Alexa Powers Nucleus Anywhere Intercom

There’s an intriguing new Alexa powered device on Amazon. This one isn’t from Amazon, but instead is from a start-up, named Nucleus. That’s similar to Triby, another Alexa device by Invoxia.

So what’s a Nucleus Anywhere Intercom? Quick and dirty, it’s intercom/video calling hardware powered by Alexa. Here’s their video pitch:

That video should give you an idea that this is geared towards families and bringing people closer.

What are the specs? It’s essentially an 8-inch tablet with a wide-angle 5 megapixel camera. It has speakers and a microphone naturally. It has Ethernet and WiFi for internet connectivity. It requires an outlet or Power over Ethernet (PoE), so if wireless and mobility is your thing, you might be disappointed. A single unit is $249, but a pair can be bought for ~$200 each. You’ll likely want a pair too, because the sound of one intercom calling is a little like the sound of one hand clapping.

Nucleus Anywhere
Nucleus Anywhere

So where does Alexa fit in? In some ways it seems like an afterthought. You can press an Alexa button and use some (maybe even most?) of the Alexa services. However, it can’t play Pandora like the Echo.

And notice that you seem to have to press a button… you can’t just call out, “Alexa, call Grandma.” Granted that might get annoying, it was the first thing I thought of when I heard of an Alexa-powered intercom/video phone.

That might be a pessimistic view of what Alexa can do. You can still ask it to play certain artists/albums/songs, what the weather is, read the news, etc. So it feels a little like an Echo light, but with the big advantage of video calling.

There’s a lot of good things here and I’m tempted to buy in. However, there are a few things that are stopping me:

  • Price – For 3 rooms and 2 grandmother’s houses, it’s a thousand dollar purchase. Is a dedicated Skype device worth that? Amazon has been able to sell Fire tablets at around $40 a piece. I’m not saying these should get that low, but the tablets arguable have more functionality and an extra component or two (such as a battery).
  • Closed System – I couldn’t find out if I can use it to Skype with friends (and since it isn’t Apple, I’m sure it can’t Facetime). I’m more interested in the easy videophone aspect than the intercom aspect, but your family may be different.
  • Redundant – If you are already an Alexa fan such as myself, you probably have an Echo and a Dot or two.
  • Mobility – Even if the battery life was bad, it would be nice to take the call with you. What if the cat is doing something really cute in another room and you want to show grandma? You can’t.

I think I’ve been a little overcritical of the Nucleus Anywhere. Let me take a step back and realize that this is the first device from a start-up company. I can’t think of a version 1.0 that was perfect. I’m looking forward to seeing the next version.

I’m probably one of the frugal tech enthusiasts out there, so I don’t think I’d take a flyer on this unless it gets to the $99 range.

Why I Bought an Amazon Tap

Remember back in March when I wrote that won’t buy an Amazon Tap yet? You can forget about it, because I’m the proud owner of an Amazon Tap.

The biggest reason I had to not buy an Amazon Tap is the biggest reason why I love the Echo… I like that the Echo is always listening. I don’t have to navigate a screen of a phone or do anything other than just call out what I want. The Tap requires you press a button and then ask what you want. (It does this to save on battery so that it can be portable.)

I didn’t think I’d be able to get used to pressing a button before talking, but it is surprisingly natural. Since the device is designed to be portable, I have it near me anyway. Pressing the button doesn’t typically require me to walk across the room like it would with my Echo. Also, when you press the button, you can skip addressing it as Alexa. That saves a step.

I was also concerned about playing music outside of my home’s WiFi network. What good is portable if you can’t leave your home, right? Well, I found a guide on CNET that shows you how to take your Amazon Tap anywhere, by setting up your phone as a mobile hotspot. I thought it would be more difficult, but it appears that the Amazon Alexa application is designed for this in mind (YES!). In about 5 minutes, I was up and running with a mobile Tap that I could bring in the car (fits well in a cup holder) or anywhere I happen to have my phone.

Of course, I didn’t know all this before I bought the Amazon Tap. I took a leap of faith like I did with the Echo. It was much easier to take that leap with the Alexa/Echo Deals Galore around Amazon Prime Day which made it $70 instead of the usual $130. At a price of $70, I figured I could always sell it on Ebay for a profit if I really didn’t like it.

So far one of the best uses I’ve found is giving it to my 3 year old to use. It’s a little easier to show than crowding around the Echo and the physical connection of pressing the button and speaking into it simply seems to make sense to him. The only part we need to work on is that he still tries to call Amazon Tap, Alexa before asking it to do something.

Alexa/Echo Deals Galore!

Amazon almost never puts it’s Echo on sale. Why would they, it controls the market and is possibly its most popular single product? (I’m not counting a series of Kindles.)

Today is kind of an exception for most readers here. If you have an Echo you can order an If you order an Amazon Tap for $70.

How?

Simply ask Echo to order you an Amazon Tap.

For today, July 8, 2016 only, Amazon is knocking $50 off of the $129.99 Tap to bring it to $79.99, but it seems you must order it through your Echo. Yes, even if you own an Echo, you can’t simply use the website. I think they are pushing people to get used to ordering things through the Echo.

So how does it get down to $70? There’s another stackable deal that takes off $10 on any Amazon purchase over $20. You don’t have to use it on the Tap, you could use it to buy some bulk paper towels if you want. However, since this blog is about the Alexa/Echo technology/devices, I think the Tap deal would be most interesting to people.

A few months ago, I wrote that I wouldn’t buy an Amazon Tap. That was presuming a price of $130. At $70, it’s started to get my attention. After all, I’ve been thinking more and more about the advantages of having a portable Alexa device.

If the Tap deal isn’t your thing, you can also score a big discount on a low-end drone or a Cuisinart Griddler. I have a similar Griddler and it’s great. I am waiting for my kids to get a few years older before I introduce drones to the house, even relatively cheap ones.

zenbo-echo

Zenbo: A Mobile Amazon Echo?

zenbo-echo
Zenbo – A Mobile Amazon Echo?

Asus surprised many people a couple of weeks ago with the release of an interesting new product… Zenbo.

Zenbo is a household robot that resembles the love child of BB-8 from Star Wars and an old iMac G4. I’d loosely describe it as a mobile version of Amazon Echo with a tablet/screen/camera face.

Zenbo reminds me of when I finally understood the value of the Amazon Echo itself. It was much more than a Bluetooth speaker.

Zenbo’s ability to move around the house gives it mobility that the Amazon Echo doesn’t have. That puts it in a whole new class of intelligent digital personal assistants. If you need a recipe, Amazon Echo isn’t very good at that. Zenbo can move into the kitchen and put the recipe right on it’s screen for you.

I was amazed by the demo video:

My initial reaction was, “This looks great, but it’s going to cost about $3000.” Nope. It’s estimated to launch at $599. While Amazon’s Alexa line of products are obviously much cheaper, the price seems very, very reasonable for what you get.

Of course the Zenbo isn’t perfect. A lot about it isn’t known.

I don’t see how it will climb stairs. Since our family splits its time on two levels separated by two stairs, it would be frustrating to be picking it up a couple steps every time we moved.

I didn’t see anything about battery life (admittedly I didn’t look very hard), but I presume that it will have to charge itself quite a bit. The Echo’s always-on functionality seems to require so much power that it is hard to recharge it… (except for this 3rd party battery/accessory. Throw mobile and powering a tablet/screen all the time and one can imagine that it will drain a battery pretty quick.

At the end of the day, Asus Zenbo and Amazon Echo are very different things, but there’s enough overlap to see families choosing one and deciding that they don’t need the other. It looks like Zenbo will be more versatile, but I wonder if it will work as the Echo at the things that the Echo is good at. I don’t think it will have the microphone array, nearly as good speaker, and the intelligence of Alexa. Amazon also has a big head-start on partnerships as far as being the hub of a smart home.

It will be something to keep on the radar. And Asus, if you want to send me a Zenbo, I’d love to give it a more detailed review.

Make your Amazon Echo Portable with this Battery

Summer feels like it’s here and the entire family is spending more time outside by grill. Kids are playing on their swing set. My wife makes some great cocktails. All that’s missing is a little music.

Now that I have an Amazon Echo downstairs and an Echo Dot upstairs, I listen to almost all my music through Amazon.

I don’t have a good music solution for the outside. Sure I could get an Amazon Tap, but I’m not excited by the Tap. So I solved the problem the old (well new) school way… I grabbed a Bluetooth speaker and my Nexus 5 phone and soon I was playing music.

(Well, my wife was playing her Broadway channel from Google Music. Ugh. I guess you can’t have everything.)

But what if my Echo was portable? It sounds like a nice pipe dream, but it isn’t a dream at all. It’s reality… almost.

A company by the name of Mission Power makes an battery that will make your Echo portable. At least that’s the promise. The units are currently on back order. I’ve read that some units have shipped, but I couldn’t find any reliable reviews.

The idea is that you attach the battery base and plug the Echo in like you would do anyway. When you want to take it somewhere, you simply do just that… unplug the cord from the base and pick it up and go. It promises up to 6 hours of music play, which is typically more than enough for my needs.

When I first read about this, I dismissed it. I thought I’d have to wind the cord and attach the battery every time I wanted to move it. I was wrong. This now looks like exactly what I want to bring out to the yard.

Google Home is a Reality

This isn’t exactly news as it is a few weeks old, but we knew that Google was going to create their own Alexa/Echo competitor. Now we know it is named Google Home and that it is generally similar to the Amazon Echo.

You can find out more about Google Home from it’s official website. We don’t know when it will be released, but most people think it will be out by the fall. We also don’t know how much it will cost, but my guess is that Google will price it aggressively to grow market share as it plays catch up to Amazon.

One thing that I found surprising is the The Verge’s coverage of the Google Home’s sound. It’s said to be superior to Amazon Echo’s. The Verge has an interesting quote that caught my eye:

“[The speaker is] important, because one of the main use cases Google is foreseeing here is listening to music. The Echo isn’t great at that.”

I don’t know where The Verge is getting their Amazon Echos, but mine is GREAT for listening to music. It’s one of the things that separates it from any other gadget I’ve owned. And lets not forget that the Echo Dot allows you to bring any speakers you want to the party.

There are a few other tricks up Google Home’s sleeve. The ability to play with it’s Cast platform allows for a lot of flexibility to have it talk to your television. On the minus side, Google Home hasn’t made a developer API available, so companies can’t simply integrate with it (without formally partnering with Google first). I’m betting that will change, but if it doesn’t, it may come back to hurt Google.

I’m going to reserve judgment until the Google Home is released and I read some real world reviews or get my hands on one.

Google’s “Chirping” on Alexa/Echo’s Plans?

Technology website Recode is reporting that Google may have an Echo-like device by the end of the year.

When I worked in the tech industry the CEO would spin this new competition as validation that our company was working on all cylinders. To some degree that makes sense, but you always had to fear getting Google’d out of business. How many of you still use Lycos to search, have Palm products, or use MapQuest?

It was only a matter of time until Google, Apple, and Microsoft started to get in on Echo’s hands-free, always-on benefits. They already have the back-end personal assistant in Google Now, Siri, and Cortana. It simply makes too much sense for them not to do it. I’m almost surprised it isn’t already in your Xbox and Apple TV.

According to Record, Google is going to redesign it’s OnHub router with it’s new Chirp capabilities. It should come as no surprise that the OnHub, look’s very much like Amazon Echo.

At the end of the day, the competition will be a win for consumers. People will have more choice and the companies will push each other adding new features.

These always listening assistants may very well might be the next new platform now that smartphone innovation has leveled off.

Alexa Hardware Beyond Echo: Invoxia Triby

When I first started this blog one of the earliest articles I intended to write was the Invoixia Triby. And then I got really busy (as you might have noticed). I’ve still managed to cover quite a bit about Alexa/Echo universe, but this one slipped through the cracks.

However, the long announced Triby is
now available for sale
. It’ll set you back $169… at least at the current discounted price. It’s quickly got 22 reviews on Amazon, which is pretty notable for such a new product.

So What’s the Invoixia Triby

I think it’s the first hardware to use Amazon’s Alexa Voice Service that isn’t from Amazon itself. It’s pitched as a family messaging center that conveniently stay on your fridge. It looks like a retro-radio, but with an E-ink screen and a physical messaging flag that comes out when there’s a message left on it (presumably for another family member).

This review isn’t going to all-encompassing for three reasons:

  1. The most practical reason is that I haven’t bought the Triby and I don’t plan to. Without actual hands-on experience with the device, I don’t want to get too specific into the details that I might mistake.
  2. I read that the always-on aspect of the Alexa is only good for 2-hours when it isn’t plugged-in. Otherwise, you need to press a button like the Amazon Tap. I suppose it’s nice to the portability option, but I’d need it always plugged-in.
  3. My refrigerator is stainless steel, so the magnets wouldn’t stick to it. Other than that, my 2 and 3 year olds aren’t really at the age of needing this… or taking advantage of it. So it would just be my wife and I using it to communicate. I think for less than half the price of an Echo Dot, we can make due with a pad of paper.

On the bright side, the hassle-free calls seems like a great feature. Also, there’s real value to having an E-ink display… or at least there’s potential value.

Final Thoughts

Overall the Triby is interesting and I’m almost finding myself talking myself into it. If my life was in a different place (say 8 years from now), I might feel differently about it. In fact, I feel like this review from The Verge covered how I might feel about it well.

I’m personally going to wait and see what the next version has in store. At that point, I might be willing to nearly $200 for it, but I think I’d feel more comfortable paying $75 for the Triby.

Alexa Needs Macros/Recipes for Consumers

Amazon Alexa
Amazon Alexa’s Logo

Jason Perlow has a good article at on ZDNet: Lesson learned from Amazon Echo: Don’t turn customers into developers. The other subtitle is: “Don’t depend on your user community to bring in core functionality for your IoT device.”

I don’t think that Amazon depending on it’s user community to bring functionality to Alexa. When Uber and Domino’s partner with Alexa, it’s not because one of their users created an Alexa Skill. It’s because they worked closely with Amazon.

That said, Perlow’s got a great point to make. If a consumer wants to do something simple on the Alexa platform, they should be able to do it without being a hardcore Node.js developer.

Perlow wanted to do something pretty easy, “Play white noise on a loop.” I agree that it seems like something that Alexa should be able to do. It’s reasonable and fair that Amazon didn’t think of this previously. They can’t think of everything, right?

I’d like to have a way to tell Alexa to play my night-time script with Jack Johnson. (Hmm, maybe I’d word it quite a bit differently). The idea would be apply a descending volume music over some length of time for any given artist. The next night I might want it to apply to a particular James Taylor album for example. The idea is to create a custom script to do the basic things that Alexa is already good at.

In short, it needs something that I’ll call “recipes.” And those recipes need to be built on basic building blocks of “ingredients” and/or “actions.” This may sound like object-oriented program and that’s exactly the kind of thing that I’d like to see. The best software engineers could create new “ingredients”, while beginner programmers could put write simple recipes from the ingredients. A visual interface might allow them to drag and drop ingredients to create recipes as well.

Most consumers probably wouldn’t care to create recipes. They may be interested in installing new “recipes” with just a few clicks through the Alexa portal. Links to the recipes could be spread through social media or embedded on a webpage. This could create a buzz of people sharing Alexa recipes. People who don’t have Alexa might wonder what all this buzz is about.

If Alexa had this, Perlow could not only create his white noise on a loop, but he could share it with the world. And I can could share my night-time script with Jack Johnson.

Business Insider: History of Amazon Echo

In one of the best articles about the Amazon Echo, Eugene Kim of Business Insiders explains the history of the product.

The article chronicles the history of how Amazon was working on the Echo way back in 2011. However, they didn’t seem to know if it was going to be successful as it was an entirely new concept. Were consumers going to understand something with no screen that would always be listening? Admittedly even after the release of the Echo, it’s taken me some time to get accustomed to the idea.

The article continues to give details on how they reached a nearly impossible engineering feat (at the time) in getting Alexa to respond to people’s commands in around 1.5 seconds. Even with that hurdle conquered, there was a matter of making it extremely user-friendly which required a very process of user-testing.

The final hurdle is one that I believe Amazon is still trying to clear today. In order to sell the Echo to consumers they need a “killer use case.” This was clearly going to be music as that’s what testers said they used the most. However, this lead to an interesting paradox. They didn’t want the Echo to be seen as just a way to play music. Indeed, now it is considered the de-facto home-automation hub.

You may have noticed that recently Amazon is marketing the things other than music that the Echo can do. For example, you always read about it being able to order an Uber or Domino’s Pizza.

Overally, it is a fascinating read and it’s one of the reasons why I’m so excited to write about Amazon Echo and Alexa Voice Services.