Amazon's Alexa Is Now The Ghost In The Machine
CES 2017 is a consumer electronics paradise ... especially for the Amazon Echo.
Now in its 50th year, CES is a magnet for tech companies and brands that want to showcase the latest bright and shiny things that will (in theory) be hitting the shelves in the very near future. From Wednesday onwards, the Las Vegas Convention Center was packed to the rafters with almost every type of consumer-facing tech available, plus a variety of products that fitted neatly into the what-the hell category.
For anyone who wanted televisions, there were thousands to look at. If you needed more proof that the connected home is the future, then numerous vendors trumpeted how smart their devices were. Virtual or augmented reality, check. Autonomous vehicles, loads of them. Wireless headphones … too many to count (thanks Apple). Washing machines, yes.
But the actual star of the show was nowhere to be seen. Unless you took the time to listen.
CES 2017 was all about voice. Everywhere you looked, there were voice-activated devices. And most them seemed to be either integrated with or inspired by Amazon’s Alexa.
Why Alexa Is The Voice To Copy
Some of these devices were just blatant knock-offs of the Amazon Echo.
PC maker Lenovo revealed an Alexa-enabled smart speaker that looked almost exactly the same as Amazon’s device but with eight microphones (instead of the Echo’s seven), a fabric bottom and a $130 price. The Verge reported that Lenovo is also releasing a special Harmon Kardon edition of the speaker which offers superior sound quality … one of the few criticisms that can be leveled at the Echo.
At CES Unveiled, French manufacturer Holi showed off its connected alarm clock Bonjour, which is supposed to “upgrade our morning wake-up routine” … with weather, music and natural conversation. According to a press release, the device has raised $800,000 on Kickstarter, with sleep improvement as the major selling point. Bonjour uses biometric vocal recognition to turn off lights, adjust temperature plus a series of if-this-then-that commands that would be familiar to anyone who uses … wait for it … an Amazon Echo.
“With a combined 50 years of experience, we have taken all of what we know about sleep and applied it to the least favorite, but most important part: waking up,” said Holi’s creative director for Bonjour Grégoire Gérard.
“In France we say ‘_Faire la grasse matinée’, _or to have a fat morning, but of course like most things, it’s sexier in French. Connected devices and design are in our DNA and we put all of our expertise and vision into imagining new solutions for better sleep and a more pleasant morning.”
Although Amazon was conspicuous by its absence, there was a variety of Alexa-related news throughout the week.
LG’s Smart InstaView refrigerator now comes with full Alexa functionality. LG also announced some helpful robots that will also have Alexa integrated. Samsung announced that Alexa would now be able to start a cleaning cycle on its Powerbot VR7000 vacuum. Whirlpool revealed that its entire line of connected appliances would have Alexa integration.
And that was just the tip of the Alexa iceberg.
Ford announced that Alexa will be available in its 2017 line of vehicles, with the in-car infotainment system able to sync with almost every skill enabled by Amazon Echo owners … except Spotify, sadly (Ford has a different partnership with Spotify).
The integration—which Ford and Amazon said was the first of its kind in a consumer vehicle—will be rolled out in two phases. The first (available later this month) connects the device owner to their car that will allow people to start the car, lock doors or even ask Alexa to find a location. The second phase puts Alexa’s skills into the car itself by providing drivers with voice-enabled interactions that maximize the driving experience.
“Ford and Amazon are aligned around a vision that your voice should be the primary way to interface with your favorite devices and services,” said Ford’s executive director of connected vehicles and services Don Butler, in a press release. “Customers will be able to start their vehicles from home, and manage smart home features while on the road – making life easier.”
Alexa Is On Everybody’s Lips
It really is no exaggeration to say that Alexa was the word on almost everybody’s lips.
Even the brands who were either working on or had released voice-activated devices acknowledged that Alexa is the reason why they are investing in voice. Samsung, for example, unveiled its Family Hub 2.0 fridge, which will form part of a range of devices that will use Samsung’s own voice-recognition software—which sounds a bit like Alexa.
At the end of the day, the impact that the Amazon Echo has had on the consumer electronics market can only be measured by how many vendors had voice activation as their selling point. Not all of them are useful—a voice-activated shower seems to be an unnecessary luxury—but the vast majority have taken note of the intuitive nature of voice commands and integrated as necessary.
The only fly in the ointment is the fact that Alexa—the dominant voice in the market—is likely to find that she has more competition than ever before. For the moment, she is the big fish in a relatively small pond. Her only real rival at the moment is the Google Home, although that will not remain the case for much longer.
On the plus side, Amazon has proved that voice interactions can work in devices of all sizes. And that is great news for companies that appreciate the potential customer experience that voice user interfaces can provide to consumers.