Amazon Echo First Impressions


Alexa, play Twenty One Pilots.
Amazon Echo

This is a phrase not heard once in my house prior to June 13, but has been one of the most uttered phrases since. Twenty One Pilots is my 13 year old son’s favorite band, and Alexa is the default name given to Amazon’s Echo….device.

I hesitated typing that last sentence because, what is the Echo, exactly? My wife stumbled across it while looking for my birthday present. She was looking for a quality Bluetooth speaker for me, and the Echo seemed to be coming up a lot in online discussions. Yes, it’s a speaker, and you can pair it to your phone or music device, but calling it a speaker seems to do it a disservice. In fact, the Echo seems to be designed to run more from Amazon’s extensive and continually expanding ecosystem than when any particular personal device, and I think that’s a smart play for both Amazon and consumers.

The key feature is Alexa’s (as she will henceforth be referred to) voice recognition and integration into both the Amazon ecosystem and the broader Internet. Most people have at least some experience with Apple’s Siri or Google’s Google Now. Those features are nice, but picture yourself, instead of shouting into your smartphone mic, simply uttering the question as you walk around the room, and then having a voice rain down the answer upon you as if manna was falling from Heaven itself. Or picture yourself getting a real urge to hear some 90’s music. Or wondering what the weather is like where your parents live in Minnesota. Or what the traffic conditions are on your morning commute. Or what the latest NPR news headlines are. That’s Alexa. That’s all Alexa.

I’ll be honest, I wasn’t really sure what I was getting when we ordered it. I don’t think a written description really encapsulates the power of the device, and perhaps that’s why the Echo was a bit slow to take off. It’s hard to picture how you’ll use it until you start using it.

Alexa, what’s on my calendar for tomorrow?

Alexa, add sugar to the shopping list

Alexa, how old is Robert Downey Jr.?

I jokingly tweeted the above after just a few hours messing around, but the sentiment is real. I feel like Amazon has finally started to put the pieces together. We’re on our way to natural AI interfaces, and Jarvis is just around the corner.

The hardware itself is fairly sparse. It’s a little black speaker/tower with two buttons at the top, a microphone toggle and an “action” button that can be used to wake the device or perform the setup. Amazon has developed a companion smartphone app that is required to configure the device settings (such as Wi-Fi and some preferences). Those shopping lists I mentioned earlier? They’re in the Alexa app. So, when you tell Alexa to add something to one of the lists (either shopping or to-do), you can access those lists via your phone at a later time. The app also includes your history of voice queries, which are no doubt being fed directly into a big customer profile database somewhere in Amazon’s data center. But, on the not so pessimistic side, you can look at each query and tell Alexa whether what she heard was actually what was said, in effect training her to better recognize your commands along the way.

One problem with Alexa existing in a household with six people is that there are sometimes competing requests, and she will comply with each one. It’s happened more than once that one kid will come into the room partway through a song that has been requested by another kid and “overrule” the currently playing tune. Alexa isn’t a parent, she won’t say “you wait until your brother’s song has finished, then you can request one”. She just happily does what she’s told, despite the obvious foreseeable ramifications. Another possible long-term negative is how interacting with AI will eventually affect our interactions with other humans. We are already trending towards a time when manners and human decency are dispensed of when our communication medium consists of only text and avatars. How will our communication with one another change in the future when basic politeness is no longer required while interacting with AI? Are we training ourselves out of respectful interactions? It’s an interesting line of thought that only time will be able to answer.

Terminator

Despite the probability of future dystopia, I’m still really excited about the possibilities this technology has opened up. So much so, that I’ve started researching smart watches that integrate with Alexa (to date, there is only one). I’ve never been too excited about the smart watch concept, considering it seems like a very expensive way to not have to reach into my pocket, but this particular CoWatch seems to be headed in a better direction. It’s less reliant on your phone and more reliant on the Internet. I’m not sure that it’s 100% there yet (I’d still like to see GPS functionality so that you wouldn’t need to carry your phone at all when running/walking), but I’m starting to feel like wearables might finally be crossing into “interesting” territory, thanks to more of a focus on a specific set of functions instead of trying to extend all smart phone features onto a tiny little display.

At any rate, I’m still really happy with the purchase. The device itself costs a mere $180, or roughly the same amount that you’d pay for a mid-range Klipsch Bluetooth speaker.  Not bad for a voice enabled personal assistant from the Jetsons. Hang on folks, we’re just a few short years away from accidentally creating Ultron!

Alexa, publish post.


Amazon Echo by Cryptik Merlin on Flickr Creative Commons 

Terminator by Dave at Flickr Creative Commons 

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8 thoughts on “Amazon Echo First Impressions

  1. C. T. Murphy June 23, 2016 / 9:50 am

    I almost bought the Echo before it was mass released, but held off. I am not very tied to Amazon’s Ecosystem outside of Kindle, so it really didn’t make sense at the time. Now that it has expanded some it seems like a better bet, but I am holding out to see if Google Home works better for me since I am a Google fanboy.

    I doubt I get it either though until everything feels a bit tighter. I love being able to use my Chromecasts on my televisions, but integration for the entire system still feels a little too loose.

    We aren’t quite at that point where what we are doing in one room (technologically-speaking) can easily follow us into another without some effort.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Braxwolf June 25, 2016 / 2:02 pm

      I prefer Google for tech stuff, as it’s usually a little more open. But my wife (non-techy) has slowly bought into the Prime ecosystem, which is not necessarily a bad thing. They’ve been very smart about including good stuff into your Prime membership and then slowly raising the price – which makes you feel like you’re getting it “for free”, even though you’re really not. Google, for all it’s innovation, is still bad at integrating it’s own services together well, unfortunately.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pasduil June 23, 2016 / 10:34 am

    I don’t like the idea of getting ever more enmeshed in the Amazon universe, but otherwise this sounds pretty cool.Not tremendously useful in my case, as I don’t really need to do any of the things you describe yourself doing with it, but fun.

    Is it actually a good quality speaker? I may be looking for a portable speaker sometime.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Braxwolf June 25, 2016 / 2:05 pm

      It’s a pretty decent speaker, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there are better out there if you’re not interested in the voice UI and the other features I’ve mentioned. One of my most-used features is asking it for the news in the morning while I’m in the kitchen making coffee & stuff. I’ve set it to give me news from NPR, BBC and CNN. Also gives me the weather, so I can catch up on the latest headlines while I’m getting ready for work.

      Like

      • Pasduil June 27, 2016 / 6:29 pm

        The news thing is intriguing. Does it actually play shows? Read out headlines from webpages?

        A voice controlled speaker might be quite good if you could do such things as play a podcast and ask it to rewind bits you didn’t catch while something noisy was going on. It is somewhat of a hassle to go fishing the phone out of your pocket for such.

        On the speaker front, how portable is it? I can see the kitchen being the main use, but I’d want something I can easily pick up and take into another room. Does it have lots of cables and such?

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      • Braxwolf June 27, 2016 / 8:40 pm

        NPR, BBC and ESPN are read by someone from the network, like a news update on a radio broadcast. CNN is read by the Alexa voice, which can be a little robotic. There are also some local news updates you can choose, but I don’t really live in any of those major metro areas.

        The Echo is probably about 10 inches tall. It’s not huge, but not exactly pocket sized, either. Easy enough to move from room to room, but they’ve got one that looks more like a hockey puck (https://www.amazon.com/b/?node=14047587011) if you want something smaller. The only cable is the power cable

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Lewis July 3, 2016 / 2:41 am

    Sounds like an interesting device if the sound is good, it could replace things like my tv’s soundbar etc.
    The biggest problem is Amazon. Maybe a UK thing, their distribution centre here has notoriously bsd working conditions and they’re tax dodgers. I can’t bring myself to buy anything from them.

    Like

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