It looks like Amazon’s Alexa is set to be heard in many areas around the home. Is Alexa the missing link that smart homes and internet of things (IoT) has been waiting for?
CES 2017 presented loads of gadgets that can be controlled using voice commands via Amazon’s Alexa personal assistant. I found the variety amazing. Everything from table lamps and home stereos to domestic robots, fridges as well as the wider IoT.
What is Alexa?
If you’re not up with what Alexa is, she is a virtual personal assistant that’s been available for two years in the states. She landed in the UK last year with the Amazon Echo and Echo Dot. Think an Amazon version of Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana and Google Assistant. You can ask it for the weather forecast, set alarms, check and update your calendar, read the news, and perform various tasks including controlling some smart devices around the home.
At the moment Alexa only speaks English. However, a German version has recently been announced, with other “international” languages, including Chinese, scheduled to follow. More on the Chinese addition later.
As you rightly presume, Alexa can also order things from the Amazon store.
I was impressed by just how good and intuitive Alexa is to use when I had an Echo Dot to review, so much so, I now own one.
Its voice recognition accuracy, as well as integration with services such as Spotify, have really taken the industry by storm. So much so that there has been an almost endless list of Alexa-enabled gadgets at CES this year.
Unlike the other personal assistants mentioned, Alexa doesn’t need you to unlock your phone in order to control your gadgets.
Thanks to the Amazon Echo (a hands-free smart speaker) and especially the Echo Dot (a smaller and much more affordable version), you simply have to speak your commands. This could well prove to be the missing link in popularising the smart home.
It must be a surprise even for Amazon to see just how popular Echo and Echo Dot have been. The CES organiser, the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), has predicted that another 4.5 million digital assistant devices will sell in 2017, up 52%.
Amazon isn’t giving away hard facts and figures regarding the Echo but it has said that sales of the Amazon Echo family of devices around Christmas were up more than nine times over the previous year. Also that the Echo Dot was the best-selling, most gifted item on Amazon.com, with “millions” sold worldwide.
With AI and voice control billed to be one of the biggest themes in technology this year, powering everything from fitness trackers to vacuum cleaners, Amazon’s initial edge over its competition could carry it a long way.
Alexa in the home
Armed with that knowledge it’s perhaps no surprise that companies at CES were announcing gadgets that integrate Alexa.
Sam Vang at Lenovo in the USA, which at the CES launched various Alexa-enabled devices said
Echo sold out during the holiday season … it’s popular, and it’s growing, and that’s where the money is,”
This will explain a raft of new speakers integrating the Alexa Voice Service as well as Lenovo’s Smart Assistant.
This circular 5W tweeter and 1W woofer speaker is powered by an Intel Celeron N3060 processor, and produces 360-degree sound.
According to Vang, the premium version has
the functionality of an Echo, but it has Harman Kardon speakers, which are better for playing music at parties,”
Omaker also attempted to improve upon Amazon’s hardware at the CES, announcing the WoW portable speaker with Alexa. This utilises Linkplay’s tech to create multi-room speaker systems for homes that can stream from the likes of Spotify, Amazon Music, Audible, TIDAL, Napster and TuneIn.
With a compatible speaker in each room, the tech essentially allows Alexa to become a whole-home control system; you could ask it to turn on the lights in the living room and even order food, as well as playing music from any of those services. A similar feature is set to come to Sonos devices during 2017.
AT&T announced its Starter Kits at CES. These help developers build IoT services and are now compatible with Amazon Web Services (AWS), which includes Alexa Voice Services.
The smart home is one of the very best uses for voice, but it could be used anywhere where humans and machines need to communicate,”
So says Mobeen Khan, associate vice-president for IoT solutions at AT&T.
If I’m an engineer maintaining a machine with voice abilities, I could talk to it and run diagnostics just by speaking to it, but usually voice if used for knowledge augmentation,”
To be honest, that would be pretty awesome. Also something we have all seen in countless sci-fi flicks.
The Vobot Clock (US$35, available in early February 2017) is an interesting addition. This packs features such as “sleep coaching” and customised music alarms. It can be used to switch off lights (such as the popular Philips Hue connected light bulbs), stream music, get updates from Facebook, and even order an Uber.
Belkin’s WeMo Mini smart plug was also launched at the CES, which allows users to tell Alexa to turn whatever is plugged into it on or off. Belkin will also make available an Alexa-capable WeMo dimmer switch.
Blinds, vacs and fridges
On a similar theme, smart home company Netatmo announced a partnership with Velux for windows, blinds and shutters that could be operated via Alexa. GE Lighting launched an LED table lamp for the second quarter of 2017 that embeds Alexa.
LG Fridges are also slipping the tech in. This makes more sense than you might think. You see, fridges are always on and already have a spot in one of the busiest rooms in the home. Just think, if you subscribe to Amazon Fresh, you will be able to replenish stocks as soon as you notice you’re running low.
Portable speakers are one thing, but you can expect to see Amazon’s assistant popping up in all manner of A/V equipment.
One famous name who is already integrating the voice service is Arcam. Their rPlay streamer will use Alexa to control music on one or more DTS Play-Fi enabled devices in the home, regardless of brand.
Breaking in to China
Although Amazon has not yet been allowed in China, that doesn’t seem to be slowing down Alexa.
Thanks to a strategic partnership with the huge Huawei, Alexa will make its first appearance on the Mate 9 smartphone.
Not only does this flagship phablet tick all the right boxes for smartphone owners, it is a very clever way of getting the Alexa service in to China. That would also explain the coming Chinese language update mentioned earlier.
I think it is fair to expect this breaking free of your home and appearing in your car too.
There is already Dashbot, which integrates the service in your car. I am certain that this is the thin edge of the wedge as far as vehicle integration goes.
Has Alexa got it all wrapped up?
It may be too soon for Alexa to announce its victory just yet.
There are reports that rival Samsung could introduce its own virtual assistant possibly called Bixby.
As always with this kind of thing, it will probably all boil down to third party integration and support. As far as that goes, just looking at what has come out of CES 2017, Alexa has certainly had a very strong start.