While I am not one to promote a specific brand or retailer in this column, this one centers on a device unique enough to not have any real competitors at this point in time (more on that later), but is an example of where technology is headed, particularly in terms of SmartHome devices. The device is the Amazon Echo and its mini assistant, Dot. The story that prompted my friend’s comment is about their main personality, Alexa. For those unfamiliar, Echo and Dot are essentially WiFi connected speakers with software, Alexa, that responds to voice commands. While Alexa can do many of the same jobs Siri and Cortana take on, she can also play music on command, read you a book, tell jokes, and perform a host of skills, including turning off a light or coffee pot that was left on. In order to train Alexa, you need to repeat some commands to her and let her get to know your speech patterns. All was going well for me until I discovered that Alexa can have a personality of her own. Amazon will email you weekly tips to get the most out of Alexa and one week the tip was to talk to her like a person, asking how she is doing or saying thank you, so she could get a feel for your voice patterns. I tried this and got appropriate, but terse, answers. On the other hand, my mother could have an entire conversation with the replies she received to the same comments or questions. For example, thank you yielded me a “you’re welcome” while “it was a pleasure to help you, please ask me anything anytime you want” if she was talking to my mother. See, a complex could develop.
Short replies aside, Alexa comes ready to be your always-on personal assistant, combining a bunch of SmartHome and everyday tasks into one central command device. I personally have barely scratched the surface of what the Echo can do and really have one mostly for the ability to play back a digital music collection. I have also used it a lot for weather reports, sports scores and news headlines. But the device is also set-up to be able to use the skills (free apps you can add via the Alexa app installed on a phone or tablet or simply by saying Alexa, add such-and-such skill) to control devices around the house or even check your bank account. Many of the smart-devices on the market, such as thermostats and light bulbs, are controlled using an app or central control software, so you may have different places to log on to change the temperature or check to see if you left the garage door open. With the Echo and its voice command option, you do not need to dig out your phone and start an app when you want to turn off a light; you just simply say, “Alexa, turn off the living room light.” The goal being to make it simple to use a diverse collection of apps and devices by communicating via voice with just one of those devices. As mentioned, in addition to the popular home control apps, the Echo can add music programs like Pandora, a FitBit app, games, banking, cook book skills, meditation or workout guides, be set as an alarm clock and will even tell your kids jokes if they ask it to. This makes for easier hands-free use when you need to, say, find out how many cups are in a quart and do not want to have to turn on Siri or type something while cooking dinner. Other skills, like the ones from Capital One or Domino's, let you ask Alexa to log onto your account and get balance information or order a pizza. There are currently over 1,000 different skills you can add and, if you are familiar with IFTTT, you can even create your own. IFTTT is an online service that lets you create “recipes” to automate tasks you cannot accomplish with traditional apps (check this blog in the near future for more on IFTTT). For example, you can use an IFTTT recipe to ask Alexa to export a saved shopping list (yes, you can walk by and say, Alexa, add milk to the shopping list) to Evernote on your phone. A quick Google search will reveal more Echo tips and tricks, like the list available on Digital Trends.
But what about the potential competition for Echo? Will there be new devices out soon? The answer is most likely yes, with even more in development. Google has been working on Google Home for a while and now has a website set-up to register for email alerts on the product. Home is supposed to work with some of the same SmartHome devices and will complete some of the same tasks as the Echo. The main difference will be a few features and the Google version will work with the Google content providers as its default, while Echo is linked to Amazon Prime for music playback and games as the default. As mentioned, both will still link to other services such as iHeart Radio or Spotify, but if you are in the market for a personal assistant device, you might consider if you have a large music collection on Google Play, Amazon Prime or iTunes. Yes, iTunes because of course Apple is working on their own device as well. While the Google Home is rumored to be slated for a late 2016 release, the Apple device is still early enough in development that there is no mention of it on the Apple website and only a handful of articles have popped up about it online. One thing Apple has already released that would most likely be the biggest part of an Echo-like device is Apple HomeKit, which is included in iOS 9 as a way to use your iPhone or iPad to control your SmartHome devices. Paired with Siri and iTunes, it would give an Apple device most of the same features in Echo and potential features in Home.
Whichever device you select to lock your doors or play some Doors, just make sure not to take anything it may say to you too personally, at least not until someone develops an at-home psychologist app.