Appliances will now have a voice. Thanks to IBM, washing machines and other appliances are embedding voice interfaces connected over cloud services to some of the world’s most sophisticated data analytics.

So far, it’s just a lab test, but the concept is less bizarre than it may sound. You could argue white goods makers are playing catch up with products such as the Amazon Echo and Google Home that aim to be the smart voice portal to the home.

IBM is working on pilot projects with white goods makers such as Whirlpool to tie consumer products to its cloud-based Watson analytics services.

“Most companies already have connected appliances -- GE for example, has dishwashers with Wi-Fi—and once you have connectivity, most of your functions can be through the cloud” said Bret Greenstein, vice president of IBM’s Watson IoT Platform.

Initially the pilots are testing relatively simple voice interfaces for hands-free operation. They support basic commands and some simple natural-language queries.

washing-machine-interface-pixabay Figure 1: Today's push-button interfaces can sometimes seem like a foreign language. (Image source: Pixabay)

IBM recast as Web services capabilities from its initial Watson system made famous for beating humans on the TV game Jeopardy in 2011. They include about 40 services such as algorithms to analyse and interpret speech, including a speaker’s intent and emotional state. So a washing machine might say something disarming, for example, if it sensed a frustrated user was about to kick it.

A set of about 30 of the Watson services are now part of IBM’s IoT offering. They evolved out of an earlier product and have been available since January.

Startup Local Motors was the first to tap Watson for a voice interface in its cars. Other car makers IBM declined to name are also working with the technology.

An elevator maker in Japan also hopes to tap into the cloud-based voice services, In addition, IBM expects to announce within a month work at a hospital trying the voice services

IBM’s Greenstein sees the work as part of a larger trend of OEMs building customer engagement into their systems as a way to add value. Its early days for “things that talk to you” from a set of early-adopter OEMs, said Greenstein, who started his 28-year career at IBM as an EE in its semiconductor division.

Many of the early adopters started with the idea of using IoT and cloud connections to automate predictive maintenance on high-cost systems. “That’s the cleanest return-on-investment…some elevator and appliance makers came to us first for predictive maintenance because collecting that data is not very expensive compared to the alternative,” he said, noting IBM already considers its IoT cloud services a profitable business.

In the diverse IoT landscape, it’s not all about voice. The Watson services include audio, image and video analytics that some industrial control OEMs are using to inspect processes on the factory floor.

Many companies interested in IoT are not necessarily software savvy. So IBM created an open-source graphical development tool called Node Red to “wire together Web services.”

AT&T developed its own version of the tool it calls Flow Designer. The two tech giants recently agreed to collaborate on IoT tools so that users of the AT&T tools can access the IBM cloud services and IBM’s Bluemix service will support AT&T’s IoT offerings.

Node Red has hundreds of thousands of users, Greenstein claimed, including engineers prototyping IoT gear on Arduino and Rapsberry Pi boards.