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Alexa in your ceiling? GE teases voice-friendly smart lights for CES

Coming later this year, new Wi-Fi-connected ceiling lights from GE will include built-in microphones that let you talk to Alexa or Google Assistant -- no smart speakers needed.

The yearly CES tech expo isn't even here yet -- it starts Sunday -- but the announcements are already starting to drop. The latest: a set of fresh updates for the C by GE smart lighting lineup, including multiple new products.

The standout is a new Wi-Fi-connected C by GE recessed ceiling fixture. Aside from letting you automate and dim the lights remotely, each fixture is color-tunable, allowing you to dial in to the specific color temperature of your choosing. Even more interesting: each light has its own microphone and speaker, letting it work as sort of a makeshift Amazon Echo in your ceiling. 

Which assistant you use is up to you -- GE says that you'll be able to pick between Alexa and Google Assistant. GE also tells me that it plans to make the lights compatible with Apple HomeKit, the set of iOS-based smart home protocols that let iPhone users control compatible smart devices using Siri commands -- though with HomeKit, you'll need to speak your commands into your phone's mic instead of talking to the light itself.

Pricing for the light isn't locked down yet, but it has me intrigued nonetheless. More and more people are looking to add artificially intelligent helpers into their home, and these lights will let you do it without need of any extra smart speaker hardware. The idea of an invisible, omnipresent assistant hanging out overhead in your living room and listening for your command probably sounds like a step too far for some, but it's the direction that things seem to be headed, as virtual assistants continue expanding into a growing number of homes.


GE is taking an "all of the above" approach to voice in 2018.

Chris Monroe/CNET

A new year, and voice is still hot

CES is just days away, and all three of the major voice assistants -- Amazon's Alexa, Google Assistant and Apple's Siri -- are primed to play starring roles. The ever-popular Alexa hit cruising altitude in 2017 thanks to a slew of new features and devices, not to mention continued chart-topping sales for the Echo Dot. Google used the year to cement itself as Alexa's top competitor, releasing a Dot of its own with the Home Mini and challenging the Echo's sound quality with the super-sized Home Max. Meanwhile, Siri looms large thanks to the upcoming release of the HomePod smart speaker.

We'll see lots of manufacturers hopping onto those respective bandwagons next week at CES, but I'm curious to see how many decide to hop onto all three of them, as GE and others such as Sonos are doing. A platform-agnostic approach that bets on voice in general rather than betting on a specific assistant seems like the right strategy to me, and also a good one for consumers who don't want to miss out on an interesting product because they picked the wrong virtual helper.

What else is new


In addition to the smart ceiling light, GE plans to introduce a new sensor-enabled smart light switch in 2018.


The recessed lights aren't GE's only new smart lighting product for 2018 -- a new Wi-Fi-connected light switch with built-in sensors for temperature, humidity and ambient light is also in the works. Swap it in for your regular light switch, and you'll be able to dim your existing bulbs and control them remotely by syncing them up with a platform like HomeKit, Alexa or Google Assistant (like the recessed light, GE plans to support all three, though they add that both products are still in the prototype phase). There's no microphone in that switch, though, and like the ceiling light, pricing isn't set yet.

In addition, GE will bring HomeKit support to its existing C-Life and C-Sleep Bluetooth smart bulbs, so long as you're willing to add in the plug-in C-Reach Bridge for $50. That bridge is basically a Wi-Fi repeater that allows you to control your bulbs from outside of Bluetooth range, and it doubles as a HomeKit bridge for the bulbs, letting you control them using HomeKit's Siri commands, too. It won't let you control them using HomeKit controls from outside of the home, though -- for that, you'll still need an Apple TV, a dedicated iPad, or an Apple HomePod speaker acting as your HomeKit gateway.

Lastly, GE's unique-looking, Alexa-enabled Sol desk lamp gets an update for 2018, too. Like a growing number of third-party Alexa devices, it'll soon be able to control Spotify playback. GE says that it will also soon include Amazon's "ESP" feature, which makes it so that only the Alexa device closest to you responds to your command. That will be a welcome addition, especially for users living with multiple Alexa devices under their roof.

A bright outlook?

GE's team was wise to promise support for all three of the major voice platforms, but time will tell if they can deliver. Last year, the Sol desk lamp was delayed nearly half a year, but it largely lived up to the original pitch once it finally arrived. That was with GE jumping through one platform's hoops -- I wonder how easily it'll handle three of them. 

Still, If GE can successfully bring its new lights to market without omitting any of the major voice partners, then they'll be in a great position to improve as Amazon, Google and Apple keep battling it out to make their respective assistants as smart as possible. No matter who comes out on top, GE stands to benefit.

We'll be sure to chase down the GE Lighting contingent in Las Vegas next week -- if they have anything more to show us, we'll be sure to tell you all about it.

Update, 5 p.m. ET: This story initially reported that the GE's recessed light will launch with native support for spoken Siri commands. Per GE, that Siri support is still in development, and as of now, will require users to issue commands into the mic on their iPhone or iPad. This story has been updated accordingly.