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Harman Kardon’s Invoke Speaker with Cortana is a Challenge to Amazon’s Alexa

Microsoft’s getting a little closer to making Halo real today. Cortana is making the leap from Windows 10 to being a fully fledged smart home assistant thanks to a new intelligent speaker made in partnership with Harman Kardon. The Invoke speaker will combine premium audio with smart home control, although there are a few puzzle pieces missing that prevent us from knowing how exactly it works.

But first, the basics. Invoke is a cylindrical smart home speaker hub, a little like the Amazon Echo. On the audio side, it’s been outfitted with three woofers, three tweeters, and two passive radiators, arranged all around the cylinder for 360-degree sound. We haven’t heard it in person yet, but on paper, that’s a lot of sound packed into a device of this size.

Microsoft will provide Cortana, which as usual can handle voice searches and set reminders and calendar events. But, the software won’t be all Microsoft. Harman has used their audio expertise to create SONIQUE far-field voice technology. The speaker has seven microphones, with SONIQUE helping to make sure that Cortana can hear you from far away, using echo cancellation and noise reduction while actively focusing the mics on your voice.

The head scratcher here is the smart home functionality. Amazon has Skills for Alexa to help their smart home assistant control a number of smart home devices from various companies — as far as we know, Microsoft has no such system. The Invoke web page says that the speaker will work with smart home devices from “select providers,” with no further elaboration. The page also says Invoke will be available this fall, but there’s no word on price yet.

Today’s announcement came after a leak earlier in the day, suggesting that the news was probably slated for later in the week. The Microsoft Build conference starts later this week, and that’s probably not a coincidence. Chances are Microsoft is going to have a lot to say about the smart home when that conference kicks off, and Invoke will likely be at the center.

It’s worth remembering that Connecticut-based Harman is now owned by Samsung. While we’re sure that Invoke had been in the works long before that deal closed, it wouldn’t be too surprising to see Samsung play ball with Microsoft — while they’re best known for their phones now, Samsung makes a lot of money by supplying components to competitors, so this wouldn’t be outside the norm. And, while Samsung did announce a new voice-based digital assistant called Bixby with the Galaxy S8, Samsung reps suggested at the time that Bixby is meant more to simplify use of Samsung gadgets than to be an all-encompassing smart home assistant.