch features and so on where we've got touch features that actually makes it, in my mind, easier to work with them because when we say, "You know what we could really use..." it doesn't come as a surprise to them. They're already thinking about it. There have been several of these instances where they've rolled things out that we're already working on or already thinking of. In some cases it means that there's some work that we don't need to pursue because they're rolling out something that covers what we've already done. But that's far outweighed by the fact that it's just easier to deal with a corporation from a startup's point of view that's busy, innovating, that cares about their product, and is improving it over time.


Bradley Metrock: [00:06:05] So the light switch itself...the form factor appears...the very first thing I thought of was this is an Echo Show that you just plastered over a light switch and I think it's interesting just to think about the implications that Amazon coming out with the Echo Show may have on your business. I think it will be very positive. Have you had a chance to use the Echo Show?


Aaron Emigh: [00:06:32] Absolutely.


Bradley Metrock: [00:06:33] What are your thoughts on that product and what have you learned from the Echo show that maybe you've incorporated into your light switch?


Aaron Emigh: [00:06:42] I would say with the Echo Show...that I think it's a really important strategic step for them and actually it's pretty funny because the Echo Show came out three days after I published an article whose title was, "Why the next Echo will include a screen." So it didn't surprise us although we had no inside information on it. You know we expected that they would be coming out with one because just from our own experience in understanding the user interactions and the user needs, it was necessary. Voice is great for some things, but it's not great for everything. If you're trying to interactively adjust the volume of something or if you just simply try to do something fast and know anything that requires any kind of interaction that requires reviewing a lot of information, a voice-only interface is really not suitable for it. So in order to expand the range of things for which an Echo could be used, Amazon needed to do something with a screen. It wasn't a surprise at all. I would say I view it a little bit...I mentioned before how Amazon operates, in many ways, like a startup. I think it's sort of an MVP, in some ways. Its first step toward touch, I think is a good first step. I think we've been working on touch interfaces a bit longer than they have in this particular application and also with a different size screen and a different location and so on. So it's quite different and I think you'll see that what we've done is very tailored for the home whereas the Echo of all stripes, even the Echo Show, is the more general purpose device and with the idea being that you can shop at Amazon, you can use it as a general assistant, and so on. Whereas we're very focused on the use within the home and we've optimized our entire user experience around controlling your home because that's the one application that we're really focused on now. You can do anything on our device that you can do on an Echo but that's not really what it's optimized for. What it's optimized for is seeing immediately everything that's in your house, being able to go straight to that, and control it. So you know you can always do a better job for one particular application, by building something specifically for that application.


Bradley Metrock: [00:09:01] And you know it's just interesting to look at the two. Obviously yours is going to be much better suited for the home, you've been thinking about that for a longer period of time. You've obviously optimized for that. It's interesting to compare the two just on sort of the form factor alone.


Aaron Emigh: [00:09:20] Well you're absolutely right that the form factor of the device makes a big difference because the Echo Show being a standalone device that's fairly substantial and it sits on a table. So that makes it a very different kind of device than something that sits inside your wall just exposing a small screen where your light switch used to be. The light switches have been designed to be interacted with. They're the home control that you interact with the most in the course of your day. So putting a touch screen there is a very natural thing to extend that from controlling your lighting to controlling everything and you have more room so you can pick which rooms you want it in and so on. Whereas people aren't necessarily going to put 10 Echo Shows into their house. That would be a little obtrusive.


Bradley Metrock: [00:10:04] Oh, not at all. Not at all and I think as you've just said having an Echo or an Echo Show or any of those things is sort of standalone hardware in your house. It's very unnatural. Amazon has sold us on it, they've done a good job of explaining the value of doing that. But long term you know these devices, just like the computer, is like shrinking, shrinking, shrinking, until it's going to go away and be embedded in your clothing or glasses or something like that. These devices are going to disappear. And so where are they going to go? Well, being embedded in an electronic panel that replaced your lightswitch is a pretty good guess. You've got a fascinating product. I'm very impressed and intrigued.


Kevin Old: [00:10:50] I read an article that was published earlier in the year by TechHive and it quotes Aaron saying that you wanted an a la carte option because it suits your hacker's background. And that kind of speaks to me. And I'm wondering what your take is on these devices as far as hackability and customization that their users need.


Aaron Emigh: [00:11:18] I think you know one of the things that's fueled the popularity of the Alexa platform is obviously the ability to create new skills pretty a developer and if you've got something that's appropriate, why wouldn't you have one? You'd have to be crazy not to. And that's the kind of dynamic that you want. So we will be opening up our platform to allow people to do various kinds of third party integrations. That's a very important part of that. And you know my background is very much coming from a kind of a hacker's point of view as are the backgrounds of both of my co-founders. So we feel very strongly that that's the kind of thing that we want to open up. At the same time we're busy building a set of functionality right now. So it's more of something that we'll do after launch than the thing that we're first focused on.


Kevin Old: [00:12:08] I think it's a great idea you have to prove that the consumer can just get a very workable version out there and installed. And I assume as requests and feedback comes in from users you'll be able to tailor that custom platform.


Aaron Emigh: [00:12:23] Yeah, that's exactly right and you also have to balance that hackability with security. Because obviously when you're putting devices into your house you have to make sure that they're very, very secure. So what you need to do is create a kind of sandbox where you've clearly defined what third party code can and cannot do on your device because if you open it up too much then people will commandeer the microphones and the camera and so on and that's the last thing that you want. So it's very important to think about security, and to design security from the ground up and then be very thoughtful about how you open it up in a way that preserves the security of the device and at the same time allows people to use their creativity and add things that you would never have thought to or had the resources to.


Kevin Old: [00:13:18] Yeah, absolutely. I was actually going right there with a security question. So I know that these devices, the more we place them in our homes and on our networks, there's all of these best practices about placing your devices on a different subnet so that it's not with your main traffic. And then obviously keeping this up to date with latest firmware and I'm aware that the Nest for instance has built their device with a way that they can push out firmware updates. And I was wondering what your take is on that and how you guys have approached that problem.


Aaron Emigh: [00:13:59] Yeah. That's one of the critical things that you have to do because you're never going to get things 100 percent right as an engineer. There is going to be a stability improvement, there's going to be a lot of new functionality that rolls out, so we don't look at this just in terms of security updates. We look at this the same way, for example, Tesla does, where you buy a Tesla and then at some point in the future it learns how to park itself and then you know one day it can drive itself on the freeway, someday it's going to be able to drive itself autonomously as long as it has the hardware sensors in it. And so we want the same kind of experience where you buy the product and then it just keeps getting better, it keeps adding new skills, so we've built in, from the start, an over-the-air update facility. The critical thing again, as we were just talking about, is to make that secure. It's a disaster when you have devices that are updateable by somebody other than the manufacturer. So you need to make sure that all of the code that gets shipped out onto there is signed, and that it's also cryptographically secure and that you know that an update is legitimate and only apply it if so and that you have a lot of fail-safes. We've seen a couple of these devices, not our devices, but a couple of smart home devices get bricked out in the field where people can no longer use them because an update failed. And that's just completely unacceptable. So you have to be careful in engineering it, in order to do it right and not rush it out but take the time to engineer it properly.


Aaron Emigh: [00:15:34] But we view that as just a fundamental requirement for the market because you know what we can do three years after launch is going to be markedly different than what we could do at launch and you have to be able to incorporate that as Amazon does.


Kevin Old: [00:15:49] I want to talk a little bit about Amazon specifically and the Alexa voice service, like the skill creation and maintenance. What are your thoughts on the Alexa skill building process and the Alexa voice service itself with the needs that you guys have?


Aaron Emigh: [00:16:12] Yeah, I think Amazon's done an amazing job providing a platform there and the creation of a skill itself is quite simple and quite straightforward. It does require some use of Amazon's infrastructure which may, in some cases, not be exactly what you do with a blank sheet of paper but that's fine. What's important is that they've provided a really solid infrastructure and a methodology for using it. I do think that for our particular application some of the choices are a little bit less than optimal. You know in particular the kinds of things that you have to say to invoke functionality that isn't part of the smart home skills API for example. So....having to say Alexa ask Brilliant to blah blah blah, instead of just being able to say what it is that you wanted to do in your home. So they've added that capability for lights and for temperature for some very specific use cases. And I think they'll be expanding that over time. I know they'll be expanding that over time, but I don't know exactly how, and that's going to be a big improvement because it's rather strange for a user to be interacting with a Brilliant control speaking to Alexa telling it to ask Brilliant to do something when you're speaking to the Brilliant control. So I think a lot of the clunky-ness comes when you're accessing third party endpoints like a Brilliant control but it's the same thing if you're if you're using any kind of a third party endpoint. Another thing is that they're sort of endpoint agnostic.


Aaron Emigh: [00:17:42] So you can't just sort of walk into a room and say turn on the light you have to specify what light you want, you know this kind of thing. So there are a few things like that that are probably not quite the way that they would have designed it if they were looking at home control as the fundamental use case right from the very beginning. But given that this was something that you know really took off in a way that I think they probably hadn't quite anticipated when they first designed it....I think they've done an admirable job of adjusting to that and making it better over time and I have confidence they're going to keep doing that.


Kevin Old: [00:18:17] Awesome. Yeah. So how close do you work with the Alexa team? Have you been giving feedback to Amazon with your use case or was it something you were able to build your skill and just run it without engaging the engineering team?


Aaron Emigh: [00:18:35] No, we've been giving them feedback throughout and you know I don't know. I'm sure other people have been giving them similar feedback. So I'm not going to claim credit for all the wonderful new things that they've launched and so on but I think it's important in a partnership that it's a bidirectional thing and that you're trying to make things better as well as your partner and giving them all the feedback there and I think it wasn't...I don't think we gave them any feedback that was exceptionally surprising to them because they have a good team working there and they are thinking about these things. You always understand as an engineer or as a product person you know quite some distance ahead. You know the ways in which your product can be improved because you're actively working on it but it's still good to get that feedback from the market rather than just internally. So we've been providing them with feedback and they've been very good at listening to it.


Kevin Old: [00:19:32] That's awesome. One last question. I noticed in that same TechHive article, it talks about a built-in slider to cover the camera when it's not being used. I think that's huge. That's something that these devices like the Echo Show or any other device including laptops that come with cameras these days....they don't have that thought that went in to adapting something for privacy and I just wonder if you could talk about how that slider came about in your development process.


Aaron Emigh: [00:20:09] Yeah. Right from the start I felt that was absolutely essential. We have partnerships across a lot of different sectors in smart home and some of our advisers who were executives in the security industry, had told us that one of the things that's interesting to know about security is that the security industry has managed to put a lot of cameras outdoors and not nearly as many indoors. And in thinking about that, the main consumer objection that was cited is privacy and aesthetics. You know you don't want a camera there in the room making you feel self-conscious and you also want to be able to easily turn it off and on.


Aaron Emigh: [00:20:52] So with the Brilliant control the camera isn't sitting there staring at you, it's a very discreet little camera and you wouldn't necessarily look at it and think it was a camera at all. And we knew that it was essential to put to put the privacy shutter on there because you're absolutely right identifying that as a very important consideration because I think if you're going to put cameras in your home you want to control when they're on and when they're off. You can only trust software so much. So you want to make sure that there's something that's opaque that's in front of it. It's very simple and little things like that, that are very important in people's homes because homes are a place where you count on privacy and you count on it being your space and it's under your control how it's configured. So we agree with you that it's very, very important. It is surprising how few devices do that sort of thing.


Bradley Metrock: [00:21:47] Are there any plans within your product roadmap to incorporate Google Assistant, Siri, or other voice assistants or are you satisfied just being Alexa-centric or Alexa only?


Aaron Emigh: [00:22:03] Boy, we could we could talk for a whole half hour about that. I believe that in the future we're going to live in a multi-assistant world. I don't think that any of the voice platforms that are out there now or any of them that are going to be introduced are going to do everything that you want them to do. And just like you might talk to different friends when you have different things that you want to talk about. You'll want to talk to different assistants when you have different things that you want done. You know right now I would say Alexa has the has a strong lead when it comes to home integrations and control and so on and obviously for shopping that's what you talk to. On the other hand, Google Assistant or Siri do a better job asking general questions and providing answers and a more unrestricted domain. And I think that's going to continue. And there's going to be further differentiation and you're going to have new assistants that are being introduced all the time for particular topics and so our roadmap is very much to allow you to talk to whichever assistant you want to talk to and be able to allow you to do that seamlessly. You even see in the marketplace, I'm sure you've looked into the partnership between Amazon and Microsoft where you can access Alexa and Cortana through each other. So the major voice platforms are already starting to acknowledge that and starting to think of ways to work together. I think it's a little bit clunky when it's done that way through voice. I think it's more natural to just start talking to whichever one you want to and have it go where you intended. And that's what our view is about user interface, and we don't think that that's a temporary thing. We think that long term that just makes sense from the consumer's point of view.


Bradley Metrock: [00:23:54] The Microsoft and Amazon partnership aside, which is a huge development, is there any contractual stuff in the way? Any sort of hindrance or roadblock from any of the companies that would prohibit you from having your panel in the home, incorporate all the different assistants? Amazon's not making you sign something that says you can only have an Alexa running through your hardware, are they? There's nothing like that out there I hope.


Aaron Emigh: [00:24:27] Well I mean you know I think there are NDAs about some of the specific terms but I think Amazon has a good understanding of the market and of what's needed there. And I would think you can see that through the evidence of partnering with Microsoft. I can't speak for everybody. We haven't worked with everybody yet on it but we are working with a couple other folks as well. And there seems to be a general acknowledgment that each company obviously thinks they're good and they are good at certain things but they recognize that there's value elsewhere as well. So I think that that's inevitably the way it's going.


Bradley Metrock: [00:25:07] Last question for you. So it's fascinating to me...we have a show on VoiceFirst FM, one of our shows is called The Voice of Healthcare and that show examines the rapidly growing intersection between voice technology and the healthcare sector in general. Have you thought about the many different healthcare applications your panel, your product could potentially have within the home? Talk to us a little bit about your thoughts on that.


Aaron Emigh: [00:25:37] Yeah, absolutely. There are a rich variety of applications here once you get a smart device into the home that has all these kinds of capabilities and is connected throughout the home. Just like once you put a computer in the home suddenly you can do all sorts of things. Once you put a computer in your pocket and you can do all sorts of things. Same kind of thing once you have computers in your walls with these sensors - it's going to open up all kinds of telemedicine applications. It's going to open up all kinds of eldercare applications. I mean imagine that your home is smart enough to know how it's being used. A lot of us have elderly parents and they're on their own but we want to make sure that they're OK. If there's a disruption in the use of the house, the house can actually communicate with your parent and if they're not getting a response they can alert you that there might be a problem. You can check in and make sure it's OK. It enables, as you say, direct telemedicine kinds of applications, where you can talk to a health care provider directly and you've got video right there and they can take a look at something or whatever is needed there they can present information on the screen. This getting a little bit futuristic, and hospital systems and medical systems are slow to change. So it's going to be a while before they can bring stuff up and show you your x-ray on the screen and you know this kind of stuff, but it's coming. It's absolutely coming and you know it's incumbent on us to understand that and to think about it today because we're designing the systems that people are going to be using tomorrow.


Bradley Metrock: [00:27:10] I'm glad you named your company Brilliant, because what you're doing is brilliant. We're going to let you go, so you can hurry up and get this product out to market so I can buy it.


Aaron Emigh: [00:27:18] Thanks so much - I'll get right on that.


Bradley Metrock: [00:27:21] Aaron, thank you very much for joining us. This was fantastic. We greatly appreciate your time, your insight, your expertise.


Aaron Emigh: [00:27:29] My pleasure. Thanks for having me.


Bradley Metrock: [00:27:31] For The Alexa Podcast, Kevin Old and me, Bradley Metrock, thank you for listening, and until next time. 

[exit music]

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