Amazon has brought its smart assistant to an array of new wearable and wired devices, and addressed issues about user privacy in voice interactions.
Amazon has announced a wave of new virtual assistant-powered devices despite ongoing concerns about the privacy of those who use its smart helper, Alexa.
The technology giant unveiled a number of new Echo smart speakers, as well as the first wearables to support the voice-activated software – earphones, smart glasses and a ring.
‘We hope these new Echo devices will give customers even more ways to access Alexa’
– JORRIT VAN DER MEULEN
Amazon – along with other tech firms with AI assistants – has come under scrutiny about its privacy practices in recent months following revelations about industry-wide schemes that see audio data from user interactions with software such as Alexa being listened to and analysed by human staff.
Critics accused tech companies of not clearly stating that other people may hear the recordings as part of the programmes, which were carried out to help improve speech recognition technology.
In response to the outcry, Amazon said it would give users the option to opt out of having humans analyse their audio, while others have paused their programmes entirely.
At its media event on Wednesday (25 September), Amazon devices boss Dave Limp said the company was committed to user privacy and that it was “foundational” to every device the firm makes. He also announced several new Alexa features he said had been designed to give users more control over their data.
This includes the ability to ask Alexa what the assistant heard and a new auto-delete tool that will automatically wipe all of a user’s saved audio recordings every three or 18 months.
Limp argued that a service “can’t be private unless you give [customers] this control”.
He also revealed that Amazon had been improving the wake word engine that powers Alexa’s understanding of when it hears its own name and begins recording. Limp said it had become 50pc more accurate in the last 12 months, reducing the number of false wakes and unintentional recording of private conversations.
Stressing that the company has privacy at its heart, Limp pointed to the physical camera shutter than had been added to the Echo Show 5, launched earlier this year, as proof that Amazon is increasing its privacy measures. He added that Amazon had been the first company to allow users to opt-out of the human review programme going forward. “This is a good step forward but we will continue to listen to customers and improve,” he said.
At the event in the company’s headquarters in Seattle, Amazon’s new devices were unveiled as part of a major refresh of the tech company’s Echo range.
Jorrit Van der Meulen, vice-president of Amazon devices international, said: “We love hearing feedback from customers about how they use Alexa throughout their day – whether that’s listening to music, dropping in on a loved one, trying out a new recipe or playing a game with the family.
“We hope these new Echo devices will give customers even more ways to access Alexa – whether that’s through the best-sounding Echo yet, Echo Studio; the reimagined Echo and Echo Dot; new designs like Echo Show 8 and Echo Flex; or new experiences for Alexa on-the-go with Echo Buds.”
It was the introduction of these more flexible and mobile devices powered by the Alexa assistant that caught attention. The Echo smart glasses and ring – both of which are still being tested but will be available for some customers to buy and trial – mark the first time Alexa will be available completely hands-free while users are on the move, and signal an expansion of Amazon’s plans for its virtual assistant.
Tech industry analyst Geoff Blaber, from CCS Insight, said the new devices were the first sign of Amazon’s ambition to have Alexa more constantly part of people’s lives outside the home. He called the Echo Frames “a tentative step into smart glasses. Smart move to keep it simple. No display, no camera. Just Alexa”, adding that the Buds “strengthen Alexa’s role on the go between home, work, car”.
Along with an array of new devices, another notable announcement from Amazon involved the introduction of celebrity voices to the Alexa platform, with actor Samuel L Jackson the first option to be announced, rolling out in the US later this year.
Amazon has revealed that a pair of Alexa-enabled glasses called Echo Frames are in development. The frames, which also include built-in directional speakers so users can have emails, text messages and other information read to them by Alexa, will be sold in limited numbers as part of a trial.
Unlike other so-called smart glasses such as Google Glass, the Echo Frames do not include a camera or video screen set-up, instead operating as normal prescription glasses but with the added function of a microphone and a link to a user’s smartphone, which enables wearers to use Alexa whenever they wish.
The trial will also include the Echo Loop – a smart ring that vibrates to alert users of notifications but also contains two microphones and a speaker to allow for some voice interactions with Alexa.
Amazon has said the Frames and the Loop will both go on sale through a “special invite” schedule and in limited numbers, but has not yet confirmed a date for their launch.
The first available Alexa product to be completely wireless and hands-free, Echo Buds have been developed alongside audio firm Bose and will go on sale later this year. They include Bose’s Active Noise Reduction technology to cut down on ambient noise and have built-in microphones.
The Echo Buds can wake Alexa by saying by calling the name, and users can request music as well as information about their schedule and the weather, or they can make other requests such as ordering an Uber.
Amazon confirmed the buds can also be used to access other virtual assistants – including the Google Assistant and Apple’s Siri, depending on the type of connected smartphone – by tapping and holding one of them.
The major new smart speaker in the Echo line-up, Studio is Amazon’s rival to Apple’s HomePod as a speaker for audiophiles. It comes with five built-in directional speakers, which enable 3D audio (where the sound appears to be coming from all around the listener) using Dolby Atmos and Sony 360 Reality Audio.
The Echo Studio can also support high-definition audio playback and be paired with some Fire TV devices to work with sound from video playback.
Echo Dot with Clock
What Amazon says is its most popular Echo device now comes with an LED display built into the mesh side of the device, which displays the time. The tech giant says it has found one of the most common queries Alexa receives is around the time or how long is left on a timer, and the display on the new Dot is designed to change that.
The display will also automatically adjust depending on the brightness of the room. It will go on sale later this year.
Designed to be a budget smart home device, the Echo Flex is a small box containing a speaker and microphone that plugs directly into a wall socket and requires no extra wires. It can be used to put queries to the virtual assistant, and Amazon has also included a USB port so it can be used to charge a smartphone.
The Flex device will also support attachable accessories including a motion sensor and night light, which can be voice-controlled and offer smart home functionality to users.
Echo Show 8
Similar to the existing 10-inch screen Echo Show and the five-inch Echo Show 5, the Echo Show 8 is a further size option for those seeking a smart hub that includes a screen. It will also go on sale later this year.
The original Amazon Echo has been given an update on the outside with a fabric casing, and on the inside with an improved speaker for better audio output. It will remain at the same price, however.
– PA Media