Smartphone addiction, be gone! Las Vegas has been invaded by Alexa, and the smart home looks like it might have been colonized at last.
Earlier this week Shawn DuBravac, chief economist at CES organizer the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), said “voice is going to be the glue” that holds the smart home together, forecasting that another 4.5 million ‘digital assistant devices’ will sell in 2017, up more than 50% on last year.
But the emergence of Alexa is about much more than voice control – it’s about networking, with myriad gadgets now allowing the user to speak to other gadgets around the home via microphones on everything.
It’s dressed up as the best robot vacuum cleaner ever, and it can be controlled via a smartphone app, but what’s really interesting about the VR7000 is its Alexa integration. It’s not clear exactly how far that goes, but you can expect to be able to start or stop the machine, as well as ask Alexa anything you want, through the VR7000. However, scheduling cleaning times and checking its cleaning history (yeah, that’s what we want to do with our lives) is all done via an app, so the VR7000 does have one foot/wheel in the old world. Four inches tall, the VR7000 has 20W of suction power.
Selling for a mere US$35 (around £28/AU$48) from early February, the Vobot Clock is a smart alarm that’s based on the Amazon ecosystem. Essentially a 5W speaker with a dot matrix display, the Vobot Clock is designed for the bedside table, kitchen counter, living room, or anywhere else that needs a voice-controlled companion. You can talk to Alexa through it, but there’s more to it than that, with various white noise and hypnotic music options, customised music alarms, and sleep coaching modes.
Hands-free around the home is great, but what about when you’re on the go, or out enjoying your annual post-Christmas run around the lake? A background technology rather than an actual product, Californian tech company Sensory unveiled an addition to its VoiceGenie tech (currently used by Plantronics and FiiL) at CES that allows a hands-free Bluetooth headset to communicate with Alexa via a smartphone.
As well as using it to switch on a light as you approach your home, it also integrates with wearable devices. “You don’t want to have to go home and ask Echo how many steps you took, you want to know right then as you’re running,” says Jeff Rogers, VP of Sales at Sensory, who demoed a FiiL Bluetooth headset and some FiiL Diva Pro headphones being used to ask Alexa to ask Fitbit for live data. It makes perfect sense.
Why not just give everything, everywhere to Alexa? You’re probably familiar with WeMo gear, which connects home appliances – typically lights – to the WeMo app so that they can be controlled from a smartphone. Great – but apps are dead, so what now? Cue voice activation, of course, via pairing with Amazon Echo.
Just in case Amazon doesn’t end up ruling our homes, the WeMo Mini, out in February for US$34.99 (around £28/AU$48), is also compatible with Google Home, Next and IFTTT. WeMo has also announced a Dimmer switch (out in the spring, price TBC), which can be both activated by voice and used to talk to Alexa.
If the smart home is going Alexa-crazy, why can’t the internet of things (IoT)? Amazon Web Services is a key platform for the software developers currently creating the IoT, who can already access Alexa. But at CES 2017 it’s become clear that Alexa fever is spreading.
AT&T’s IoT Starter Kit – essentially some time-saving hardware with a SIM that works in 200-plus countries – was announced at the show to be compatible with AWS and, therefore, with Alexa. “You could have a machine user interface that’s voice-enabled, so an engineer could speak to a machine and run diagnostics,” said Mobeen Khan, associate VP for IoT solutions, AT&T.
It’s a bit of a mouthful – but then that’s kind of the point of this Alexa-enabled TV from Westinghouse, designed for the US market and debuting at CES. On-demand content, including shows from HBO Go and, of course, Amazon Prime Video, can be searched for by voice. The experience of talking into the special new Amazon remote control (it looks like Apple TV’s remote) will be familiar to anyone who’s used a voice-enabled TV before, but during our demo there was one major difference – it worked every time.
If you can’t join Amazon, beat it. Also, join it. A small tubular 360-degree speaker that looks uncannily like the Amazon Echo, the Lenovo Premium Smart Assistant is all about boosting sound quality. Built around an Intel Celeron N3060 processor, the Smart Assistant has Harmon Kardon speakers (which contain a 5W tweeter and 1W woofer). It’s got exactly the same functionality as the Echo, and costs US$179.99 (around £145/AU$245) – while a non-premium Lenovo Smart Assistant will also be available for US$129 (around £105/AU$180).
Talking to a TV isn’t new, but asking Alexa to navigate, search and play TV content is. Once it’s been paired with an Amazon Echo or Echo Dot, users of the new web-based and US-only DISH Hopper DVR can go hands-free by asking Alexa things like “Watch Game of Thrones season 1, episode 2” and “Go to ESPN”.
“You no longer have to set down your popcorn to change the channel, or spend time searching for what channel the game is on – just ask Alexa to do it for you,” says Rob Pulciani, Director, Amazon Alexa, announcing Amazon’s partnership with DISH. It’s out in the first half of 2017.
An Alexa-activated, 360-degree omni-directional Bluetooth speaker system seems simple enough, but the Dok Talk CR25 is much more than just a voice-controlled boombox. Essentially a generously-featured device charger, it’s got niceties like surge protection for guarding against voltage spikes during storms, while multiple microphones mean far-field voice recognition even if you talk to it from across the room. That’s crucial, because the Dok Talk CR25 is mostly about allowing you to listen to music, talk on the phone or access the web on up to five gadgets as they recharge.
Obviously, all of this can be done via Alexa, turning it into a smart home hub that would work in open-plan homes and loft conversions. It ships in April 2017 for US$189 (around £155/AU$260).
Announced in December and being shown off at CES, this Alexa hub on the bedside table seems appropriate if every room needs integrating into the smart home. GE bills it as the ‘ultimate living experience’, which is a heavy burden for what is essentially an LED lamp with Wi-Fi and a microphone, but it’s evidence that more voice gadgetry is starting to be built into furniture and fittings.
“Voice is the future of home automation, and the combination of Alexa with the GE LED table lamp provides people with a simple and frictionless way to interact with their homes,” said Amazon Alexa’s Aaron Brown.