Crowd Forms on Alexa Bandwagon

New additions to Amazon’s growing ecosystem of Alexa-based products are making a splash at CES this week. With a growing number of home appliance, computer and electronics makers announcing integrations with the company’s digital assistant technology, the transformation to automated homes and home offices appears to be taking place before our eyes.

Among the most notable integrations is Lenovo’s Smart Assistant, which features Alexa’s cloud-based voice technology. Built in collaboration with Amazon, it recognizes the user’s voice, and performs a variety of functions. It checks calendar appointments, plays music, conducts Web searches and creates lists, among other things.

lenovo-smart-assistant

The assistant is designed to run Lenovo smart home devices and scores of third-party products as well.

Dish Network, which has 13.6 million pay-TV customers, is the first television provider to provide direct integration with Alexa. Dish customers will be able to use its Hopper DVR hands-free with the Amazon Echo and Echo Dot.

Starting later in the first half of 2017, users will be able to search, navigate and quick-play content on the Hopper DVR hands-free, based on show titles, actors, genre and channel, if they have a broadband connection and an Echo or Dot.

“Alexa seems to be a big winner at CES thus far,” said Jim McGregor, principal analyst at Tirias Research.

Amazon last week announced that Echo Dot was its best-selling item, and that Alexa-enabled devices — including the Echo, Echo Dot, Fire TV stick and Fire tablet — were its top-selling items during the holiday season.

“The fact that Amazon is willing to share this technology and is a friendly partner is good for the industry and the company,” McGregor told TechNewsWorld.

 Early Days

Amazon has sold more than 5.1 million Amazon Echo devices since it was introduced in late 2014, according to Consumer Intelligence Research Partners.

Consumer awareness of the Echo has soared over the past couple of years, noted Michael Levin, a partner at CIRP. However, this product, which has an available marketplace of 125 million households, is still in its infancy.

“Amazon wants to create Prime members even more than it wants to sell Echo devices,” Levin told TechNewsWorld, “and Alexa could become the operating system for Prime membership.

Industry Smarts

Vivint Smart Home has announced that Sky — which uses machine learning to pick up activity patterns of home residents to help manage energy use and security devices — now accepts voice commands through Amazon’s Alexa system.

Ayla Networks announced that it has added Alexa integration and Alexa’s smart home skills to its Internet of Things platform. Partner manufacturers no longer will have to write complex code or run servers on AWS in order to configure connected products.

“There are a number of rules and tests that every company needs to follow and pass to work with the Smart Home Skills API,” said Oliver Cockroft, a product architect at Ayla Networks

“We have built our Alexa connector with the logic to conform and pass all the tests that Amazon requires for the different device types,” he told TechNewsWorld. “Only by doing this can we truly have a configurable connector, instead of having our customers need to write and manage their own lambda code to integrate with Alexa.”

For example, one of those tests might be making sure a fan turns off automatically if its speed is set to zero, he said.

Ayla’s technology is used for fire safety, water filtration, WiFi-enabled door locks, smart air conditioners and other uses, Cockroft said, but he declined to name manufacturers or consumer partners that have tested Ayla’s IoT with Alexa.

Although Ayla has spoken to other companies about integrating with their digital assistant technologies, he said, Alexa has been the most requested system from customers, and Ayla wants to make sure that it’s fully supported before it commits to other voice interaction platforms.

In addition to providing the Alexa system, Amazon has been “very aggressive at assembling the pieces of an end-to-end IoT service chain” in its AWS cloud, observed Paul Teich, principal analyst at Tirias Research.

“That is a clear service differentiation that dovetails nicely with their natural speech understanding for many consumer and industrial IoT use cases,” he told TechNewsWorld.

While Alexa is well ahead of its competitors, rivals like Google Voice and Microsoft Cortana are progressing significantly, said Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT.

Both companies have “substantial partnerships that they will bring to the fore,” he told TechNewsWorld.

Alexa is widely successful, King said, but its capabilities are “far behind muscular, enterprise-class cognitive platforms like IBM’s Watson.”

Floating Speakers, Neckbrace Audio, and Charming Caffeine Fixes

Welcome, dear friends, to another incarnation of Gadget Dreams and Nightmares, the column that occasionally peels its eyes from Super Mario Run to cast its gaze over the latest gadget announcements.

In the Mushroom Kingdom this time around are a levitating speaker, a speaker to hang around your neck, and an adorable coffee machine.

As ever, these are not reviews. The ratings reflect only how much I’d like to try each item with my own hands, tired as they may be from tearing apart wrapping paper.

 lg-levitating-portable-speaker

Phonically Flying

LG features twice in this edition of the column with two very different but similarly strange speakers. The “Levitating Portable Speaker” (pictured above) has as descriptive and accurate a name as the “Small Transparent Speaker” from last month’s edition of this column. You can call it “PJ9” if you prefer the duller moniker.

Yes, through the magic of electromagnets and a base station, this speaker will levitate and pump out audio in every direction. LG’s Dual Passive Radiator system is designed to provide strong high- and mid-range tones.

The base station houses the subwoofer, and naturally doubles as the charger for the floaty part of the set up. The Levitating Portable Speaker has a reported battery life of 10 hours, which is impressive, and the speaker automatically sinks back down to the base station to recharge when need be. You can play audio while the speaker’s charging, but it’ll lose a little in form if not function during that period.

The PJ9 is IPX7-compliant, which will help it stand up to a sudden downpour if you’re using it at a picnic, and there’s an option to connect two Bluetooth devices simultaneously via multipoint technology.

The feature set of the Levitating Portable Speaker shows it’s far more than just a party trick. As with any speaker, it’s difficult to ascertain exactly how much I might want this as part of my everyday life without hearing the audio firsthand. However, I admire the graceful design and would enjoy impressing a guest or two with my latest technology party trick.

Hanging Out to Dry

The other LG speaker we’re taking a look at this time around is the LG Tone Studio. This is even stranger than its stablemate and no doubt has raised some eyebrows at CES. This is no ordinary speaker, friends. This is one you wear around your neck.

LG Tone Studio speakers

This futuristic neckbrace employs four speakers to direct surround sound toward the wearer’s ears. It includes a vibration function, and it aims to provide theater-style sound wherever you might be. That’s all well and good if you watch a lot of movies at home, don’t mind looking silly, and don’t really have the capacity for a complex speaker system or a soundbar — or if you want to hear the movie’s audio just as well while you’re fixing some mid-film snacks or beverages.

However, I dread the day I ever run into someone using one of these on public transport. People playing music through their phone speaker on a bus or a subway deserve the type of punitive measures reserved for the worst war criminals. Boosting their capacity to annoy everyone with a quartet of speakers thumping out surround sound sounds exactly like the kind of future I want no part of.

Thanks, LG, for potentially ruining everything for everyone should certain people actually buy this trifling gizmo.

Captivating Brews

If you’re a manufacturer (or part of a manufacturer’s marketing department) and want to convince me to buy the thing you’re trying to sell, the simplest, easiest way to boost your chances is to plonk a pair of googly eyes on it and tell me it’s cute.

A pair of students went one further when they affixed a pair of arms to a coffee machine and allowed people to control the system using Alexa. One arm grabs and inserts a filter, while the other grabs some grounds to brew delicious java.

If you’re so inclined, you can ask this glorious creation to provide you with weather updates and any other information you might wish Alexa to deliver.

Sadly, the creators haven’t figured out a way to make the machine brew coffee through voice instruction. That still requires manual operation. Still, it’s neat that you can get the coffee ready for brewing (assuming the water tank is filled), so all you have to do is tap a button.

Let’s get real, though. It could be the most useless hunk of junk on the planet, and I’d still want it thanks to those adorable googly eyes. What is it they say about suckers and births every minute, again?