Roku joins the voice computing market with smart soundbars, speakers and more built by partners

Roku, which sells the most popular brand of streaming media players in the U.S., is now aiming to carve out a niche for itself as the voice control platform for home entertainment. Today, Roku is unveiling a licensing program for manufacturing partners that include reference designs for smart speakers, smart soundbars, surround sound and multi-home audio systems that use new Roku Connect software to communicate wirelessly and be controlled by voice.

Unlike competitors in the voice-controlled smart device market, like Amazon and Google, Roku will only build the voice assistant software itself. It will leave the hardware design and integrations up to its OEM partners – including its existing Roku TV partners – to implement. The first OEM to commit to this is TCL, which will unveil its debut Roku Connect-powered device at CES on January 8th.

Roku’s plan for voice computing acknowledges that consumers may already have already adopted an Echo or Google Home device. It’s not looking to replace other smart speakers, necessarily, but rather wants to be the voice system you could use alongside those devices.

The idea is that Roku’s voice assistant will be specifically optimized for home entertainment – not the smart home, not video calls, and not a voice app ecosystem, like Amazon’s Skill Store or Google Home’s Actions. (At least not at first.) While Roku’s voice assistant may offer some basic voice Q&A features, like news and weather, its main function will be to offer voice control for your Roku TV, Roku player, and other Roku audio devices built by the company’s partners.

For example, you’ll be able to say things like “Hey Roku, play jazz in the living room,” or “Hey Roku, launch the Roku Channel,” or “Hey Roku, turn off the TV in 30 minutes.” (The command, “Hey Roku,” will precede any of the voice interactions, similar to Google’s “Hey Google.”)

The Roku Entertainment Assistant, as this voice assistant is called, will also let you voice control media playback, like playing or pausing the program you’re watching on your Roku device.

The vision, explains the company, is a whole home licensing program featuring Roku devices and others built to work with the Roku Connect platform. The hope is that it will lure in customers who already operate their Roku media players or TVs with Roku’s voice control, and encourage them to expand their home media system with more Roku-connected devices.

Roku believes its connected ecosystem could help to eliminate the complexities that exist today with setting up systems like sound bars, surround sound, and multi-room audio speakers.

“It’s hard for consumers to set up. It’s based on existing standards that were designed before the connected community era, that limits features, fidelity and ease-of-use,” explains Mark Ely, VP of Product Management at Roku, of traditional home entertainment hardware. “You can’t use modern conveniences – like your voice – to make it all automatically work,” he continues. “What we believe consumers really want is a home entertainment network.”

For Roku, the program also represents a way to bring in more customers and increase its revenue.

“Our licensing platform is the fastest growing way we acquire active accounts at Roku,” adds Ely, of the existing Roku TV licensing program.

For example, when Roku started working with TCL, the TV manufacturer was number 19 in market share in the U.S. Today, they’re number 4. And every smart TV they sell is a Roku TV,  Ely notes. It’s no surprise, then, that TCL is the first to jump on the chance to build more Roku devices.

Across both Roku players and Roku TVs, the company has grown its user base 47 percent since last year to 16.7 million active accounts as of Q3 2017. Those users streamed 3.8 billion hours during the quarter, up 58 percent year-over-year. And one in every five smart TV in the U.S. was a Roku TV during the first 9 months of 2017. (It’s also now adding its ninth brand, Magnavox, this spring, thanks to Funai Electric’s decision to extend its Roku TV licensing agreement beyond its existing deal with Philips.)

Roku says it will license the Roku Connect software to OEM brands for free, and it doesn’t plan on collect licensing revenues from these new smart speakers or smart soundbars. Instead, the company aims to monetize the active user accounts these devices bring in, as consumers engage with the content and advertising on Roku’s platform. This includes in the newer, ad-supported Roku Channel, where Roku has aggregated free content from channel partners alongside movies and shows its licensed itself.

Roku will launch the voice assistant, along with partners’ first hardware devices like smart speakers and soundbars, in fall of 2018. However, there will be announcements about those devices ahead of their arrival, as the OEM partners join the program.

Current Roku customers won’t need to buy new hardware to take advantage of the voice assistant, we’re told. It will also be offered to existing Roku TVs and Roku players (those with the voice remote) as a software update, and will be integrated into Roku’s mobile app, too. These systems today have a rudimentary voice search feature available, but the new Entertainment Assistant will be more powerful. It will also grow over time to be even more capable, much like Google and Amazon’s voice assistants do today.

If another home entertainment company besides Roku was attempting to enter the voice computing market, it would likely be an uphill battle.

But Roku’s devices have grown in popularity because they’re not affiliated with content platform, the way that Apple TV, Android TV, Chromecast, and Fire TV are. That means they can remain neutral, while companies like Google and Amazon get into fights that sees Google pulling YouTube from Fire TV, or have to take years to hash out deals for something as simple as being able watch Amazon Prime Video on Apple TV.

Roku, meanwhile, benefits from this position – beating sales projections, growing ad revenue, and increasing its active user numbers, as it did in its first earnings.