Do you remember that moment when you first understood the power of the smart phone?  It probably wasn’t because of a particular feature, like the touch screen, or GPS or increased data processing power.  It was likely to be the convergence of several features combined with that tipping point, where enough people had a smartphone that it made it worthwhile for companies to develop new applications for it, which in turn made more people want one. This “tipping point” is what spawned the massive global investment in technology that leveraged the smartphone ecosystem and gave rise to the likes of Uber, Spotify, WhatsApp and millions of other mobile first applications.

Fast forward to today and the same thing is happening with Smart Speakers and the Intelligent Virtual Assistants that come with them.  We are getting close to that tipping point where enough people are using these devices to again open the floodgates of investment into a new ecosystem – home automation.  This has led to the emergence of technology aimed at the real estate industry.

So what is a Smart Speaker?

Smart speakers, also known as “smart home voice-activated assistants”, come in many different shapes and sizes. Put simply, they are music speakers combined with a voice recognition system that the user can interact with, the most common examples of which are Amazon Alexa and Google Home. Users use a wake-up word to activate the voice assistant, such as “Alexa” or “Ok Google”, and they can then interact with the smart speaker using just their voice.

Now early adopters are wanting to control everything from door locks and garage door openers to thermostats and lighting with voice commands to their smart speaker.  The smart speakers have become the Trojan horse into the smart home.  A smart speaker can cost as little as $49.95 and have proved to be a “gateway drug” for people to get hooked on connected home technologies.

Once you’ve achieved the ability to speak to a digital assistant from any room in the house, what’s the obvious next step?   Make the house able to listen.  What follows is Wi-Fi connected devices such as TVs, stereos and other devices that now have voice controls and can be operated using smart home networks.

Long considered a hobbyist pursuit, only for geeks and nerds, the arrival of smart speakers has provided the tipping point that home automation needed to truly enter the mainstream.

The tipping point – are we there yet?

Analysts predict there will be 200 million smart speakers by the end of 2019, including a 166% year-over-year growth in the market for smart speakers in mainland China alone. That’s kind of nuts, even in a booming global economy.

Australia has the seventh highest smart speaker market penetration in the world at 10.7% with 1.35 million Australians owning a smart speaker with voice activated assistant. This take-up and the associated investment in technology that supports the ecosystem is evidence that we have moved past the tipping point and investment in the sector is likely to accelerate.

The race for our living rooms!

The Big 3 are in a race to gain control of our living rooms.  Google and Apple are striving to grow their user base by luring individual buyers with more elegant or higher-quality products.  Amazon has figured out a way to get into millions of homes without consumers ever having to choose its hardware and services in the first place.  Amazon’s Alexa Smart Properties team, a little-known part of its Alexa division, is working on partnerships with home builders, property managers and hoteliers to push millions of Alexa smart speakers into domiciles all across the U.S.  Amazon is hoping to find a new way to build market share by offering discounted hardware, customized software and new ways for property managers to harvest and use data.

Hey Alexa, pay my rent

Last November, Amazon announced its partnership with Zego, now a subsidiary of PayLease, one of the largest rent-payment services in the U.S.

“We envision a day when you can say ‘Hey Alexa, pay my rent,’ and it will transfer that money from a resident’s bank account,” says PayLease chief executive Dirk Wakeham. He says his company is aiming to roll out its Zego-built, Alexa-compatible smart-home system to more than six million apartments in the U.S. within five years.

Eventually, Alexa-fied apartments with smart locks and pre-installed Echo devices might even replace rental agents. Initial data from trials of such systems indicates that people are twice as likely to rent an apartment when no human is present to try and sell them on it, says Mr. Wakeham.

Google have also joined the property management party

The Google Assistant Investment Program recently announced an investment in London-based AskPorter.  AskPorter provides an AI-enabled property management software platform with features for both tenants and property managers.

Porter (the assistant) liaises with tenants and recommends next actions for the manager to help streamline and provide best practice.   They have over 30 different chat flows from guiding people through property inspection reports, to troubleshooting hot water problems.

AskPorter includes both voice and chat capabilities and according to the company already supports over 500,000 properties and one million tenants.

AskPorter is a good example of the recent rise of vertical (i.e. industry-specific) voice AI solutions. Most of the activity around voice assistant applications to date has been to support general use cases targeting consumers. However, we are now seeing more solutions that attempt to solve a narrow set of problems for a specific set of users, often in business settings.

The rise of AI solutions in Australian real estate

The Australian “Proptech” space has seen several new entrants to the market that utilise AI solutions.

Arguably the leader in the AI space is a digital employee for the real estate industry named Rita, developed by Ian Campbell and Sarah Bell from AIRE.  Rita is an AI-powered automation platform that analyses various data assets of a real estate agent and applies a variety of AI techniques to create and manage opportunities for sellers, buyers, landlords and tenants.   Rita is experiencing strong take up from agents looking to improve their business.

Property Rhelm is another AI offering that is aimed at the property management space.  Property Rhelm offers tenants 24/7 support via interaction with AI driven solutions and automates a portion of the tenant’s contacts with property managers.   Property Rhelm uses Google home assistant to assist with information regarding rent payment, send a message to the property manager or contact a trades person to attend to a maintenance issue.

Enliven is another AI offering designed for real estate professionals to harness the power of  AI.   Enliven recently enabled the Dexar Group to launch its first sales project involving artificial intelligence.  The initiative saw a virtual assistant employed to handle initial sales queries and assist in providing real-time information.

Rental Heroes is a new entrant to the market using Facebook Messenger, SMS, Voice and Google’s Assistant to interact with their Smart Assistant to remove the communication bottlenecks that exist in the property management ecosystem.

This list will expand further in the coming years as more companies combine industry specialization with voice, conversational, and AI solutions.

We are seeing the beginning of what artificial intelligence can offer real estate in an era where the consumer expects real time solutions.  This is the first phase where AI is working in conjunction with humans to improve sales transactions and property management solutions.

Lumped under the banner of AI is a wealth of technology that allows real estate agents a greater insight into their customers’ behaviour and an improved ability to meet their needs.   From machine learning to voice recognition and complex problem solving, it allows the industry to harness the power of big data and apply it to improve the customer experience along with business operations.

Thanks to the mass take up of Smart Speakers worldwide, we are past the tipping point and what will follow is huge investment in Artificial Intelligence delivered via these devices aimed at automating every part of our lives.

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