China’s Xiaomi is best known for its affordable and well designed smartphones, but the company has been quietly expanding to the smart home sector in recent years. It has cooperated with more than 90 affiliated startups to develop a wide range of products, including smart TVs, air purifiers, smart lamps, and even smart toilet covers. The company claims to have sold more than 60 million smart home devices to the market.
The latest member to the Xiaomi smart home family is the Mi AI speaker — a device that can be the key to the family by connecting all of these smart home gadgets.
The Mi AI speaker was introduced on July 26. It is priced at USD 45, but Xiaomi did not unveil when it will go for sale at its launch event.
We got one of its souvenir edition models; here is an account of our first-hand experience using it.
An AI speaker living in the body of a mini Xiaomi air purifier
My first look at a Mi AI speaker reminded me of the air purifiers produced by the same company. They are both rectangular, columnar, and have little round holes at the lower part of the body. Wang Chuan, Cofounder and V.P. of Xiaomi, admitted in a press conference that the two products actually share a similar industrial design.
On top of the Mi AI speaker, there are five touch-sensitive buttons that can be used to play or pause music, select next or last song, activate or mute listening mode, and set the device. Next to these buttons is a touch-supported ring which can be used to adjust the volume. Integrated into the top panel are six far-field microphones, which allow the speaker to hear voice commands from across a room. There is a string of lights embedded around the top panel which will come to life whenever the speaker hears the wake word Xiaoai Tongxue (meaning Classmate Xiaoai) or is responding to a request.
Your music player, personal assistant, and home manager
Like many other voice-activated and connected speaker, the Mi AI speaker’s fundamental function is to play music at a user’s request. It can play most of the Chinese songs that I want to hear, but only a few well-known English songs are included in its music database. Occasionally, it chooses the wrong song.
Besides music, the Mi AI speaker can play other online content like children’s stories, audio novels, cross talks, lectures, among others. But again, it’s not guaranteed that the speaker will find exactly what you requested.
The Mi AI speaker can serve as your personal assistant as well. It’s capable of setting a clock or reminder, recording a memo, inquiring about weather and traffic information, translating a certain word, converting currency, and even doing math. These functions come in handy when your hands are occupied by things like cooking. But if you have an Apple Watch on your wrist, you can also fulfill most of these tasks by asking Siri to do them.
What I find interesting is that you can train your own Mi AI speaker by leveraging the AI training program inside the Xiaomi AI app. You can pre-set a command or question and how the Mi AI speaker should respond to it, either by replying a sentence, playing a recording, or controlling home devices. For instance, if I set the answer to “Who’s the most beautiful woman in the world” as “Your wife”, the Mi AI speaker will reply like that when I ask the question.
The most intriguing and pragmatic function of the Mi AI speaker perhaps would be its ability to control home devices. Thanks to Xiaomi’s wide range of smart home devices, the Mi AI speaker is able to make your home smart if you have already bought some of these products. But if you don’t own any Xiaomi smart home devices, don’t worry. It’s possible to get your non-smart equipment connected by plugging them into a Xiaomi smart socket.
With the help of the AI training program mentioned earlier, it’s feasible to customize some smart scenes at home. For example, if I want to build up a morning scene, I’ll set the command, “Good morning!”, in the AI training program first and set the Mi AI speaker to respond to the command by controlling home devices. The next step is to choose what devices turn on and how they will be controlled. If, for example, I want the curtains to open and the lights, egg boiler, soy milk maker, and rice cooker to turn on, I will set it so that when I wake up and say “Good morning!” to my Mi AI speaker, it will tell all the devices to work as I pre-set them. It’s like magic!
Not mature enough for open sale
It’s exciting to see how the Mi AI speaker performs, but it’s not ready for massive public sale yet.
It can only answer a limited list of questions and often misinterprets my commands or questions. For instance, when I ask it how far it is from the Earth to the Moon, it tells me that the distance between my home and Moon Plaza is 32.4 km and it will take me one hour and three minutes to get there by car — obviously not the answer I was hoping to get.
But the Mi AI speaker will definitely get smarter because Xiaomi will keep working on it and the AI training program will contribute to its processing capability too.
Wang said that the Mi AI speaker will go on sale only when 90%-95% of the testing users are satisfied with it. There are about 1000 users participating in the public test of the Mi AI speaker and they all have at least 10 Xiaomi smart devices at home.
As for international markets, Wang told AllTechAsia at the press conference that the Mi AI speaker won’t expand to international markets until it has done well enough at home.
“We will focus on Mandarin first and then work on Chinese dialects. English and other languages will come after that. Our ultimate goal is that the speaker understands any language,” Wang added.