Amazon Echo, also known as Alexa, is a voice command device from Amazon.com with functions including question answering, playing music and controlling smart devices. It’s a tall cylinder with a seven-piece microphone array and speakers that include a woofer/tweeter and a remote control. The device responds to the name “Alexa”, however this “wake word” can be changed by the user. Amazon had been developing Echo inside their Silicon Valley and Cambridge, Mass labs for at least four years. The device, codenamed ‘Doppler’ or ‘Project D’, was part of Amazon’s first attempts to expand its device portfolio beyond the original Kindle E-reader.
The Echo, previously available to Amazon Prime members or by invitation only, became widely available in late June, 2015. Additionally the service behind it (Alexa Voice Service) is now available to be added to other devices and other companies’ devices and services are encouraged to connect to it (using the Alexa Skills Kit).
Amazon Echo runs on Amazon Web Services. In the default mode the device continuously listens to all speech, monitoring for the wake word to be spoken. The device also comes with a manually and voice-activated remote control which can be used in lieu of the ‘wake word’. Echo’s microphones can be manually disabled by pressing a mute button to turn off the audio processing circuit.
Echo requires a Wi-Fi internet connection in order to work. Its voice recognition capability is based on Amazon Web Services and the Amazon common voice platform it acquired from Yap, Evi, and IVONA. Echo performs well with a ‘good’ Internet connection which minimizes processing time due to minimal communication round trips, streamable responses and geo-distributed service endpoints.
Echo’s natural lifelike voices result from speech-unit selection technology. High speech accuracy is achieved through sophisticated natural language processing (NLP) algorithms built into the Echo’s text-to-speech (TTS) engine.
Echo offers weather and news from a variety of sources, including local radio stations, NPR, and ESPN from TuneIn. Echo will play music from the users Amazon Music accounts and built in support for the Pandora streaming music service was recently added, as was support for IFTTT (If This, Then That).
Echo can also play music from streaming services such as Apple Music, and Google Play Music from a phone or tablet. Echo maintains your voice-controlled alarms, timers, shopping and to-do lists and will respond to your questions about items in your Google calendar. It also integrates with Philips Hue, Belkin WeMo, SmartThings, and Wink. Additionally, integration with Echo is in the works for Countertop by Orange Chef, Scout Alarm, Garageio, Toymail, MARA, and Mojio.
There are concerns about the access Echo has to private conversations in the home, or other non-verbal indications that can identify who is present in the home and who is not—based on audible cues such as footstep-cadence or radio/television programming. Amazon responds to these concerns by stating that Echo only streams recordings from the user’s home when the ‘wake word’ activates the device. However, remember Echo is always be listening to detect that a user has uttered the word.
Echo uses past voice recordings the user has sent to the cloud service to improve response to future questions the user may pose. To address privacy concerns, the user can delete voice recordings that are currently associated with the user’s account, but doing so may degrade the user’s experience using voice search. To delete these recordings, the user must visit the Manage My Device page on Amazon.com or contact Amazon customer service.
Echo determines its location in the user’s home by the collection of networks detected including Wi-Fi routers, the signal strengths of these routers, the type of security the routers use, and the registration information provided by the broadband carrier of these devices. Amazon and third-party apps and websites use location information to provide location-based services and store this information to provide voice services, the Maps app, Find Your Device, and to monitor the performance and accuracy of location services. For example, Echo voice services use the user’s location to respond to the user’s requests for nearby restaurants or stores. Similarly, Echo uses the user’s location to process the user’s mapping-related requests and improve the Maps experience. All information collected is subject to the Amazon.com Privacy Notice.
Purchasing merchandise or digital media such as songs, by commanding Echo to buy the song, does require manual intervention—through an alternate user interface—to complete the purchase. Echo has demonstrated hit-or-miss results when asked common questions that users would expect better answers to.
The current location of the device is set to Seattle (Amazon headquarters) by default and must be changed manually, and can only be set to a location within the USA. This is different from smartphone-based voice assistants that can get the actual location via built-in GPS locators. This restriction can lead to undesired or seemingly “wrong” results for questions that imply the location such as “What is the weather” (around here) or “Set an alarm for 1000am” (local time here).
Echo is currently available on Amazon.com for $179.99 Prime and you expect much more functionality in the future as Amazon just dropped another $100 Million in the developers pot.
Amazon Echo Video: