Seven months after unveiling its new voice interface platform to a small group of previewers, Amazon is releasing Echo to the general public. Echo allows users to control software applications, play music, search the Web, and open their calendars using only their voices.
As of July 14, customers in the U.S. can order the device from Amazon’s Web site. Although Amazon is hardly the first company to experiment with intelligent, voice-activated assistants, the company is hoping that its take on technology will prove more successful than the tech of its competitors.
In terms of hardware, the Echo consists of a cylindrical black tower about nine inches tall and weighing a little less than two pounds. The tower contains an array of seven microphones used to pick up the user's voice and can connect to Wi-Fi-enabled and Bluetooth-enabled devices.
Where Many Have Gone Before
In theory, the idea of being able to tell Echo to turn down your thermostat or turn on the lights conjures heady fantasies of Tony Stark (Iron Man) asking Jarvis (loyal AI butler) to cancel his appointments or repair the Iron Man suit. But voice-activated AI assistants have been tried before, and so far none have managed to hold the market’s attention. Neither Apple’s Siri nor Microsoft’s Cortana have yet been able to transform themselves into essential aspects of the average user’s daily routine.
Amazon is hoping to succeed where others have failed, in part thanks to some new designs that it said will make Echo more effective than previous iterations of the voice assistant.
One of the chief complaints of this technology is the inability of the assistant to correctly interpret voice commands, often with comical results. But Amazon seems to have done considerable thinking into how to overcome that particular engineering challenge. In addition to the seven-microphone array, Echo also includes beam-forming and far-field voice recognition technology. Amazon said the combination allows Echo to hear and correctly interpret voice commands even when they're given from across the room while music is playing.
Alexa, Play Freebird
Echo also includes omni-directional speakers that allow it to play music in 360 degrees. Customers will be able to command Echo to play songs from Amazon Music, Prime Music, Pandora, iHeartRadio and TuneIn. Users will also be able to stream music from other services such as Spotify and iTunes from their smartphones or tablets via Bluetooth connections.
Beyond playing music, Amazon has developed a number of other uses for the Echo after giving developers access to a private beta version of the SDK. Both Belkin WeMo and Philips Hue have integrated their products with Echo, allowing customers to control lights, heating, air conditioning, and other devices with their voice. Echo can also be managed remotely using free applications built for smartphones powered by Apple, Android or Amazon's Fire operating software.
The device is based on a cloud-based AI platform called Alexa. Echo uses an on-device keyword to tell it when to wakes up. Once activated, Echo streams the voice data to the cloud, where Amazon can leverage its Amazon Web Services platform to analyze and respond to requests. One of the key features of this system is that it will allow Alexa to grow more intelligent over time, hopefully improving its responses.