Science fiction is littered with sentient, omnipresent computers that respond to voice commands. From the fatally flawed HAL 9000 of 2001: A Space Odyssey to the cool, confident Starship Enterprise computer to the snarky, easily distracted Heart of Gold computer in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, humans have imagined anthropomorphic computers that hear all, know all and control all.
It seems these dreams (or fears, depending on your perspective) are now coming true. Thanks to advances in artificial intelligence (AI), and in particular voice recognition technology, major tech providers including Apple, Google, Microsoft, and now Amazon all have voice recognition services to answer questions, give directions, play your choice of music, and look up things like weather forecasts, sports results, and your calendar.
A Convergence of Innovation
At AndPlus, we’re excited about these innovations because they represent the convergence of two rapidly emerging technologies: AI and the “internet of things” (IoT). We’re proud to say we are right at the edge of this new frontier and eager to bring to life innovative ideas that take advantage of these technologies.
Echo Products Overview
Amazon has taken the early lead in bringing together AI and IoT for the consumer market with their Echo line of products, which take their Alexa voice-recognition service to the next level by integrating with the increasingly popular “smart home” products. This means you can combine an Echo with smart home products from manufacturers such as Nest, Hue, and Wemo. Then you can ask Alexa, via an Echo, to change the room temperature, dim the lights, run the sprinklers, arm the alarm system, and more.
The Echo product line has grown rapidly in the last year in both number of products and their capabilities. By way of demystifying the product offerings, here’s an overview of what’s available now.
- Echo: The flagship Echo product not only stands ready to hear and respond to your voice commands, but also can fill a room with high-fidelity streaming music from Amazon Prime or any of several other streaming music services.
- Echo Dot: This device extends the capabilities of your Echo to any other room in your home. A cool feature when you have multiple units is the “drop in” ability, which essentially makes the Echo system a two-way intercom, enabling you to communicate from one room to another or to all rooms at once (“Dinner’s ready!”).
- Echo Plus: The Echo Plus has all the capabilities of the standard Echo, plus a built-in hub for managing your smart home devices.
- Echo Spot: This is an extension Echo, similar to the Echo Dot, but with a 2.5-inch screen for displaying video content.
- Echo Show: Like the Echo Spot, but with a larger 7-inch screen and better sound.
In addition to the standard Alexa services and streaming audio, all Echo products can connect to wired or Bluetooth headphones or speakers, and enable you to make phone calls (“Alexa, call Grandpa.”).
Another nice feature of the Echo product line is the ability to add what Amazon calls “skills,” which resemble smartphone apps in that they are provided by third parties and can be added individually. There are hundreds of skills available, and more being added all the time. There are skills that: enable Alexa to get news feeds from ESPN, the Washington Post, and other sources; enable interactive game play, such as Jeopardy! and 20 Questions; integrate with third-party smart-home devices, and more. This is a brilliant business strategy that offloads much of the development work to third parties and expands the system’s capabilities well beyond anything Amazon could have dreamed up on its own.
The Echo product line, and its Alexa interface, have made extraordinary progress just in the last few months. Expect this trend to continue and the Echo products to grow in popularity as the Alexa interface matures and adds capabilities, and as the Alexa skill development community grows. And if you have a great idea for a new Alexa skill—perhaps one that involves opening pod bay doors—feel free to contact the AndPlus team to discuss how it might be taken from idea to reality. We’ll make sure it goes at least a step beyond HAL and does more than just say “I can’t do that, Dave.”