echoThe Amazon Echo has just now been released and while its shape is cylindrical (and not monolithic), it feels a bit like Kubrick’s HAL computer.  Like the 2001 Space Odyssey movie, Amazon has introduced a definite glimpse of the voice-recognition’s future — a future that is both promising and a bit frustrating.    We just received our Echo (it is shipping this month) and spent a weekend taking it through its paces.   Amazon has named it Alexa (not to be confused with Google’s web analytics site).  Early-adopters will love it.   Others…..perhaps not so, perhaps not yet.

As for the device itself, it plugs into an AC power source and connects to your WiFi so it has access to the  Internet.  You control it through an Echo app that you download onto a mobile device and through your voice commands.   Its seven microphones are impressive; they enable it to hear what you say anywhere in a room, even over the sound of music or a background conversation.  You just need to start every command with Alexa’s name:
“Alexa, play my Beatles song list.”
“Alexa, what is traffic status for my commute?’”
“Alexa, what time is it?”
“Alexa, what is the weather forecast for today?”
“Alexa, what are the top news stories?”
“Alexa, what are my appointments today?”

This is just a sampling of the kinds of commands/questions you can ask.   More of them can be found here.

Is Echo Useful?

If you like a broad array of everyday information delivered to you verbally by a nice woman’s voice — as opposed to a sexy woman’s voice, like Scarlett Johansson’s Samantha in Her — then Echo is worth your consideration.   At the current $179, it is about twice the price of a decent speaker but it offers a lot more than a decent speaker.   So it is a decent value proposition, as it can provide you with almost instant access to weather, traffic, news, factoids, music, Audible books, a timer and shopping lists.   It connects you to your Prime music library as well as Pandora….and in the future Amazon is rumored to be offering a cooking app, a fitness gadget, a connected toy, a home monitoring system, a garage door controller and a voice-controlled car assistant, all powered by Alexa.   It is expected to begin connecting to your Fire TV console and, with add-on devices, has the capability of interacting with home control devices like lighting fixtures, security systems, thermostats and other “smart home” functionalities.

Echo isn’t quite a fully-fleshed out “digital personal assistant” yet.   It’s ability to do web searches for you is limited to Wikipedia and some rudimentary Bing searches.   Its recent embrace of IFTTT allows you to access other apps that can provide more than what Alexa can offer you.  In order to take advantage of other apps and services, you’ll need to create an IFTTT account.    So Echo could become an app-delivery platform. And, in time, it’ll likely become an ad-delivery platform as well.  (sigh!)

Is Echo the Future of Voice Recognition?

For good and for bad,  Echo is a voice control technology that will continue to develop and, soon, become ingrained in most of our lives.  It is the next iteration of where Siri, Cortana and Google Now have been heading for years. And, yes, it has the potential to invade your privacy. You’re inviting a sophisticated array of directional microphones, high-tech software to understand spoken language commands, and a computer with access to the Internet into your home. And it sits there, always listening……Chinese hackers and the NSA must be salivating.

The more you use Echo the better it can serve you, according to Amazon. That’s because every question you ask and every command that you give to Echo tells it more about your needs, preferences, lifestyle (what time do you get up on Saturday?), health, hobbies, family members, etc., etc.  But, remember, Amazon is using Alexa to collect information for you — about your preferences, interests, orientations and just about anything else that you share with lovely Alexa.   And she will continue to grow and expand, as Amazon further develops her capabilities.

Amazon’s approach differs somewhat from other US technology companies attempting to integrate their voice control systems into the emerging IoT world. Apple,allows users to control its HomeKit connected devices using Siri, but only through approved uses and via its iPhone or iPad.
Google Now is slightly more open, available on more devices, but similarly cannot be used by developers directly.  Microsoft’s Cortana is still in its early stages but is expected to be available on the iPhone and Android devices as well as the company’s Windows phones and computers.  Then again, its Microsoft, so get ready to be a beta-tester for the foreseeable future.   Meanwhile, Amazon grasps that Alexa’s future lies in IoT products such as connected alarm clocks, smart lights and sprinkler systems and we fully expect that Alexa will be integrated into Amazon’s tablets, smartphones and e-readers.    Echo is but a glimpse of our voice control future.