All posts by Brian

Apple Announces HomePod (an Amazon Echo Competitor)

First Google competed with Amazon Alexa devices (specifically the Echo) by creating Google Home. Now Apple wants to jump into the ring with its HomePod. Even the name seems like a Google copy.

It’s very easy to compare Apple’s HomePod to an Amazon Echo. They are both speaker-based, always listening for the wake-word, virtual assistants. However, Apple’s HomePod is going to cost $350! For that kind of money you could buy a 6-pack of Echo Dots and still have some cash left over. Or you could buy a pair of Echos.

Apple is positioning the HomePod as a premium speaker. I’m not an audiophile, so I’ll have to take their word that it is great. Personally the Echo is good enough for me. If I wanted to, I could buy an Echo Dot and hook-up whatever speaker solution I wanted.

The big difference here is that Apple’s HomePod is going to with other Apple products. I’m not in the Apple ecosystem, but many, many people are maybe it’s worth paying a lot of money for the same kind of access to Siri and Apple Music? We’ll have to see how it sells.

Amazon Echo Screen

Amazon’s Echo Show is Here!

Remember a couple of days I wrote, Amazon Echo with a Screen, I’d Buy It?

Well it’s here. The code name of “Knight” is now the “Echo Show.”

At the time we only had a picture to go on. I speculated that it would be a good kitchen device similar to the Invoxia Triby, but with intercom capabilities like the Nucleus Anywhere Intercom. It’s rare, but it seems I got it mostly right according to the promo video on Amazon’s site.

It seems like the videophone is the defining feature. They are even running a promo where if you buy 2 (one to give away) you’ll save $100. The two Echo Shows would normally be $460, but with the $100 savings they are $360… or $180 each. If that $180 price-point sounds familiar, it was the price of the original Echo until it was recently reduced.

The videophone also has a check-in feature. It wasn’t clear in the promo video how it works, but it seems like a way of asking, “Hey, are you available?” without actually calling. I don’t know how that is different than just calling.

Aside from the videophone features, there is the ability to hook into video feeds in your house. For example, you can easily see who is front door with Ring. Or you can check in on the kids if you have a compatible baby monitor.

I know I said that I’d buy it, but I’m really on the fence. On one hand, it would be great for the kids to video call with grandma. On the other hand we have 4 Echo devices for 6 rooms. As I said before, I’m not sure my wife would endorse such a purchase. One potential feature that could sway her might be the ability to use it as a photo frame. I don’t know whether or not to presume that Amazon is smart enough to make it work with Amazon Photos. I haven’t seen that feature, but I’m still learning about what the Echo Show can do.

Amazon Echo With A Screen? Sure I’d Buy It.

Amazon has been rumored to be coming out with an Echo with a screen for some time. And why not? Screens are relatively cheap. They are still great ways to convey information and beauty. Well, the rumors got a long stronger with the recently leaked pictures from multiple reliable sources:

Amazon Echo Screen
Amazon Echo Screen

For those that seem to care about such nonsense, there appears to be a white one available as well.

This new Echo, codenamed “Knight”, supposedly has a 7″ screen and a camera. I could see this as being a cross between the Invoxia Triby and the Nucleus Anywhere Intercom. I think of it as a great kitchen device like the Triby (alas without the messaging aspect, but at least always-listening). The camera could make it be a nice intercom especially over the internet. From the picture itself we get the idea that it has day planning capabilities.

So people think it looks ugly, but I think it looks fine. Perhaps I’m a little biased. I’m also not sure what else people were expecting. Maybe they want a stainless steel version?

There’s no word on how much it will cost. The problem for me is that I already have a couple of Echo Dots, an Echo, and a Tap. I’m almost at Alexa Everywhere at this point. And with the Tap, I literally can have it everywhere very easily. For new customers though, this could be interesting. I might just be interested enough myself if the screen features are helpful and it is priced right. It would be a tough sell with the wife as she’s trying to curb my Alexa/Echo addiction.

Mattel to Bring Alexa/Echo Clone to Kids

I’ve written about 10 Great Alexa/Echo Things for Kids.

Mattel Aristotle

It seems that that I’m not alone in thinking that these hands-free personal digital assistants can be an educational tool for kids. Toy company, Mattel, has a clone of Alexa/Echo aimed at kids named Aristotle.

Personally, I would have gone with Socrates as first version. Then you could naturally follow it up with Aristotle and Plato.

At first I thought the idea of dumbed-down version of Alexa/Echo was silly. However, Mattel has added a few very interesting twists. Most notably, it’s combined it with a baby monitor and turn on nightlights and/or play music. That’s useful if I happen to be awake watching television at 10PM. However, if it’s 2AM, the last thing I want to do is wake up my wife by talking to a device. (Fortunately, we’ve advanced beyond the need of a baby monitor.)

Another feature is that Aristotle is able to be trained to understand children’s voices. That’s important, because my kids have had some difficulty summoning Alexa (which may be a blessing!).

Aristotle appears to have two basic modes: kids and parents. The “kids” mode is invokes the Aristotle assistant for things like reading stories and playing games. The “parents” mode seems to be powered by Amazon Alexa. Sounds like it has a bit of a split personality, but it could be promising.

It looks like you’ll have to pay $300 for the niche focus. That seems very expensive in the world of $40 Echo Dots. It’s a little more reasonable compared to an $180 Echo, but it still tips the scale as being too expensive in my opinion. Maybe they are looking to start high and lower the price over time.

Hat Tip: The Verge

Dial M for Alexa Mum on Murder

I’ve read more than a few conspiracy theories from people that owning an Alexa/Echo device is silly, because it is always spying on them. That’s simply not true. As someone with a background in computational linguistics (computer science/linguistics), I can vouch that it is terribly inefficient for Amazon to take in the streaming audio from millions and millions of homes parse it to something useful. (Though, Snowden has shown that some similar knowledge can be gathered with his exposure of the NSA).

Thinking of it reminds me of the Buffy the Vampire episode Earshot. Buffy couldn’t detect the signal from all the noise of everyone talking at once. I could argument for many paragraphs about the power of Buffy vs. Amazon’s computational abilities. I’m tempted, but let’s move on.

I’m not a lawyer, so I will quote some of the points from these two articles.

The later article sets the scene of the murder:

“Detectives say they learned that music had been streamed to the back patio at the time of death, which they thought might have been controlled via the Echo’s smart assistant Alexa… Although no recordings are meant to be made [when the wake word isn’t invoked], the device often becomes activated when it misinterprets speech as being its wake command. Any captured audio might therefore have identified who was active in the early hours of the morning when the alleged murder is thought to have taken place, as well as what was said. Mr Bates claims to have been asleep at the time.”

As of this writing, I’ve had two years of experience with an Amazon Echo. (It got it Christmas 2014.) It is extremely, extremely rare that Alexa misinterprets speech as its wake command. In fact, it’s never happened with my or my family talking. It has happened about 8-12 times from television. The “awake” stay open for about 15 seconds and then realizes its mistake and shuts down. If my experience is typical, the categorization above by the BBC of “often” is best replaced with “extremely rarely” or “almost never.”

It’s a long shot to look hope that the 15 second window happened to occur a 2-month span. However, playing Devil’s Advocate, the prosecution could make an argument that the victim’s last words might have been, “Alexa, Buffy Summers is killing me!” (Or something more accurate to the non-vampire situation.)

I loved Amazon’s response:

“Amazon will not release customer information without a valid and binding legal demand properly served on us. Amazon objects to overbroad or otherwise inappropriate demands as a matter of course.

It feels to me that there should be a neutral 3rd party, such as the judge, who can review limited Alexa data in conjunction with the timing of the murder. The judge should, of course, be under NDA about any and all information not directly related to the case. I believe this strikes a balance of privacy and justice.

And while it wasn’t quoted verbatim, Amazon’s spokesperson also stated:

“He added that utterances are not stored by Echo devices, and the associated audio is only accessible via the cloud and can be deleted by the relevant account holder.”

This is important. The physical Amazon Echo device has no information stored on it. That’s not a surprise as “tear-downs” of the devices showed that they didn’t have storage. It also is an answer to an uninformed police as noted previously in the article, “However, the police said a detective found a way to extract data from the device itself.” It appears that the detective would be mistaken, because that simply isn’t possible as no data is stored on the device.

The aforementioned LA Times article brought about an interesting question:

“Namely, is there a difference in the reasonable expectation of privacy one should have when dealing with a device that is ‘always on’ in one’s own home?”

Simply stated, the answer to this question is an open and closed case of, “No!” From a reasonable expectation of privacy perspective, the “always on” aspect of a device listening for a “wake” word, is no more “always on” than a tablet waiting for someone to activate it. As noted above, Amazon is not recording information at other times. There would be no reasonable expectation that something that never occurs to somehow occur, especially when someone wouldn’t expect it to occur. (That was a strange sentence… sorry.)

I think it’s fitting to conclude with this thought:

“[James A. Bates] defense attorney, Kimberly Weber, told the Information she was alarmed by the police request of Amazon, which she viewed as an invasion of her client’s privacy. ‘You have an expectation of privacy in your home, and I have a big problem that law enforcement can use the technology that advances our quality of life against us.””

I completely agree. When I choose to use technology, it is to advance my quality of life. It isn’t an acknowledgement of giving up my right to privacy. Some technology advances (not necessary Alexa) have become important to living in the modern world. It’s difficult to draw the line and suggest than when I talk to a device in my own home, I don’t have an expectation of privacy to that. I’m not broadcasting my words to a public audience and hence it is private.

Echo Dot is Amazon’s #1 Top Holiday Seller

Amazon declared today something that readers already knew… Amazon Echo devices are awesome.

Amazon Alexa
Amazon Alexa

Specifically Amazon noted:

  • “Sales of Amazon Echo family of devices up more than 9x over last year’s holiday season”
  • “Echo Dot is the best-selling, most gifted item on Amazon.com with millions sold worldwide since launch”
  • “Alexa devices made up top-selling products across all categories on Amazon.com including Echo Dot, Fire TV Stick, Fire tablet and Amazon Echo”

From this we can gather that Echo hardware is selling extremely well… probably better than I even thought possible. The Echo Dot was the key to the growth as its price point ranged between $40 and $50 through most of the holiday season. Finally, devices that are Alexa-enabled are doing quite well. I’m not sure that I’d call a Fire tablet an Alexa device as it did so many things before Alexa, but Amazon’s free to categorize things how they want.

The Amazon press release gives more details about popular Alexa questions. One thing I found notable is that there are a lot of people who don’t know how to make chocolate chip cookies.

Alexa Coffee Maker: Raspberry Pi and Arduino Working Together

I’m not a big fan of coffee. I had this master plan that I would avoid it. Then I couldn’t get addicted to it like adults. You know what they say about the best laid plans… Instead, I started to get caffeine from diet cola and now I drink more of that, which arguable is worse for me.

To make matters worse, I couldn’t escape coffee as my wife loves it and can’t function without it. I usually set it up for her as my little gesture to show her that I love her (“awwww!”)

Well David Frank and Carter Hurd may be making my life a little easier thanks to Amazon’s Alexa, a Raspberry Pi, and an Arduino. Give the video below a watch.

Obviously, it’s not the best coffee machine, but I’ll give it some major style points. I’m not sure if I really need my coffee maker to be Alexa-enabled. First I’d need a machine that has the basics of being able to replace its own filters, pump its own water, and measure an appropriate amount of coffee. (Bonus for being able to clean out the used grounds.)

Once you get a gadget that does all that, it’s just a matter of sending the signal to make the coffee. I don’t think it matters if that signal comes from a timer, a press of a button, or an Alexa command.

However, if we can put together multiple breakfast making machines together, I’d love to create an Alexa macro of, “Make me breakfast” to make it all happen.

Hat Tip: The Verge

Amazon Expands Hiring for Alexa

Recode has noticed that Amazon’s Alexa group is on a massive hiring spree. They note that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said that they have over 1000 engineers working on Alexa and Echo back in May. They also spotted an additional 400+ open positions on Amazon’s Alexa Job Page.

Presumably they did some hiring in the May to October gap that isn’t covered. If Amazon were able to fill those open 400 jobs, they might be within striking distance of 2000 employees. That’s a lot of people working on a product.

I think they’ll need each and every one of them. They’ve recently ramped up advertising efforts and are saturating the market with Echo Dots for under $50. I’m obviously biased, but I feel like everyone should own at least one, and families should own several.

Another way to look at this is that Amazon needs to continue to invest in the Alexa/Echo platform. Google is expected to announce their version of the Echo in a few hours. That product will be called Google Home and it should go on sale soon after the announcement… or maybe even right away.

Amazon Releases 2nd Generation Echo Dot Under $50

Today, Amazon announced that it is releasing the 2nd Generation Echo Dot. The biggest surprise seems to be the price… less than $50. And if you buy 5, they’ll give you one free!

If you happen to need 6 Dots, that’s a little more than $40 a piece. If this sounds like a good deal, it is because it is.

It’s always worth comparing a 2nd generation to the first generation. I bought the the first generation Echo Dot a little more than 5 months ago for $90 where I called it “fairly expensive.” I’ve been scouring the specs to find out what the difference is between the two generations. One obvious difference is that you now have the choice of a white Echo Dot. Other than that, my view on the differences seemed like this:

Echo Dot Second Generation
Hmmm… is the difference only price?

I had to go look through some news sites to find what’s really different as there didn’t seem to a good comparison on the new page. Liliputing says:

“Amazon says there’s also improved voice recognition thanks to a redesigned voice processor. Other changes include a slightly more compact design, physical volume up and down buttons (instead of a volume ring).”

I like the volume ring, so it seems like the change is a downgrade. However, better voice recognition and more compact design seem like big positives.

One could make a case that this is a better product, for around half the price, introduced just 4 months later. I’ve grown accustomed technology getting cheaper, but that kind of price drop seems unprecedented to me. To make it sting a little more, only faithful Echo customers were able to buy the original, now seemingly very, very over-priced Echo Dot.

It almost seems that Amazon realizes that first generation Echo Dot customers would be unhappy with this development. I received an email that stated:

“As a customer who purchased the previous–generation Echo Dot, you can get a $10 Alexa Shopping credit when you order the All-New Echo Dot using Alexa Shopping. Order today through October 20 and a $10 Alexa Shopping credit will be applied to your account within one week after your new Echo Dot has shipped.”

I think some previous customers will be further insulted by this. It essentially says, “Buy another Echo, and use it buy something else at Amazon, and we’ll give you a $10 credit.”

Personally, I think it would have better if they wrote, “We’re going to ship you a free 2nd generation Echo Dot so you can see how awesome it is now.” They already have $90 from existing Echo Dot customers which would almost buy you two of the new products today. If they can’t send you a free one, at least offer another for $15 or $20.

On the bright side, this is the best time to add Alexa’s life-changing features affordably to every room in your house.

Get your “New” and “Improved” Echo Dot here.

Top Ten Amazon Echo Things To Do with Kids

My friend J. Money at Budgets Are Sexy recently got an Amazon Echo. Since he has kids around the same age as mine (3-4 years old), I thought I’d share some of the ways we’ve used our Echo.

And what better way than to do than with an old fashioned top ten list. Everyone loves them, right?

Top Ten Amazon Echo Things To Do with Kids

  1. Practice Speech – My oldest son was slow to start speaking and when he did, I was the only person who could understand him. I originally got the Echo because I thought that he’d enjoy asking Alexa about so much stuff that he’d work on his pronunciation so that she’d understand him. I don’t think it helped, but that might be because I didn’t stick with it or that he quickly improved so much on his own.
  2. Practice Spelling – We spell everything from our names to simple words like “ball.” One of my oldest’s favorite games is to find an object in the room and ask Alexa how it’s spelled. I think a lot of it is sticking, which pretty good for a 3 year old.
  3. “Alexa, spell supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” – It’s fun to throw this curveball at Alexa because she’ll spend the next 20 seconds or so calling out letters. It’s a nice silly way to break up the spelling game in #9.
  4. Simple Math – Alexa is great at adding and subtracting numbers (and probably more, but we haven’t gotten there). I can show my son what 2 and 3 M&Ms look like and we can count them to get to 5. Then we can reinforce that by asking Alexa what it is. We can even do the reverse and see if Alexa is right. (She hasn’t been wrong yet.)
  5. Fun Questions with Wise Answers – Here’s a list of 50 fun questions that Alexa has wise answers for. My favorite is the definitive answer to which came first, the chicken or the egg.
  6. Read a Kindle Book – It’s always fun to read a book together, but it’s also fun to have Alexa read it while the both of you follow along on a tablet. Robots reading, if you are young kid what’s not to like about that?
  7. Another Bunch of Fun Questions with Wise AnswersHere’s another list. My favorite is, “ALEXA, WHAT’S THE MASS OF THE SUN IN GRAMS?”
  8. Turn the lights on and off – If you have a compatible light switch or system such as Philips Hue, you can have fun with Echo’s smart home features.
  9. Open The Magic Door – There’s an Alexa Skill named The Magic Door which is like a Choose Your Own Adventure. It’s great for kids’ imagination.
  10. Play a Math Quiz – There is a very good math skill game called 1-2-3 Math which gives you math questions to answer. This is little advanced for my 3 year old, but I think he’ll be able to do the easy level in a year.

I don’t want to pretend that any of these things are going to change your life with your kids. However, that’s not really the point. Think of them as a nice bonus on top of all the other things that you can do with an Echo.