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Digital Trends: The Amazon Echo – and Alexa

March 14, 2018

The Amazon Echo device(s), which come from the basic Echo Dot all to the Echo Show, is Amazon’s successful attempt at integrating voice commands—yours--into one’s digital environment. What that means is your Echo sits there passively in the background (playing your favorite music if you wish over an incredibly rich sound system if you get an Echo or Echo Plus) waiting for you to issue a command.

 

When you say the trigger word, which by default is “Alexa”, the blue LED ring on the top of the device lights up, and Alexa waits for you to issue a command such as make a phone call, skip to the next song, switch over to reading you one of the books from your Kindle or Audible library, order your favorite Domino’s pizza, look up information, add something to your shopping list, give you your morning briefing from your selected news sources, etc. etc.…

 

In fairness, when discussing an Amazon Echo, the physical device is the vehicle by which the Alexa software and voice recognition capabilities are delivered. The low-end Dot lists at $49 and provides basic voice quality, but it is music capabilities are similar to a clock radio. The basic Echo (2nd Generation) comes in at $99, and provides amazingly rich sound with enough bass capabilities to easily annoy people living next door in a dorm or apartment.  The Echo Plus ($149) has a built-in intelligent hub to allow you to control the other smart Wi-Fi appliances in your home—although there is a growing tide of smart items for the home that any Echo will communicate with without the need of a digital hub.  For those who also want video, there is the  Echo Spot ($149) and Echo Show ($229) both have LED screens and built-in cameras that allow you to make visual calls to other people. 

 

The Alexa app is the real star of the Echo show however. When you talk to Alexa, the responses you get are a pleasing voice coupled with appropriate human emotional inflection and nuance.  The Amazon programmers have even given Alexa the ability to emulate the human personality. You can ask Alexa to sing you songs, tell you stories, tell you jokes, and even have her give you an update on the latest instructions and commands that you can give her. Because Alexa has a voice with total inflection, and a personality, there is something surprisingly “dialogue” to the back and forth between the user and Alexa.

 

Think of the ship’s computer from one of the more recent Star Trek series and you have got the right idea.

 

Naturally your Amazon Echo, Amazon Fire TV, Amazon Fire Tablet, Amazon music library, Amazon shopping account, and other Amazon Echo devices you have in your home all operate and interact seamlessly with one another. Once you register your Echo device and link it to your Amazon account you can tell your Echo to start playing your favorite Amazon music library, and it will. If you tell it to continue playing the latest Audible book that you have been listening to on another device, Alexa will inform you that she is resuming the book where you last left off. Alexa will even read you books out of your Kindle library, and does a surprisingly good job at putting proper inflection into what she reads. If you have multiple Echo devices in your home they will act as an intercom between each other and both units can be instructed to play your music synchronized with each other.

 

The list of video services that Alexa will currently natively allow you to control using your voice are Fire TV, Fios, Frontier, Optic HUB, and Dish TV. Using an Echo with any of these services is very straightforward – should you decide to stop listening to music and want to pick up watching The Americans where you left off, you simply state, in normal voice, “Alexa, watch Fire TV” and “Alexa, play The Americans”—your TV is now playing The Americans where you left off.

 

The music services that are built into the Alexa app are Amazon’ My Music Library, Amazon Music, Spotify, Pandora, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, Deezer, Gimme Radio, and Sirus XM. As with the previously mentioned book and video services, Alexa will recognize a host of commands allowing you to skip chapters, go forward or back set amounts of time, pause, etc, etc… What this ultimately allows you to do is your voice replaces the need to pick up a remote or other physical control device because you simply tell Alexa what you want done and she does it for you.

 

Should your favorite music service be one not listed here, do not panic. Alexa can still play your music.

 

The way Echo achieves this is by also having built into it Bluetooth capabilities which can link up to your Bluetooth enabled tablet, phone, or computer. For example, this allows you to play your iTunes library over your Echo speaker, and at that point because iTunes recognizes your Bluetooth Echo as a remote control device for iTunes, you can tell Alexa such commands as next song, pause, stop, etc, etc… and the playback on iTunes will react accordingly.

 

Finally, just as you your phone has third-party apps—Alexa has over 25,000 skills ranging from humor to shopping, with 596 added in the last 7 days. For an overview of these skills, and links to other useful information on Alexa such as video reviews, continue reading.

 

Alexa Skills

 

The Alexa skills are very similar to the applications that are written for your cell phone or tablet computer -- third-party programmers develop an application that they think will be of use to owners of an Amazon Echo, and develop them on their own. This results in a huge variety of skills for an Echo device that range from skills to help you discover the Best Buy deal of the day to entertainment for children to home fitness to just about any subject you would find in a cell phone app. Unlike a cell phone or tablet app, it appears that most are free. Indeed, a quick review of 20 random skills did not find any that cost money, although it appears that Amazon does permit this as an option. The first link below is probably the best way for person to get familiar with what skills are out there and how that skills can enhance the Echo experience.
Easter eggs

 

Alexa has built into her a cornucopia of Easter eggs that are designed to amuse people. For example if you say, “Alexa, define rock, paper, scissors, lizard, Spock,” Alexa will go through this routine which was originated in the TV show Big Bang Theory, reciting Dr. Sheldon’ Coopers explanation of this game. If you ask Alexa how many Oscars Alec Baldwin has won, actor Alec Baldwin’s voice will break into the middle of Alexa’s response and order her to stop. Alexa informs him that she can stop, but he has still won no Oscars. 

 

Ask Alexa if she is dating anyone, and she informs you that she likes being single, plus it is tough finding someone who doesn’t mind the cloud commute. Ask her to tell you a joke, and she will. Ask her to tell you a Batman joke, and she will tell you a Batman joke.  Request a cat joke and you might get:

 

“Why did the high-fiving cat make a terrible DJ? Because she kept hitting paws.” 

 

Ask Alexa to sing you a song, and she will play a song, with guitar accompaniment, about the time she went camping. Or some other song she sings. Ask her to tell you a story, and she will tell you a story she knows.

 

For whatever reason, these personality abilities add to the feeling of Alexa being more than just another laptop—she has been programmed with personality and depth, and this helps make interacting with her more ‘human’ than simply clicking keys on a touchscreen.

 

Below you will find a link to some of Alexa’s currently known Easter Eggs.

 

Overall evaluation:

 

The Echo, and Alexa, are game-changers, and Amazon knows this. The developers at Amazon are constantly upgrading the Alexa software, with updates and tweaks being delivered seamlessly to your Echo every few days. What this means is that the Echo device is constantly getting the benefit of new developments that have been created by Amazon to enhance the Alexa experience. Shopping becomes easier. Voice recognition is constantly improving. Functionality and integration with other software is always improving.

 

The reason that Amazon is doing this is because there are other devices out there, such as the Google Home, vying to work their way into your home. Amazon knows that if it delivers the best product, at the best price, and continues to deliver those two important factors to the consumer, it will control the conduit through which people ultimately purchase goods – and thus a larger portion of the goods purchased will come from Amazon, or at least through Amazon channels. Amazon’s corporate philosophy is to provide incredibly good service at an incredibly good price so that it can control market share. This philosophy has allowed its founder, Jeff Bezos, to become the richest person in history, with a net worth, as of March 8, 2018, of $112B dollars. 

 

The closest contenders at present to the Amazon Echo appears to be the Google Home and Apple HomePod. Most side-by-side comparisons of the products agree that the Amazon Echo is the superior product for functionality. That coupled with the fact that the Echo lists as less expensive than the competition, and that the Echo provides better sound quality, makes the Echo, and Alexa, the clear current winners:

 

Digital Trends Rating: A

 

DC is an IC alumni in the Toledo community. Continue reading our paper for more of his reviews on technology.

 

Useful Echo/Alexa links:

 

A list/search of Alexa skills: https://www.amazon.com/b?ie=UTF8&node=13727921011

 

50 Best Amazon Alexa Skills:https://www.tomsguide.com/us/pictures-story/806-best-alexa-skills.html

 

Use Your Alexa Device to Control Your Fire TV: https://www.amazon.com/gp/help/customer/display.html?nodeId=202174250

 

Back to school: Alexa in your dorm room: http://www.zdnet.com/article/back-to-school-alexa-in-your-dorm-room/

 

C/Net review of the Echo: https://www.cnet.com/products/amazon-echo-review/

 

Video review of Echo Abilities: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wC-ETE3Ispo

 

SHOWDOWN: Google Home VS Amazon Echo! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jrpaQN8TN6o

 

The ultimate cheatsheet for Amazon Alexa: https://gist.github.com/Ugotsta/2a06603706fd7c2eb5c93f34ed316354

 

53 Alexa Easter Eggs You’ll Wish You Knew Sooner: https://www.rd.com/funny-stuff/alexa-easter-eggs/

 

Develop an Alexa Skill in under 5 minutes: https://developer.amazon.com/alexa-skills-kit/alexa-skill-quick-start-tutorial 
 

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