Voice assistants weigh in on Super Bowl LII


Today marks the 52nd Super Bowl, and quite a bit has changed since that first big game. Then, it was called the AFL-NFL World Championship Game. In 1967, the cost of a movie ticket was $1.25, and color TV was just starting to become popular.

Today, more than fifty years later, we can now stream the big game to our pocket computers and have artificially intelligent assistants sitting around in our homes to keep us up to date on predictions.

That said, the three big voice assistants seem to have a different approach on predicting who will win the Super Bowl today.

Apple’s Siri is playing it straight. When asked who will win the Super Bowl, she simply responds with data:

“I’m hearing that the Patriots are favored to beat the Eagles by 4.5 points.”

Google Assistant, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to want to plant a flag in the sand. The voice-powered AI has a few different responses to the question of who will win the big game, each less informative than the last.

  • “Both teams are hungry for victory, which is important. While the players will be leaving everything on the field, I want you to leave nothing in the chip bowl.”
  • “All I can say is it’s going to be fierce. At some point, both quarterbacks will yell ‘Kill! Kill! Kill!’ and call an audible, but don’t be afraid. You’re not in any danger.”
  • “I don’t have any answers but I can confidently say this: I predict a touchdown within the first sixty minutes.”

In each of these three responses, the voice of Google Assistant is accompanied by roaring crowds. Which, let’s be honest, makes these responses even more ridiculous.

This brings us, finally, to Amazon Echo. When asking Alexa who will win the Super Bowl, Amazon has decided to take their voice assistant in a more human direction. Pats fans, brace yourselves!

“The team favored to win is the (cough). Is the (cough). Excuse me. Is the Patriots. (Clears throat.) That was tough to get out. But I’m flying with the Eagles on this one because of their relentless defense and the momentum they’ve been riding off their underdog status. E-A-G-L-E-S! Eagles!”

Funny enough, Amazon is anything but an underdog and more aptly represented by the Patriots than by the Eagles.

But, in any case, you should have some fun chatting it up with your favorite AI before the game. Unless it’s Siri. That’s just boring.

Featured Image: Getty Images

Amazon brings voice control to its Alexa app for Android, with iOS coming soon


Amazon’s slow push into mobile is getting a lot more real this morning with the addition of voice integration into its Android app for Alexa. Up to now, the app has been little more than a way to mange settings for the Echo and other smart home devices built around its smart assistant.

The addition of voice commands means users can speak directly to their handset the way they would an Echo to play music, trigger Alexa skills and the like. The update is being rolled out over the course of the coming days through Google Play and Amazon’s own Appstore. A similar update is also on the way for the iOS App Store, but its timing is still up in the air, likely due to Apple’s stricter vetting process.

Mobile has, of course, been a big missing piece in Amazon’s Alexa push. The company has added some select functionality on Android devices, working directly with manufacturers like Huawei and Motorola to bring it to specific devices. Though each of those offerings have been a somewhat customized solution.

Without handsets of its own, the company has had difficulty competing with the likes of Google Assistant and Siri on that front. Microsoft has taken a similar route, offering up Cortana as an add-on app for mobile devices, in order to extend its reach beyond the desktop. Last week at CES, meanwhile, Amazon announced that it was bringing Alexa functionality to PCs through a select number of manufacturers. 

Amazon has also, interestingly, brought some voice functionality to its mobile shopping app, while forgoing the functionality for the Alexa app until now. In spite of this, the app has become a hit on app store charts, courtesy of the wild success of the company’s Echo devices this past holiday season. 

We’ve reached out to Amazon to get some specifics on the functionality. The ability to access the app through a wake word is likely up to the discretion of the hardware maker.

Amazon’s Alexa may eventually serve up ads


It was only a matter of time, folks.

According to a report from CNBC, Amazon is in talks with brands and advertisers to include ads on the Echo through via Alexa. The report says that Amazon is discussing these opportunities with Procter & Gamble and Clorox.

We can’t say we’re surprised.

Just as ads found their way to the newspaper, the radio, the television, the internet, and even to our inbox and inside our apps, it only makes sense for advertisers to follow us to the next frontier of voice-powered AI.

There are two obvious paths to potentially advertising on Alexa.

The first is to let brands pay for placement when users are shopping through Alexa. For example, Proctor & Gamble could pay for Bounty to be the first brand recommended when a user asks for Alexa to purchase paper towels. Of course, these ads could be ultra-smart given the data Amazon already has about each individual user’s buying history.

The second channel for advertising could come via Alexa Skills. For example, a skill that tells users movie showtimes could suggest buying tickets through Fandango.

Paid search ads via voice could be much more effective than the paid search ads you see on the web, as with Google. On the web, many have grown numb to ad search results and can easily scroll past them to real search results. On a voice platform, it takes far more work to ‘scroll past’ the first result presented. Plus, depending on how Amazon presents paid results, it may be more difficult to decipher paid results from actual results.

We’ve reached out to Amazon, P&G and Clorox and have not heard back. Amazon, however, responded to CNBC saying that “the company has no plans to add advertisements to Alexa.” Obviously, this is just a rumor at the moment but it would be far from shocking if ads hit the Alexa platform.

We’ll update the post if we hear more.

Voice interfaces beginning to find their way into business


Imagine attending a business meeting with an Amazon Echo (or any voice-driven device) sitting on the conference table. A question arises about the month’s sales numbers in the Southeast region. Instead of opening a laptop, opening a program like Excel and finding the numbers, you simply ask the device and get the answer instantly.

That kind of scenario is increasingly becoming a reality, although it is still far from common place in business just yet.

With the increasing popularity of devices like the Amazon Echo, people are beginning to get used to the idea of interacting with computers using their voices. Anytime a phenomenon like this enters the consumer realm, it is only a matter of time before we see it in business.

Chuck Ganapathi, CEO at Tact, an AI-driven sales tool that uses voice, type and touch, says with our devices changing, voice makes a lot of sense. “There is no mouse on your phone. You don’t want to use a keyboard on your phone. With a smart watch, there is no keyboard. With Alexa, there is no screen. You have to think of more natural ways to interact with the device.”

As Werner Vogels, Amazon’s chief technology officer, pointed out during his AWS re:Invent keynote at the end of last month, up until now we have been limited by the technology as to how we interact with computers. We type some keywords into Google using a keyboard because this is the only way the technology we had allowed us to enter information.

“Interfaces to digital systems of the future will no longer be machine driven. They will be human centric. We can build human natural interfaces to digital systems and with that a whole environment will become active,” he said.

Amazon will of course be happy to help in this regard, introducing Alexa for Business as a cloud service at re:Invent, but other cloud companies are also exposing voice services for developers, making it ever easier to build voice into an interface.

While Amazon took aim at business directly for the first time with this move, some companies had been experimenting with Echo integration much earlier. Sisense, a BI and analytics tool company, introduced Echo integration as early as July 2016.

But not everyone wants to cede voice to the big cloud vendors, no matter how attractive they might make it for developers. We saw this when Cisco introduced the Cisco Voice Assistant for Spark in November, using voice technology it acquired with the MindMeld purchase the previous May to provide voice commands for common meeting tasks.

Roxy, a startup that got $2.2 million in seed money in November, decided to build its own voice-driven software and hardware, taking aim, for starters, at the hospitality industry. They have broader ambition beyond that, but one early lesson they have learned is that not all companies want to give their data to Amazon, Google, Apple or Microsoft. They want to maintain control of their own customer interactions and a solution like Roxy gives them that.

In yet another example, Synqq introduced a notes app at the beginning of the year that uses voice and natural language processing to add notes and calendar entries to their app without having to type.

As we move to 2018, we should start seeing even more examples of this type of integration both with the help of big cloud companies, and companies trying to build something independent of those vendors. The keyboard won’t be rendered to the dustbin just yet, but in scenarios where it makes sense, voice could begin to replace the need to type and provide a more natural way of interacting with computers and software.

Featured Image: Mark Cacovic/Getty Images

The Echo Spot is my new favorite Alexa device

I got excited when the Echo Spot debuted. At the time, I tentatively declared it the best Echo at the time, and after living with the device for the better part of a week, my sentiments haven’t really changed.

The latest member of the Echo family slots into the line nicely, delivering the Show’s touchscreen functionality at a much more palatable price point and size. It’s kind of the Dot to the Show’s standard Echo — in other words, “Spot” is what you get when you cross “Show” with “Dot.”

While rumors about a touchscreen Google Home have been floating around for a bit, the Echo line is still the only major player in the space with the functionality — making Amazon its own biggest competitor. And honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Spot starts eating into Show sales in a big way. A few case uses aside, there really aren’t that many reasons to plunk down the extra $100 for the Show.

Circle marks the Spot

The biggest change in this most recent round of Echo devices is the fact that Amazon’s actually started to give a crap about design. The Echos were kind of crummy and plasticky looking, betraying a company that was more interested in getting its platforms into the home, rather than actually blending in with them.

The Echo got a nice design makeover, with fabric covers and the like, and likewise, the Spot is a much better looking device than the Show. The first Echo was big and plasticky and clunky, with all sorts of weird, brutalist angles.

The Spot’s a small, half-circle, available in either white or black. The company likely could sell even more if it offered them in a wider variety of colors, but between the two current options, it should fit pretty well into most settings. It’s not bleeding-edge design, but it’s minimal without being boring and is honestly pretty nice looking, so far as alarm clocks go.

An Amazon rep tells me the circular design wasn’t chosen for any particular practical purpose — it was a purely aesthetic decision. There is, however, one big downside to all of that: it really messes with video playback. It’s pretty clear that Amazon didn’t expect too many people to actually watch video on the thing. The screen is 2.5 inches, to the Show’s seven.

When you attempt to watch a video, a big portion of the screen is taken over by big, black letter boxing, adding the already sizable bezel. When the video pops up, there’s an option for zooming in. That will eliminate the letter boxing problem, but you’re going to lose everything on the periphery. It’s a weird sensation — a bit like watching something through a porthole.

Of course, on top of the size and dimensional constraints is the fact that the screen has a 480 x 480 resolution. That means it’s not great for much beyond playing short videos — and, unfortunately, bickering between Amazon and Google means when you ask Alexa to “play YouTube,” she answers, curtly that “web videos are not supported on this device.” Amazon video does have some short form content, but it’s no YouTube. Because nothing is YouTube, except for YouTube.

Similarly, the speakers, which were a key focus on the new Echo and Echo Plus, are nothing to speak of, or hear. The get surprisingly loud, but like the Dot, you’re not going to want to use them for much more than communicating with Alexa. For music playback and the like, there’s an audio out port on the back, Bluetooth playing and multi-room music streaming — in other words, you have plenty of much better options for listening to music through Alexa.

Pillow talk

Amazon designs these device around where they’re intended to be used in the home. And yes, the closest non-smart analog for the Spot is the alarm clock. I had it next to my bed for most of my time with the device. It’s a good size and shape for a nightstand, and mornings are really the most useful time of day for an Echo — it’s when you’re looking for useful bits of info like the weather, traffic and news — the latter of which the Spot delivers as flash briefings. Those are short little news videos from top video providers. Pick, say, TechCrunch, to choose a totally arbitrary example, and it will play Crunch Report.

About a week or so back, Amazon brought alarm clock functionality to the Echo line — the timing was a surefire sign that the Spot was just over the horizon. Ask Alexa to, say, “Wake me up to Thin Lizzy at 6:00AM tomorrow,” and the device will do just that, pulling songs from Amazon Prime. You also can ask it to wake you to radio stations through Tune-In. Handy feature that.

Of course, releasing a device designed to live by the side of your bed really stirs up all of those smart speaker privacy issues we’ve been talking about for a few weeks. As ever, the Echo is always listening, and while the company has added security precautions to ease users’ minds, things get even more tricky when you add a camera into the picture.

As with the rest of the Echo line, there’s a button on top that turns off the microphone, lighting up a red circle around the display to let you know that it’s no longer listening. There’s no voice command to turn the mic off (likely because you then wouldn’t be able to turn it back on with a similar command), but turning off the video camera is accomplished by voice. Strangely, there’s no equivalent to the red ring here. Alexa just cheerfully lets you know that the camera’s off and she’ll turn it back on tomorrow.

Amazon should make this functionality more straightforward in future versions. The company should also consider selling a camera-free model. Honestly, aside from video calling, there aren’t a ton of applications for the feature, so many users likely wouldn’t even miss it.

Screen time

One of the nicest things about the Echo line is the speed with which the company is adding new skills. As of December 2017, Alexa’s ecosystem is a fairly robust one. Though, these screen models are relatively new additions, so the selection of visual tools is still a bit lacking at the moment. With most of the more basic skills, like weather and traffic, the company’s done a decent job creating static images.

That said, there are still some solid skills that make good use of the screen, like the aforementioned video calling. The most compelling, however, is probably smart home camera and baby monitor functionality. The device is compatible with a wide range of devices from big names, like Arlo, August, Nest and Ring. It’s handy having a little screen nearby for checking in when someone’s at the door.

Hitting the spot

I like the Spot. If I was current in the market for an Echo device, this would probably be the one. It’s one of the better looking members in the line and the $129 price seems just about right. The display’s usefulness is hampered somewhat by size and a relative lack of skills that really take advantage of the tech, but it does bring some nice functionality to the table.

As with all of these devices, I recommend that anyone who’s in the market does a cost benefit analysis of the useful features versus privacy concerns. All of that is compounded when you stick the product in a bedroom and add a camera. Amazon’s got ways of disabling all of that, but I’m strongly considering becoming one of those blue electric tape people and covering the thing up most of the time — there just aren’t that many applications for a built-in camera.

If none of this seems particularly concerning to you, however, the Spot quickly shoots up the list of available Echos. It’s a nice addition to the line, and Amazon’s about to sell a whole lot of these.

Amazon’s latest Echos show the smart home space hitting its stride


Amazon’s Echo lineup got a refresh earlier this year that included a brand new version of its basic Echo, well as an Echo Plus with integrated smart home hub, and the stalwart Echo Dot – unchanged, but still a compelling device at its price point.

The new lineup of devices also made its way to more markets this year, including an expansion to Canada just this month, which is why I now have a host of Echo hardware kitting out my apartment. The major accomplishment of this refresh, I think, is that it feels less like a new generation of gadget, and more like a coming of age for a modern-day appliance – a whole new category of must-have home furnishings.

Amazon clearly wants to encourage this impression – the new Amazon Echo comes in a host of fabric-covered finishes, and it’s hard to imagine the upholstery look’s connection to furnishings is unintentional. Part of it is about fitting into the decor so that these smart speakers can stand free and clear and unhidden on shelves, tables and surfaces without offending any sensibilities. But it’s also about turning a gadget into something far more approachable, and far more mainstream.

As far as I’m concerned, Amazon has accomplished its task. The Echo (and Echo Plus, and Echo Dot), have all become as key a home device as a light switch, or a couch, or a microwave. The latest generation just firms up that presence with needed improvements in key areas, including in sound reproduction (the new Echo is better than its predecessor, for sure, and the Echo Plus seems to sound a bit better as well despite having apparently similar hardware).

I now use the Echos around the house to control my Hue lights (I don’t remember the last time I flicked a switch), turn on and control the home theater system, check and change the temperature using my Nest thermostat, check news and weather and set kitchen timers. It’s second-nature at this point, and doing the same things, the old, manual way feels hopelessly backwards – even if the actual convenience difference is arguably trivial.

Aspects of the new Echo lineup are questionable, like the integrated smart home hub in the Echo Plus which only supports one of the two major standards for wireless connected home devices. But they don’t detract from the experience – and the ultimate impression that Echo is a home companion that’s destined to become more and more a default option that people live with as reliably as they do their coffee table, or at least their dishwasher.

Amazon Echo’s multi-room music streaming feature now supports Spotify and SiriusXM


Just in time for all of those ridiculous holiday playlists, Amazon’s added two key players to the Echo’s multi-room streaming feature. Spotify and SiriusXM now join the ranks of TuneIn, iHeartRadio, Pandora and, naturally, Amazon’s own Music Unlimited service.

The feature, which hit the smart speakers over the summer, makes it possible to stream songs to multiple Echos on a single network. It’s also possible to play music on individual devices in various parts of one’s home, by telling Alexa to “play my music” and then specifying the a location. So, you know, like, “Alexa, play The Kinks on upstairs from Spotify.”  

As we noted back in August, the feature is a sort of cheaper alternative to traditional premium multi-room music options like Sonos. Of course, since then, Sonos has also gotten into the Alexa business. So, the lines of blurring, I guess. Of course, the new Echos also sport better built in sound, along with audio out, so you can cobble together a pretty okay multi-room system on the cheap.

Spotify functionality is coming to a bunch of countries, including the U.S., U.K., Germany, Canada and Ireland. SiriusXM satellite radio, on the other hand, is only currently available in the States.