Streaming device maker Roku is officially getting ready to take on Amazon’s Echo: The company unveiled its new home audio licensing program Wednesday, outlining plans to team up with consumer electronics manufacturers for Roku-powered smart speakers and sound bars. Longtime Roku partner TCL will show a first Roku-powered device at CES in Las Vegas next week, which is expected to ship later in 2018.
“Speakers are one of the most popular things to add to a TV,” Roku’s VP of product Mark Ely told Variety during a recent interview. That’s why one main area of focus of Roku and its hardware partners are going to be smart sound bars, which double as internet-connected speakers when the TV screen is turned off. “These smart sound bars will work with any TV, but they work really great with Roku TVs,” Ely said.
In addition, Roku is also working with consumer electronics companies to make Roku-powered smart speakers. These can be placed around the home, and inter-connect with each other as well as Roku-powered sound bars to play multi-room audio, giving consumers the ability to play the same song synchronized across their home. “We envision a broad Roku ecosystem” of multiple speaker sizes and form factors, Ely said.
Roku-powered speakers and sound bars will both come with integrated microphones for far-field voice control, and offer access to a personal assistant the company has been developing in-house and also plans to add to existing Roku video streaming devices this fall. Think of it as a kind of Alexa, but with a focus on audio and video streaming, which will allow consumers to issue commands like “Hey Roku, play easy listening,” or “Hey Roku, turn off the TV in 30 minutes.”
“Consumers will use voice to connect with all the entertainment in their home,” said Ely. People may still query Siri, Alexa or Google’s assistant for other services, but call on Roku’s assistant when they want to watch or listen to something, he argued. “We can see it co-existing in the home with other AI.”
Roku has been quietly working on its home audio initiative for over a year. The company hired a number of staffers with expertise in voice control and smart assistants, including the co-founder of a startup that built an Amazon Echo-like smart speaker, as Variety was first to report in September. And in November, Variety broke the story that Roku recently spent $3.5 million on the acquisition of Dynastrom, a Danish multi-room audio startup that was key to building out its new audio initiative.
In addition to striking hardware licensing agreements with companies like TCL, Roku is also reaching out to the wider home audio ecosystem with a program called Roku Connect. This will allow third-party manufacturers to add the ability to control Roku TVs and streaming devices with their smart speakers without changing much else about their products. “Our goal is to work with companies like Sonos and others,” Ely said. Roku Connect will be free to implement for consumer electronics manufacturers.
Whether other speaker makers would want to work with Roku remains to be seen. The home audio space is notoriously competitive, and has only gotten more so since Amazon introduced the Echo in late 2014. Roku will also be competing with Google, which has been selling its own smart speakers since 2016. Ely said that Roku wants to compete by making the TV the centerpiece of its home audio experience, and its consumer electronics partners may also once again try to undercut the prices of the competition. Said Ely: “The price will be affordable.”