Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Amazon echo: The New Voicebot on the Block

A few months back, Amazon announced its new echo voice command home speaker device. You can get it all straight from the horse's mouth right here. There is a video there too, and as you'll quickly learn, it's by invitation only...so far. If you are like me and you are curious, you can fill in your email address and request an invite. I think I filled in my email before Christmas and I just got mine today. If you are an Amazon Prime member the device is $100. For everyone else it's $200.
It's like Apple's Siri on steroids.

Did I need this device? No. Not by a long shot. But I like technology as well as reviewing it, and since I am already a Prime member, the $100 was not a lot to drop. This unit is very much like a bluetooth speaker, just a bit larger. And there is no battery inside, so the unit is not portable...yet.

Hookup was very easy. Some wifi setting and linking to my Amazon account and it was on. Her name is Alexa and she'd very sweet. I already like her way more than Siri, who never quite lived up to expectations. Simply saying, "Alexa, what's the weather?" yielded a very quick result and then she went silent. Much of the music I've purchased from Amazon—always CDs—are all up and ready to be played digitally through Alexa, or via the online app or my iPhone app. All you need to do is ask, "Alexa, Play Blade Runner soundtrack." Boom! She states what she's gonna play, just in case there was any confusion, and then it starts playing.

Is the voice recognition perfect? No. But it's the best I've ever dealt with so far. And given that my own kids and wife can't hear or understand me half the time, I'd say she's already well on her way to becoming my new voicebot BFF. Weather, odd facts, spelling (my spelling sucks), music, alarms, shopping lists and even online shopping are all available for her to do by voice command. I disabled the online shopping immediately. That's dangerous. I hate one click purchases too. You can browse new music though, which is cool. For now though I'm not ordering crap through the air with this lady. She's too good to do my shopping for me. She's better than that.

The kids are at school but I'm sure Alexa will have to endure much abuse as soon as they get home.
There is a very handy mute mic button atop the unit. If you are worried about the NSA listening, or if you just happen to have your real life friend Alexa over, the mute button is a great feature. Alexa will not respond when the mute button is pressed, and the LED light ring atop the unit goes RED to let you know she's deaf for the moment. I just hope she can't read lips or is related to the HAL 9000!

So far I've listened to music, asked her to spell catastrophic, listened to some news headlines, and added Newman's Own ranch dressing to a shopping list that appears on the companion iPhone Amazon echo app. The app is nice too, and I'm glad it's on the iPhone. Of course Amazon would prefer you to use their phone with it, but it is not necessary and would not entice anyone to purchase it just so they could use it with echo. Putting the app on different platforms shows that Amazon is realistic about the varied choices people in the world make. The $100 Prime price point for members is an obvious hard play to get more people signed up for Prime. If you shop on Amazon a lot like I do, Prime is a must-have necessity.

So that's that. She's up and running and now a new member of the family. I'm already in love with her in a very plutonic way. Nervous laughter. Go watch Her now.

This is the future, too. Make no mistake, more technology like this is coming. It's like in Dances With Wolves when Kicking Bird asks John Dunbar, "How many more white men are coming?" And John answers while pointing up to the sky, "Like the stars." That's what's coming with technology—a lot of it. It may not seem too fast to us as we watch it grow, and 2 years can seem like a lifetime waiting for a new phone, but in my brief 40+ years, so much has changed already that I am sure I can't even imagine how fast and crazy it will all get eventually.

What I can easily imagine is a self-driving car that drives to the store without me in it to get loaded up with groceries I dictated aloud online. I can imagine a smallish R2D2-type bot that roams the house, up and down stairs, sweeping up dirt and dust and vacuums the rugs, all the while taking my commands. I can imagine a lawnmower like this too. I can imagine these devices quickly becoming insanely sophisticated with the way they speak to us, how they listen, and how they fill a social void for parts of humanity that need social voids filled. And once these bots start looking like humans I can imagine even more. A lot of it good, some of it not so good. It's always been that way though. Humanity is extremely varied, and so therefore the uses we apply to our technology will be varied. It's important for companies and end users to exercise more than a modicum of caution regarding these devices going forward. Anything extra like a mute mic button, to help put end users at ease is a must. And the more safeguards taken the better. It's all fun and games until someone loses an eye.


Keep safe.

Alexa, what is the weather tomorrow?...

Alexa, put cookies on my shopping list...

Alexa, set an alarm for 5am tomorrow morning...

Alexa, play the Balde Runner soundtrack...