Bits & bytes: Amazon Echo, the virtual assistant home speaker

141106140320-amazon-echo-620xaBy Kimberly Toillion

On November 6, Amazon surprised everyone by revealing what could be a revolutionary new gadget. Imagine Apple’s Siri taking up residence in a nine inch speaker and voilà, I introduce you to the Amazon Echo. The word “introduce” is used because Amazon Echo actually has a name. Meet Alexa. Consumers are encouraged to speak to Alexa. Much like Apple’s Siri, Alexa will speak back.

We are pioneers in a world where artificial intelligence is only beginning. Some are excited and will embrace it, others are cautious and brace themselves. Whatever camp you find yourself in, chances are this type of technology will progress no matter what. Today, there are three major virtual personal assistant platforms: Microsoft’s Cortana, Apple’s Siri and Google’s Now. Amazon is adding its name to the virtual assistant game. Many suggest that because it’s hands-free Amazon does it better. Critics suggest the company is in it to bolster sales. Whatever Amazon’s intent, it’s difficult not to acknowledge this technology is groundbreaking. There has even been speculation that one day we will have hands-free, personal assistant devices in every room.

The Amazon Echo is voice controlled and stays wirelessly connected to the Internet. The speaker’s given name Alexa may be changed by the consumer. The speaker is Bluetooth enabled which allows customers to stream music from a variety of services such as Amazon, iTunes, TuneIn, iHeart, Spotify, iTunes, Pandora or music from personal devices. Echo has two built-in speakers that produce 360 degree, omnidirectional sound.

Echo is paired with a free, cross-platform compatible app that helps maintain music, alarms, lists and more. The speaker has seven microphones that are constantly equipped to listen to any voice in the room. As Amazon states, “The brain is in the cloud.” It adapts to users and becomes smarter as time progresses. Consumers may ask Alexa what time it is, what the weather is like or essentially the same questions one would ask Siri. When users come across things they need from the store they simply tell Alexa, and said items will be added to a list via the included phone or tablet app.

In the upcoming weeks, the Amazon Echo will be offered to select people for $199 or $99 to Amazon Prime members. It is available by invitation only. If you are interested in purchasing one of these beta speakers you can stop by amazon.com and inquire there. Spaces are limited as Amazon tests the waters. Once upon a time, prior to its launch, many thought Siri would be a gimmick. Years later, Siri is a staple for consumers around the globe and other tech companies have modeled personal assistants after it. Time will tell if the Echo is a home run for Amazon.

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