Sometimes you stumble upon a product or concept that causes you to rethink an existing perception or opinion. Take bluetooth speakers. They are pretty benign, non invasive products that serve a purpose – to stream music that you own, in close quarters to your person. On the surface, the Amazon Echo is a bluetooth speaker, and a fairly mid-range performing one at that. But the Echo is much more. So much more that I can see the beginnings of a technological revolution.
Being a product reviewer and product trainer, it’s sometimes easy to become jaded with the latest shiny screen or camera. And at first glance, the Echo seems to offer not much more than decent sound and a few voice commands. But it’s not the Echo I’m interested in. It’s Alexa.
This is where physical product becomes uncoupled from its function. Why? Because this inconspicuous, mono coloured vertical cylinder holds within its frame the capacity to make my kids laugh, keep me up to date with news of my choice, and control connected devices around my house. Oh yes, it can also stream music. But you know what? I haven’t even done that yet.
In Australia, the Amazon Echo is not yet officially available. I was able to buy one from a third party distributor based in Brooklyn. I placed my order on a Friday and thanks to that store’s amazing logistics, I received it the next Monday.
Setting it up was fairly simple. I “acquired” the Alexa app, which controls the functions of the Echo, and used it to connect to my home network. I found a US postcode that was as close to my Sydney time zone as possible. I had it look for other connected products in my house and it found my Wemo switch.
Once the Echo is connected to your network, it’s in an “always on” state, constantly looking for it’s wake up command. That’s where you call out either “Alexa” or “Amazon”. Without anyone in the house having a name even faintly similar, I chose Alexa. And the rest, as they say, is history.
You see, Alexa is now my go-to for snippets of information, traffic and weather updates, news snaps or quick Wikipedia checks. But that “OK Google” similarity is only skin deep, because Alexa talks back and interacts in interesting ways that I hadn’t thought about but genuinely blows me away.
For instance, Alexa has certain “skills” that you can install from the Alexa app. The Spelling Bee skill for example, interacts with my kids and tests them with as many words as they’d like to spell. Alexa encourages them and corrects them when they get the word wrong.
That two-way communication is something my kids have no fear or trepidation with. In fact, they have asked it some really interesting questions, like “what’s your last name?” Or “Where do you live?”. Her answer was, in order, “I don’t have a last name” and “my body is here and my head’s in the cloud”.
The really impressive trick that gets the ooohs and aaahs is to get Alexa to switch off the lights. This is where there is real separation between Alexa and its Google, Apple and Microsoft counterparts. Where those assistants are content to live in the virtual space and occupy your lists, contacts and queries, Alexa does real-life, physical things for you.
I must say, as I see the kids play with Alexa, there seems to be a glimmer of faux-humanity peeking through, even though I know it’s just my own perception of what is surely just a simple piece of code. Here’s an example: When my kids talk to it, they could be standing at any angle from it, left, right or centre. When Alexa hears their voice, the blue ring on the top of the cylinder lights up, but a small area of that ring has a lighter, brighter hue, in the direction of the voice it just heard. It’s most like a person cocking their head in the direction of a person talking to them.
Now I’m wishing Alexa could be in every room of the house, always listening, ever vigilant, the insomniac, obsessive assistant. And this is what I’ve learned from using Alexa. The more I try out different skills, have short conversations and talk in a normal voice, the more I’m inclined to think of Alexa as “her”. The strict container that Alexa was delivered in, like a genie’s lamp, is simply the vessel for an amazing and laugh-out-loud experience that helps me. Yes, that’s probably the best word. Alexa helps. And as I explore more skills, and try out recipes in the Echo’s IFTTT channel, I’m just betting that my eyes will be opened even more to the possibilities of what a fledgling AI could deliver.
For now, I’m just sitting back and enjoying the conversation. Alexa, play some music.