Amazon’s latest device for the digital home combines a wireless speaker with voice recognition capabilities similar to the iPhone’s nearly ubiquitous, Siri. This unique appliance offers some of the functionality of a smartphone — most notably its voice-driven search capability — while maintaining a measure of hands-free convenience. News, weather, information, and music are all available with a simple vocal request.
Does the Amazon Echo make sense in your home or is it just another digital device in search of a real, pressing need? Does it usher in a new trend in digital personal assistants that might someday allow control of a smart home? Let’s dig down deep into the details.
Just a note that — when officially released — the Echo is only available by an invitation from Amazon; it’s priced at $199, but Amazon Prime subscribers are able to purchase it for $99 for a limited time.
A Closer Look at the Amazon Echo
In short, the Amazon Echo is a Cloud-enabled, voice-activated combination Bluetooth speaker and personal assistant. The Echo promises immersive sound from its one speaker — well as immersive as you can get with mono. It stays in a “sleep” state until woken up with a special activation word you choose.
The Echo sports seven different microphones that leverage beamforming technology to allow it to react to your voice from anywhere in the room. When awake, the Echo captures any voice query; streaming it to Amazon’s Cloud servers where your request is answered with the results returned to the Echo’s speaker.
The device’s basic use-case makes perfect sense when asking the Echo to play music by your favorite artist, tune-in your favorite Internet radio station, or when querying for a small amount of information like the local weather forecast or an answer to a simple question. Asking it to return the textual contents of a Wikipedia page, while possible, seems to be a better job for your old-fashioned computer or tablet. Of course, you can use Echo to order products from Amazon, whose bread is still buttered by their eCommerce business, not their mobile device business which just suffered a nearly 200 million dollar loss on the Fire Phone.
The Echo theoretically offers the ability to better understand your voice queries over time as it becomes more familiar with your vocabulary and speech patterns. It also leverages any content you already may have stored with your Amazon account, so asking the device to play music already in your collection is a faster process compared to a release you’ve not yet purchased or uploaded to Amazon’s servers. It’s not obvious whether the Echo can play music already stored on your home network using DLNA; it would be a big oversight if it couldn’t, but it can locally stream music over Bluetooth.
A Future Controller for a Home Automation Hub?
The ultimate use-case of the Amazon Echo might be controlling your home automation hub. Asking the Echo to raise your thermostat a few degrees or to turn off the lights in your living room offers a true vision of Star Trek here in the early 21st Century. Even though these features don’t exist today, Amazon promises to keep adding new services to Echo over time.
Another nice-to-have Echo feature would be integration with the IFTTT (If This Then That) service. Imagine asking the Echo for a Wikipedia article and then having the system email you a text document containing the information from the article using an IFTTT recipe. This adds a truly useful layer of functionality that allows the Echo to actually be a voice-activated personal assistant, and not merely a fancy jukebox.
The Amazon Echo holds much promise, but its true worth depends on the overall success of the system and whether or not Amazon keeps adding new features, like home automation control or IFTTT integration. The previously mentioned huge loss on the Fire Phone makes it easy to question whether or not the Echo is poised to be a long term success. Even so, interested early adopters should definitely sign up for an invitation to purchase this state of the art digital home appliance.
Photo Credit: Scott Lewis