Amazon Echo and Alexa Turn Six, Try to Prepare for Everything
Six years ago, Amazon introduced the world to the Amazon Echo smart speaker and Alexa voice assistant. The AI has become an almost a generic term for a voice assistant and performs tasks from locations far beyond the limits of that first cylinder and pleasant alto voice. In the last year, Amazon launched an entirely new generation of Alexa-enabled devices and expanded into new realms through partnerships with other companies. Alexa meanwhile has added a long list of new and updated features, along with plenty of third-party voice apps.
Like last year, the company also created a fun, if sentimental video seen above. The video is about equal parts kids dancing, people with disabilities thanking Alexa, and celebrities like Saweetie and Miley Cyrus sharing their well-wishes. Amazon extended the video’s non-celebrity aspects into an extended blog post with comments from people who say Alexa has helped them in some major way. Though it’s tricky to condense a year in Alexa’s life, especially this year, we’ve picked out a few notable threads to showcase the present and future of Echo and Alexa.
As at earlier anniversaries, Amazon is celebrating Alexa’s birthday with a big sale on compatible devices. That list is substantially different from last year. Amazon unveiled the new sphere-shaped Echo and Echo Dot smart speakers in September at its annual new device event. The design shift also applies to the Echo Dot Kids Edition, which also comes with a panda or tiger image as the mesh cover. The major design shift incorporated upgraded audio, and computing hardware and further underscored the break from earlier smart speakers. The same goes for the Echo Show 10 smart display. While still on the front of a speaker, the new iteration is mounted on a base that will rotate around to track a user’s movements, so they are always in the center of the camera.
Not all of Amazon’s new hardware came out on that one day, and some of the hardware on display at the event wasn’t immediately exciting. For instance, the new Amazon Fire Stick and Fire Stick Lite promised more power with less energy consumption, but it was immediately exciting. It was only last month that Amazon updated the with new hands-free controls, transforming them into ersatz Echo Show smart displays. The new system gives Alexa-powered devices connected to the Fire TV the ability to do essentially everything it does on a smart display, going well beyond previous limitations for hands-free commands.
The hardware shifts are only feasible because the changes and additions to Alexa have transformed the voice assistant in some crucial ways. Customers and app developers both have far more opportunity to adjust how Alexa operates than last year. Alexa Routines, linked sets of commands that run in order from a single key phrase, have become adjustable at almost every level. Amazon opened routines up to third-party skills as options late last year, then doubled down over the last few months by making the routines people designed by users sharable as a link. The shift culminated last week with the new option to directly write out the commands in routines, typing the commands into the mobile Alexa app to join the chain initiated by the key phrase.
The flexibility applies to Alexa’s conversational skills as well. For developers, new features like the name-free interaction (NFI) toolkit and Skill Resumption, both in preview. The NFI toolkit will make it so Alexa users won’t need to remember every precise voice app name, just keywords. Skill Resumption, meanwhile, will let Alexa perform multiple tasks by pausing any in progress temporarily, like how phones can pause the music playing when a call comes in. Amazon has added other features that boost the illusion of humanity behind the AI. Personalized reading suggestions and offering vocal gift ideas for the holiday season will be a lot more unique when users can tell Alexa their preferences directly, as demonstrated at Amazon’s demo day in September.