Four years ago, Bill Gardner joined General Electric to create innovative ideas for appliances. His background was in software development for remote sensing and digital imaging, having worked at Lexmark, Boeing, and Eastman Kodak.
Once he was at GE, he said, "I gravitated to voice control. Originally we started off in a refrigerator. We could see you'd need extra hands in a kitchen."
Gardner, who is now an advanced systems engineer at GE Appliances, which was purchased for $5.4 billion last year by Haier, said, "We created a prototype and it was embedded in a refrigerator. We didn't know how to bring that to market. The market wasn't ready yet for voice. It hadn't reached that tipping point." That product was a refrigerator, but it was cost prohibitive so it was never produced.
The first connected appliance that did make it to market was a wall oven in June 2013. In 2014, the next iteration was released, and it allowed customers to control the oven remotely via Wi-Fi, before voice control was an option. There were some use cases that made a Wi-Fi connected appliance appealing, such as getting notifications if there was a problem with the appliance, or using an app to preheat the oven while at the grocery store, but there wasn't a need for widespread use, Gardner said.
SEE: Amazon Alexa: The smart person's guide (TechRepublic)
The move to voice control
When Amazon Echo was released, GE Appliances had already been working on Wi-Fi in connected appliances and building a robust API to interact with the appliances from the cloud. Gardner said it was an easy step for the development team to move to voice control.
In 2015, Amazon launched the Alexa Skills Kit (ASK) and Alexa Voice Service (AVS) to allow developers to build Alexa skills or integrate Alexa directly into their hardware, product, or service. Alexa is the brain behind Amazon Echo, a cloud-connected speaker that offers hands-free voice control for everything from music to weather and alarms.
"We contacted Amazon and they were really excited to have a partner in the appliance space," Gardner said.
SEE: How to become an Alexa developer: The smart person's guide (TechRepublic)
The name Geneva came about after much discussion. There was a need for choosing a word that was easy to pronounce and for Alexa to understand, but GE Appliances was too long. "We really searched hard to make sure the name was high percentage recognizable. Amazon worked with us," Gardner said.
The team finally decided to use Geneva since it included "Ge" in the name and "it was phonetically unique enough."
The core team of four developers spent six months developing the Geneva app as an Amazon Alexa skill and it was released in September 2016 across a suite of appliances. Now there are more than 70 SKU's available that interact with Geneva. It's available on Monogram and GE Appliances, including Cafe and Profile refrigerators, wall ovens, ranges, dishwashers, and water heaters that integrate with all Alexa-enabled devices including Amazon Echo, Amazon Tap, Echo Dot, and Amazon Fire TV.
Why Geneva matters
Geneva offers users the opportunity to control appliances without ever touching them. It works in conjunction with an Amazon Echo that needs to be kept in the kitchen area. Users can say, "Geneva, preheat to 450" and the oven will automatically start preheating to 450 degrees. Geneva understands that it's an oven temperature that needs to be set when it's a higher number. If a freezing temperature is requested, Geneva understands that it's the freezer that is being referenced.
Geneva originally understood 5 billion utterances, or phrases, which are the various ways that people speak and that they might ask of Geneva, and now her vocabulary has been expanded to 55 billion utterances. (Gardner refers to Geneva using feminine pronouns.)
The phrases were developed after the team brought in about 75-100 people to the Studio U model kitchen at GE Appliance Park in Louisville, Kentucky. "We allowed them to talk the way they wanted to talk to the appliances and we made sure we captured the most likely way to ask for things," Gardner explained.
"We don't use formal language with Geneva. We use things that are short, we use contractions. We don't enumerate every specific word. We want her to speak like you would speak to someone in our home. If she doesn't understand you, she'll say, 'I think we've got some wires crossed here.'"
"Several of the use cases we like to really talk about is if you are a mother or father in the kitchen and you have a child tugging at your leg, you can multi task. Being able to use your voice gives you that one extra control. We like to say everyone likes clean appliances but no one likes cleaning appliances. The less you touch it, the more you use your voice, the cleaner it is. We don't think voice totally revolutionizes the way we interact in our home but we think there are several use cases that make that interaction a little bit easier," he said.
It's also convenient for people with limited mobility. "You see that more and more all the time. People talk to me about their mom that has limited mobility, or their grandmother that they don't want reaching over the stove. It's a really great market for those people. It takes a little bit of assistance for an elderly person setting them up, but then they use it and love it. It saves them some trips," Gardner said.
How people use Geneva
Many of the people who use Geneva are first-time connected appliance users, with 40% falling into this category, Gardner said.
"One thing I think is kind of interesting is we know about 15% of our total users come to Geneva and use it every week which we think is a good number. You have a good number of people attach to an app and walk away and never use it again. A number of people use Geneva 8.5 times a week on average. They're heating the oven every day or asking for coffee every morning. They're using it and using it regularly," he said.
One of the most popular uses is for Geneva to make coffee using the connected refrigerator's Keurig K-Cup Brewing System.
For safety, there are some things that Geneva will not do, such as set the oven to broil, which uses 500-plus degree temperatures, or turn on burners on a range. There's also a "remote enabled" option that can be turned on or off if parents are worried their children might tell Geneva to turn on an oven unsupervised.
The future of Geneva
In the future, there will be more personality added to Geneva. Originally, a team of software developers created the language for Geneva, and now there's a scriptwriter focused on writing new phrases for her.
"We try to be lighthearted so we want to go to the next level. We will take it to the next level with a witty way to say something didn't work," he said.
In addition, there will be regular updates depending on the season and cooking needs.
"We want to have an update to Geneva at 6-8 week intervals," he said. For the holidays, and for Thanksgiving, the developers added holiday utterances such as "I want to make Christmas cookies" or "I want to make turkey." Geneva gave cooking tips as well as setting the oven to the right temperature.
Smart home skills will be next on the list, and will be included in window air conditioners. "We find that people who might use window air conditioners only have those, so it's a nice option for them to have. We'll continue to add more personality to Geneva, more presets for cooking, and tips and tricks going forward."
Three takeaways for TechRepublic readers:
- Geneva is the Alexa skill that GE Appliances uses in its connected products, and it allows users to control their appliances using voice commands.
- A team of four developers spent just six months creating Geneva, with the first appliance debuting in 2016.
- GE Appliances has a scriptwriter creating new phrases for Geneva that show more personality than in the past.
- Amazon Alexa will now talk to GE's connected appliances in smart home push (TechRepublic)
- Alexa tricks: From helpful to amusing, here are 25 things to ask your assistant (ZDNet)
- Amazon Alexa is stepping into home security automation with ADT at CES 2017 (TechRepublic)
- GE's lamp of the future is the first embedded with Amazon's Alexa Voice Service (TechRepublic)
- Amazon Echo teardown: A smart speaker powered by Amazon's cloud (TechRepublic)
- Here are all of the new Alexa devices and skills of CES (CNET)
Teena Maddox is a Senior Writer at TechRepublic, covering hardware devices, IoT, smart cities and wearables. She ties together the style and substance of tech. Teena has spent 20-plus years writing business and features for publications including People, W and Women's Wear Daily.