advertisement
advertisement

Roku’s new Voice Remote Pro might have just outsmarted smart speakers

With its first foray into hands-free voice control, Roku didn’t rush things or get wildly ambitious—and for Roku, that often works.

Roku’s new Voice Remote Pro might have just outsmarted smart speakers
[Photos: courtesy of Roku; Kyle Johnston/Unsplash]
advertisement
advertisement
advertisement

More than six years after Amazon introduced its first Echo speaker, Roku is finally releasing its own entertainment product with hands-free voice controls.

advertisement
advertisement

But instead of building a smart speaker, Roku is adding “Hey Roku” voice commands to one of its remotes. With the Roku Voice Remote Pro, users can ask to launch apps, play specific videos, listen to music, control playback, or turn off the TV. The remote costs $30 on its own, and Roku hasn’t announced any plans to bundle it with its current line of streaming players.

The announcement—one of several that the company is making today—is vintage Roku. The giant of streaming video believes devoutly in incrementalism, so while Amazon and Google have been selling millions of smart speakers that integrate with their respective Fire TV and Chromecast streaming platforms, Roku has hung back and waited for its own voice technology to improve. Even now, the company seems uncertain about whether people will love the idea.

“We think that this is really a great platform to see what our customers think,” says Mark Ely, Roku’s vice president of product strategy.

advertisement
advertisement

Confounding as it might be to bleeding-edge techies (myself included), Roku’s conservative instincts are often correct. The truth is that Amazon’s Echo and Google’s Nest speakers still don’t feel flawless as hands-free ways to control your television, especially when they aren’t situated near your couch. Maybe the remote is where those controls should have been all along.

Building up to hands-free control

Part of the reason Roku seems slow to hands-free voice is that it first announced its plans for the space more than three years ago.

In a blog post from early 2018, CEO Anthony Wood described a “Roku Entertainment Assistant” that would focus on entertainment and respond to “Hey Roku” voice commands, even being able to route requests to different devices around the home. “For example, you will be able to say, ‘Hey Roku, play jazz in the living room,’ and a smart soundbar with Roku Connect will begin playing music—even if the TV is turned off,” Wood wrote.

advertisement

The remote feels like a natural place to put hands-free voice control.

But sometime after that announcement, Roku hit the brakes. The company first said it was delaying its ambitious voice assistant plans, then stopped using the term “Roku Entertainment Assistant” altogether. It’s unclear exactly what happened, but whenever I’ve brought it up in interviews, company executives have suggested that they weren’t sure whether customers wanted more always-listening devices in the home. (Even so, Roku has added integration with Alexa and Google Assistant speakers, allowing for basic playback control via clunky commands like “Hey Google, pause on Roku.”)

In any case, times have changed. Ely says people have generally become more comfortable with hands-free voice as a concept, and Roku’s own voice technology has evolved over the years. I’ll also note that while Roku’s push-button voice controls were once limited to searching for content, in recent years they’ve expanded to support launching specific movies or TV shows, and the voice interface has become slicker and more responsive overall.

While I’ve only had the new Roku Voice Remote Pro on hand for less than a day, it’s been working fairly well overall. Roku says voice commands should register from up to 12 feet away, which has held true in my experience. The remote is also Roku’s first with a rechargeable battery instead of disposable ones—the company says it lasts for months on a charge—and if you say “Hey Roku, find my remote,” the remote will play a sound to help you track it down.

advertisement

Roku still has some work to do in terms of integrating more content sources with voice. While it does work with a decent number of apps, including Amazon Prime, Hulu, Disney Plus, HBO Max, and the Roku Channel, you can’t use it to launch videos from Netflix, and it doesn’t let you tune in to live channels directly in services such as YouTube TV or Hulu Plus Live TV.

There’s also one other issue that Roku hasn’t addressed: There’s no way to see what kind of voice data Roku collects through the remote, let alone to delete it or prevent it from being used for analytics. Like other voice assistants, Roku only transmits audio data when it detects the “Hey Roku” wake phrase. But Amazon, Google, and Apple have all introduced ways to control this data in response to concerns from users; Roku ought to do the same if its voice control ambitions grow. (As it stands, you can stop the voice remote from listening for “Hey Roku” commands in the first place by flicking a physical switch on the remote’s left side.)

Update: Roku now says that it automatically disassociates voice recordings from users’ accounts after 30 days, and that you can opt out voice data retention through your online account page.

advertisement

Overall, though, the remote feels like a natural place to put hands-free voice control, especially for a company like Roku that isn’t trying to build an all-purpose assistant. Roku isn’t the first to do so—Nvidia’s Shield TV box also supports “Hey Google” commands through an optional game controller—but it stands to make the idea more mainstream.

Ely says Roku has considered supporting hands-free control in other places, such as in smart TVs, as some other companies have done, but it’s unclear whether the company will do so. “A lot of that input will come from customers, and we’ll see how they use this and how much they like it,” he says.

Other Roku news

In addition to the new remote, Roku is announcing a couple of other devices, both of which further exemplify the company’s incremental approach to hardware:

advertisement
  • A 4K HDR streaming player called the Roku Express Plus 4K will replace the current Roku Premiere at $40. It has faster performance and a better remote with push-button voice controls, a power button, and volume buttons. (Walmart will sell a version without the improved remote for $35.)
  • The Roku Streambar Pro is a soundbar that doubles as a streaming player for $180. It’s almost identical to the Roku Smart Soundbar from 2019, but has a better remote with customizable buttons and a headphone jack.

Roku’s also updating its operating system to Roku OS 10 after two years of 9.X releases, but it’s a pretty modest update despite the big numerical change. It expands support for AirPlay streaming from Apple devices to Roku’s cheapest HD-resolution players, adds an instant-resume feature in certain apps, lets users hide or mark live channels as favorites in the Roku Channel, and suggests faster 5 GHz Wi-Fi connections when available.

In other words, Roku isn’t rushing into any major interface changes with OS 10, even as rivals such as Amazon’s Fire TV, Apple TV, and Google’s latest Chromecast try to build ambitious streaming guides that can tell you what to watch across different services. Roku is, as always, waiting to see how it plays out before changing things up on its 51.2 million active users.

“Certainly a lot of our customers like the simplicity of seeing the Hulu icon, or the Disney Plus icon, and being able to jump right into it,” Ely says. “They don’t want to be shown content that they otherwise might not be interested in. But it’s something we continue to look at.”