Roku Debuts Hands-Free Voice Remote and Updates OS With Enhanced Voice Controls
Roku has launched a new remote control and updated operating system enhancing and widening the voice control and AI of its smart TV devices. The Voice Remote Pro is able to hear commands without touching the microphone button, while Roku OS 10 now supports dictation to on-screen keyboards, among other improvements. The voice upgrades suggest Roku is keen to compete with the boom in smart TV voice assistants and the general growth of the smart home market.
The $30 Roku Voice Remote Pro performs like a smart speaker in some ways, including hands-free activation of the voice assistant. The microphone is powerful enough to hear the “Hey Roku” wake word from a dozen feet away, without the need to pick it up and hit a button. There are the usual preset buttons, in this case opening Netflix, Hulu, Disney+ and, Apple TV+, but users can create two custom voice commands and tie them to the blank buttons on the remote as shortcuts. If you do use it hands-free, however, a new “find my remote” voice command will cause the remote to make noise until you find it. Power shouldn’t be an issue, though, as the rechargeable battery, which plugs into a micro-USB, will last for two months on a few hours charge, according to the company.
Roku’s description says it will only save some audio recordings to improve the quality of the feature and for technical support and only shares them with employees rather than contract workers. That sidesteps some of the privacy concerns people may have, but users can opt out of having their audio saved completely if they choose or flip the physical switch on the remote to turn off the microphone except when the activation button is pressed. The remote even includes a headphone jack for those who want to plug in headphones to listen to the TV privately.
“We are dedicated to providing users the simplest way to stream entertainment to their TV at an affordable price,” Roku vice president of retail product strategy Mark Ely said in a statement. “The Roku Voice Remote Pro is delivering on major consumer pain points with rechargeability and the voice activated lost remote finder. We believe consumers are going to be impressed with the quality they can get from Roku at these price points.”
Roku OS 10 brings its own voice enhancements to the smart TV platform, irrespective of the remote. Viewers can now dictate words into on-screen keyboards if they support the option. Saying the individual letters, numbers, and characters in an email and password login for a streaming service is a lot faster than hunting and selecting them with the remote. Regular voice searches are also less disruptive. Instead of taking over the whole screen, the results from a voice search made while streaming content only partly covers the channel being watched.
The upgrades and improvements to the voice remote and OS come just a few months after Roku hired Brian Pinkerton, the former head of Apple’s Siri team. Though the new features have been in development much longer than that, it all points to Roku wanting to up its voice and AI capabilities. With Amazon and Google expanding the features and partnerships for their respective voice assistants in smart TVs, Roku’s investment makes sense.
The picture becomes even clearer when looking internationally. The competition is fierce even where Amazon and Google don’t have a lot of presence. For instance, Russian search engine giant Yandex has added the Alice voice assistant to its smart TV platform, while Australia’s largest television subscription service, Foxtel, upgraded its smart TV service by adding TiVo’s voice search platform and Sky. European telecoms taking a different approach, with SFR in France and Vodafone in Spain launching smart speakers with unique voice assistants that are deeply integrated with their smart TV platforms, while Sky in the UK is offering AI-powered TV recommendations from its voice remote.