How Octoblu enhances Amazon's Echo

Interview with Chris Matthieu

In June, Amazon’s new Echo product became publicly available. Echo is a voice-command device that answers questions, plays music, and controls smart devices. Octoblu, which Citrix acquired in December 2014, recently made headlines when the Octoblu platform integrated with Echo to trigger actions by connected gadgets via voice commands. This  2015 Synergy video presents a great example of this integration. To learn more about what Octoblu is doing, we recently spoke with Chris Matthieu, who is the Director of IoT (Internet of Things) Engineering at Citrix.

Chris, thanks for taking the time to discuss Octoblu’s involvement with Amazon’s Echo. What’s the Echo all about?
The Echo, previously available to Amazon Prime members or by invitation, became widely available on June 23, 2015. It is an interesting new device that we are connecting to Octoblu.

The Echo is intended to be voice-controlled at the unit, but it comes with a mic-enabled remote control similar to the one bundled with the Fire TV. An action button on top of the unit is provided for user setup in a new location, and the mute button allows the microphones to be turned off.

I personally like the idea of not having to press a button to interact with the Echo. You simply say “Alexa” and she wakes up. Alexa is a cloud-based voice service, and when Echo is connected to Octoblu, Alexa behaves like “Edwin Jarvis” from the Iron Man movies. You can have conversations with her and ultimately ask her to perform very complex workflow automations controlled by Octoblu.

Another feature that I like about the Echo is that you don’t need to carry your phone around with you in the home. Many people seem to think that the kitchen is the most obvious room to place an Echo. I’m actually thinking about buying more than one Echo for my home. Ongoing software updates continue to add more features to the platform.

Can you describe more about Octoblu and what it does?
Octoblu is simple enough for home and office automation but powerful enough for industrial IoT automations. At its core, the Octoblu platform is an open source IoT (Internet of Things) cloud platform called Meshblu that can be deployed as a private, public, or hybrid cloud or even as a mesh network. We offer a software gateway for connecting sensors to our platform as well as a micro-controller operating system for controlling pins on Raspberry Pis, Arduinos, BeagleBones, and many other micro-controllers. We also offer a suite of mobile SDKs [software developer kits] for iOS and Android for developing custom mobile apps to leverage the Octoblu platform.

With Octoblu, we are exploring many new business opportunities in smart cities, factories, healthcare wearables, renewable energy, driverless vehicles, logistics, and even drones.

Can you further describe the Octoblu mission in Citrix?
Our mission is to connect anything to everything. We have already connected over 100 different types of “things” including: web services, smart devices, and wearables. Octoblu has an open plugin architecture making it easy to connect a variety of devices to the platform. The Amazon Echo took only one of our engineers approximately 2-3 days to connect. The Synergy demo shows the device being used in a meeting setting.

The Fortune article mentions that Octoblu engineers were experimenting with the Echo even before Amazon had given them official support. Why was Octoblu doing that?
Echo was a fun opportunity for us. While experimenting with our first Echo, we noticed that Amazon was logging our speech commands to a file. We watched this file and streamed the speech’s text into Octoblu. Using a service from Wit.ai (recently acquired by Facebook), we were able to turn natural language text into context-aware commands that Octoblu could understand. The Echo made voice input into Octoblu a reality!

Amazon was so impressed with what we did, they asked us to make the Echo a first-class node in the Octoblu platform. This means that anyone will soon be able to add speech input to Octoblu for initiating workflow automations much like the way that Jarvis in the IronMan movies works! This could be used in your home, office, car, or even hospitals and factories.

Can people get access to and use Octoblu?
Yes, we currently have over 3,000 beta testers using the Octoblu IoT platform. We have connected many Citrix products and services to the Octoblu platform including: GotoMeeting (and all of the other Goto services), ShareFile, Podio, RightSignature, NetScaler, and StoreFront. The following chart illustrates the GoToMeeting ShareFile email flow.

Octoblu enables users to extend existing company services to meet their automation needs without needing to know programming languages. Interested folks can sign up for the Octoblu beta here.

Where do you see Echo, the adoption of voice-activated home gadgets, and the role of voice-activated technology in general being five years from now?
I would love to see Echo’s price lower to the point where every household could afford one or possibly add an Echo to every area of the home. I would also love to see Echos purchased for each conference room in offices. I am even tempted to install an Echo in my car.

We believe that consumers are getting tired of opening mobile apps to interact with every device in their home or office. Speech is a natural user interface. We are even experimenting with allowing users to build workflow automations via speech. For instance, a user may say, “when I’m home turn the lights on.” In this example, a user could say, “Alexa, I’m home” or we could use ibeacons or GPS geofencing to determine a user’s proximity or location.

Speech recognition will continue to improve and so will natural language processing. Amazon will also continue to add functionality to the Echo allowing you to interact with the Internet, purchase items from Amazon, and automate workflows in Octoblu by simply conversing with Alexa.

If the Echo is enthusiastically adopted by consumers, what do you see in the future?
Citrix says, “Work better. Live better.” Work is no longer a place you go but rather what you do. More employees are working from their homes, coffee shops, and even on the road. Citrix delivers solutions that make employees more productive anywhere. Octoblu provides additional value by helping employees automate their business processes and their surroundings, which includes: home, office, and connected cars. After the work is done, Citrix is there to help you live better too.

I also believe that machine learning and/or autonomics could play an important role in the future. As a future example of using Octoblu, users could have their XenDesktop already running on their computer as they enter the office. We could also automate conference rooms so that meetings automatically start as attendees enter the room as highlighted below:

  • Lights illuminate as attendees enter the room
  • TV monitors are turned on
  • Shades are lowered
  • GoToMeeting launches and connects audio
  • Video Camera is initiated

The future is exciting… we will continue to add support for new and existing smart devices, wearables, and services on the Octoblu IoT platform.  

Chris Matthiew
Director of IoT (Internet of Things)
Engineering at Citrix