Alexa Knowles

First Amazon-Approved Alexa Headset Dev Kit Debuts from Knowles

Audio technology developer Knowles Corporation today unveiled a new way to connect headsets to Amazon’s Alexa. The new AISonic SmartMic Headset Development Kit is the first wake-on-voice hands-free headset solution to officially meet Amazon’s Alexa Mobile Accessory (AMA) standard since the protocol debuted early in 2018.

“It’s a big deal,” said Knowles’ director of product marketing Marc Ostrowski in an interview with Voicebot. “This is the first and only kit to qualify. It’s a unique product.”

Voice-Activated Alexa On-the-Go

Devices built with Knowles’ new solution offer users direct access to Amazon’s voice assistant with the “Alexa” wake command in an always-listening model. Many other headsets allow Alexa access today but require some sort of manual action to activate the assistant. The new kit announced by Knowles will enable headphone and earbud makers to offer an always-listening voice activation for Alexa similar to the existing smart speaker experience. Once awake, all of Alexa’s skills can be accessed as usual via a Bluetooth connection to a smartphone. The kit itself combines sophisticated audio processors and software into a small microphone that can then be integrated into the headset as a whole.

“Wireless, particularly true wireless, is an excellent fit for voice assistants,” Ostrowski said. “Smart speakers are proliferating across people’s homes, it becomes a habit to them. Then you leave home and suddenly you can’t do that. This really opens up the rest of the day. Any time, any place.”

Low Power Consumption is a Core Innovation

Knowles is partnering with manufacturers like Anker and audio software developers like LinkPlay to produce headsets built with their new kit. The first wave of devices will likely hit the market by the end of the year.

“We’re combining the best of acoustics with the best of algorithms,” said Knowles vice president of technology strategy Jim Steele. “The focus is on machine learning and audio processing. The main enabler of this is the low-power battery.”

An efficient battery is vital. The combined hardware and software has to be able to passively identify the command to wake, and ferry communication between users and Alexa, potentially all day. Batteries that drained a headset because of background noise or frequent use would not be popular.

Getting it Right While Not Getting it Wrong

To earn Amazon’s first AMA stamp of approval, Knowles had to test its technology on a wide range of speakers provided by Amazon. The headphones had to distinguish when people with a variety of speech patterns were trying to wake Alexa. On top of that, the microphone had to activate only when called on, as a privacy measure. The software is designed to only send data to the cloud after the Alexa keyword is spoken. This privacy feature fits right in with Amazon’s recent creation of an Alexa privacy center, and new commands that will delete some of Alexa’s recordings.

Though Knowles is the first Amazon-qualified development kit meeting the AMA standard, there is already an Alexa-enabled, voice-activated headset in stores. 66 Audio started selling its PRO Voice headphones in at the end of 2017, a few weeks before Amazon announced the existence of the protocol, and almost a year before expanding access to Alexa integration to all device makers. This is the type of device maker that Knowles hopes to assist with its new development kit.

“[The kit] takes away the challenge of audio engineering with a pre-qualified, system solution,” Ostrowski said. “We’re really the only ones that have the processor and microphone technology in-house.”

The Year of Voice Assistants and Headsets

At the moment, Apple’s AirPods are the best-known voice assistant-enabled headsets and the latest version introduced an always-listening, voice-activated Siri.  However, the potential market is bigger than just Siri. Knowles expects public interest in headsets that offer easy access to digital assistants while on-the-go to expand for Alexa and other assistants.

“2019 is really the year of voice assistants and headsets,” Ostrowski said. “Apple is driving the rest of the market in that regard, but analysts are predicting that this is going to pick up in 2019 and really take off in 2020. We’re not stopping with this particular solution. There’s plenty for us to do next.”


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