A smart speaker is a type of wireless speaker and voice command device with an integrated virtual assistant that offers interactive actions and hands-free activation with the help of one "hot word" (or several "hot words"). Some smart speakers can also act as a smart device that utilizes Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and other wireless protocol standards to extend usage beyond audio playback, such as to control home automation devices. This can include, but is not be limited to, features such as compatibility across a number of services and platforms, peer-to-peer connection through mesh networking, virtual assistants, and others. Each can have its own designated interface and features in-house, usually launched or controlled via application or home automation software. Some smart speakers also include a screen to show the user a visual response.
A smart speaker with a touchscreen is known as a smart display. While similar in form factor to tablet computers, smart displays differ in their emphasis on a hands-free user interface and virtual assistant features.
The built-in microphone in smart speakers is continuously listening for "hot words" followed by a command. However, these continuously listening microphones also raise privacy concerns among users. These include what is being recorded, how the data will be used, how it will be protected, and whether it will be used for invasive advertising. Further, an analysis of Amazon Alexa Echo Dots showed that 30–38% of "spurious audio recordings were human conversations", suggesting that these devices capture audio outside of strictly after hot word detection.
As a wiretap
There are strong concerns that the ever-listening microphone of smart speakers presents a perfect candidate for a wiretap. In 2017, British security researcher Mark Barnes showed that pre-2017 Echos have exposed pins that allow for a compromised OS to be booted.
Voice assistance vs privacy
While voice assistants provide a valuable service, there can be some hesitation towards using them in various social contexts, such as in public or around other users. However, only more recently have users begun interacting with voice assistants through an interaction with smart speakers rather than an interaction with the phone. On the phone, most voice assistants have the option to be engaged by a physical button (e.g., Siri with a long press of the home button) rather than solely by hot word-based engagement in a smart speaker. While this distinction increases the privacy by limiting when the microphone is on, users felt that having to press a button first removed the convenience of voice interaction.  This trade-off is not unique to voice assistants; as more and more devices come online, there is an increasing trade-off between convenience and privacy.
Factors influencing adoption
While there are many factors influencing smart speaker adoption, specifically with regards to privacy, Lau et. al. define five distinct categories as pros and cons: convenience, identity as an early adopter, contributing factors,[example needed] perceived lack of utility, and privacy and security concerns.
When configured without authentication, smart speakers can be activated by people other than the intended user. For example, visitors to a home or office, or people in a publicly accessible area outside an open window, partial wall, or security fence, may be able to be heard by a speaker. One team demonstrated the ability to stimulate the microphones of smart speakers and smartphones through a closed window, from another building across the street, using a laser.
Most popular smart speaker devices and platforms
|Virtual assistant||Owned by||Devices||No. of users||Languages/markets||Notes|
||Russia||Yandex Station went on sale in July 2018|
|AliGenie||Alibaba Group||China||Went on sale in August 2017|
|Amazon Alexa||Amazon||31 million Echo devices in U.S. (January 2018)||March 2018: English for US, UK, Ireland, Canada, India, Australia, New Zealand; German (Germany, Austria); Japanese (Japan); French (France), Spanish (Hispanic countries)|
|Ambient OS||Essential Products||Essential Home (in development)|
|Siri||Apple, Inc.||Apple HomePod||February 2018: English for US, UK, Australia|
|DuerOS Open Platform||Baidu||Xiaoyu, RavenH, Aladdin ceiling-mounted smart speaker-lamp-projector||China||Xiaoyu went on sale in spring 2017.|
|Clova||Naver Corporation, Line Corporation||Japanese and Korean for Japan and South Korea markets||Introduced summer 2017|
|Google Assistant||Google Home series: Home, Home Max, Home Mini, Nest Hub, Nest Hub Max||14 million Google Homes in U.S. (January 2018)||December 2018: English (U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia), French (France, Canada), German, Japanese, Korean, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Dutch and Spanish (Spain). |
|Beijing LingLong, part of JD||DingDong||Mandarin and Cantonese for Greater China||In cooperation with Chinese AI firm iFlytek. Went on sale November 2016.|
|Microsoft Cortana||Microsoft||Harman Kardon INVOKE||January 2018: English for US, Canada, Australia, India|
|Bixby||Samsung Electronics||Galaxy Home|||
|Hallo Magenta||Deutsche Telekom||Hallo Magenta||Germany|
- smart speaker, techtarget.com, May 2017
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- The Smart Audio Report from NPR and Edison Research, Fall-Winter 2017 (PDF)
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- Lasers can silently issue 'voice commands' to your smart speakers
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- "The Harman Kardon Invoke with Cortana works just fine outside the U.S."
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