You’ve seen the commercial. As a person wanders their home, they call out to someone named Alexa. A female voice answers and the person responds with a to-do list – order dinner, turn on the A/C, shut off the sprinklers. Alexa obliges.
This scene isn’t ripped from an episode of The Jetsons, but rather, it’s the reality for millions of people who use Amazon Echo and its software, Alexa, to enhance their homes and lives.
Alexa, What is the Amazon Echo?
The Echo is a “smart speaker” with a built-in microphone that can pick up and recognize a voice from across a room. The speaker connects to Alexa, virtual assistant software programmed to understand a series of commands ranging in sophistication. Think Apple’s Siri, but with more real-world ability than just scouring the internet to answer a question or returning a web page.
The list of commands is long and constantly growing. Users must add something specific to the command, for example, “Alexa, show me a trailer for The Last Jedi”, or “Alexa, play some music”. Below is a sampling of what Alexa will respond to:
- “Alexa, help”
- “Alexa, stop”
- “Alexa, louder”
- “Alexa, what can you show me?”
- “Alexa, open”
- “Alexa, play”
- “Alexa, set”
- “Alexa, switch accounts”
For Echo users, it’s important to learn all the commands and peruse what add-ons and third-party services are available. Alexa can also recognize different voices and personalize accordingly.
Alexa, What Are the Latest Developments?
Amazon recently announced that Alexa will soon be available on HP, Acer and Asus laptops and desktops. With greater compatibility with more devices, Amazon can grab a larger chunk of the virtual assistant market.
The integration of Alexa into various PCs has posed a challenge to Microsoft, which is marketing its own virtual assistant, Cortana. Microsoft envisioned Cortana as the exclusive voice-activated virtual assistant for all Windows operating systems. With the emergence of Echo, however, Cortana now faces an uphill battle to wrangle enough users to justify its cost and further development.
In addition to smart speakers and PCs, Alexa will also be embedded in the Vuzix Blade, a popular brand of augmented reality glasses.
Alexa, Is There a Problem?
This technology is ground-breaking, but users are still experiencing an array of frustrations. Some of the more frequent problems include an inconsistent Wi-Fi signal, trouble connecting to other devices, difficulty with voice recognition, Bluetooth connection and unwanted activation. Some users have complained that Alexa can’t recognize a command due to the configuration of their home (they may need to access Alexa through a wall or from a different floor, for example).
Remember flip phones? VCRs? Blowing into a Nintendo game cartridge? Virtually every device that hits the market is flawed, but through feedback and strong engineering and programming, many of the bugs are eventually ironed out. It’s a process, but most people believe that the wait is worth it.
Alexa, Who Are Your Competitors?
By the end of 2016, Amazon owned 70% of the virtual assistant market, having sold 11 million devices. While the Echo has only been on the market for less than three years, Amazon already has some tough competitors, including Google. The Google Home is like the Echo, with many of the same capabilities, and understanding many of the same commands and prompts.
Apple is on the verge of launching its own version of the smart speaker, the HomePod, and Microsoft is expected to invest further in the market very soon. The HomePod is being billed as more secure with greater privacy features and intuition, but until the product launches, it’s all speculation.
Alexa, Will This Trend Continue?
Since 2011, when Siri was first introduced to iPhone users, virtual assistants have become a fundamental part of smartphones. The technology has advanced quite a bit in that time. This has made users reliant on digital assistants to the point that they’re permeating more aspects of the North American household. We’re only a few years from this technology becoming ubiquitous in everyday domestic life.
Amazon is banking on virtual assistants being at the forefront of the next frontier of interactive computing. Voice technology requires an even greater investment of money and resources to ensure that it evolves at the same rate as the demand.
The future lies in creating fully interactive homes where one speaker or a speaker system allows its owner to run an efficient household with none of the old inconveniences. Amazon’s goal is to make sure every room is the perfect temperature, the fridge is always full, and music fills the home.
Alexa, can you reach this lofty goal?
Rob Shapiro | Contributing Writer