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Roku is developing a new voice assistant and will license its OS to smart speaker makers

Streaming media company Roku is expanding its licensing program to include makers of soundbars and smart speakers, and also plans to launch a new “Roku Entertainment Assistant,” as part of a growing effort to take over the entertainment experience in people’s living rooms.

The Los Gatos, California-based company announced these plans today, ahead of the annual CES, although it plans to show off more of its wares at the show next week.

The first part of the news involves smart speakers: Roku will be putting out reference designs for both soundbars and WiFi-connected speakers, with the hopes that manufacturers will start making stuff that will connect directly to Roku TVs and allow for voice control of Roku TV applications. The company will also roll out something called Roku Connect software, which will have a hardware requirement and will enable other manufacturers to build products that connect with Roku’s TV-centric system. This is aimed at OEMs who want to create high-end performance speakers.

And finally, Roku has said it will develop and launch a voice assistant by the fall of 2018, one that will be rolled out as a free software update to existing Roku TVs and streaming media players. Roku customers can currently use voice control with a Roku remote or the Roku mobile app to pull up content on a TV screen once it’s already on, but this new voice assistant would use natural language processing to recognize requests and pull up Roku content across different devices, even if the TV was initially turned off.

This new effort from Roku is really an extension of an existing licensing program. Roku, which has sold a popular line of streaming video boxes and sticks for several years now, first started licensing its homegrown TV operating system to other manufacturers in 2014, when it announced partnerships with TCL and Hisense. The Roku TVs, which started shipping in August of that year, were basically low-cost smart TVs that ran on Roku’s operating system and defaulted to the Roku interface on the TV.

Since then, eight TV brands have started selling Roku TVs in North America. As of the end of September 2017, one in five smart TVs sold in the US and Canada were running on Roku’s operating system, Roku said, citing third-party research data. (The Verge reached out to the research firm to independently confirm this, but did not hear back by the time of publication.)

Roku said that TCL is the first brand that will have a device under Roku’s new entertainment licensing program, though it declined to share exactly what kind of gadget this will be ahead of CES. It also said that Magnavox will be the ninth and newest TV brand to offer Roku TVs, as part of its CES 2018 announcements.

I asked Roku executive Mark Ely, who joined the company in September after his startup Simple.TV shut down, why Roku is licensing its OS and putting out reference designs rather than making its own series of inexpensive smart speakers, like Amazon does. His answer was straightforward: for Roku, licensing the platform has been “the fastest way to acquire active accounts,” much more so than acquiring new customers by selling streaming media players.

He also emphasized that the Roku OS and Roku Entertainment Assistant are still entirely entertainment focused. So, they’re not meant to offer virtual assistance around web searches, weather updates, pizza deliveries, or anything else Siri and Alexa can do.

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