At its annual hardware event 2019, Amazon unveiled an avalanche of Alexa-powered products. It introduced a high-end Echo Studio, the new Echo Show 8, an Echo Dot with a clock, and a four-in-one Amazon Smart Oven. The company is also trying to enter the smart wearables market with its Echo Frames eyewear and Echo Loops. It also debuted Echo Buds earbuds, a competition to Apple’s Airpods.
Echo Frames and Echo Loops are part of Amazon’s Day 1 Editions program. It is a program for experimental products that are offered with limited availability to see customers’ response and then mass-produced if the response is positive.
Alexa becomes more “emotive and expressive”
Amazon announced that Alexa now has a multilingual mode. This new mode will be initially available in three countries: the US, Canada, and India. Other than English, Alexa will speak Spanish in the US, French in Canada, and Hindi in India. Customers will be able to interact with Alexa-powered devices in both languages simultaneously.
In addition to becoming a polyglot, Alexa will also be more “emotive and expressive” with the help of a new Neural Text to Speech model. Additionally, customers will be able to switch Alexa’s voice to a celebrity voice. It will use the new text-to-speech technology to mimic celebrity voices, with Samuel L. Jackson’ being the first. Amazon will roll out additional celebrity voices next year priced at $0.99 each.
Amazon’s steps towards better privacy
Amazon’s Alexa has raised several privacy concerns among users. In July, Amazon admitted that a few voice recordings made by Alexa are never deleted from the company’s server, even when the user manually deletes them. Another news in April this year revealed that when you speak to an Echo smart speaker, not only does Alexa but potentially Amazon employees also listen to your requests. In May, two lawsuits were filed in Seattle stating that Amazon is recording voiceprints of children using its Alexa devices without their consent.
The company says it is taking a few steps to address these privacy concerns. Amazon’s hardware and services chief Dave Limp announced, “We’re investing in privacy across the board. Privacy cannot be an afterthought when it comes to the devices and services we offer our customers. It has to be foundational and built-in from the beginning for every piece of hardware, software, and service that we create.”
Amazon has introduced a new set of features that will give users more control over their stored voice recordings on their Alexa device. Users will be able to hear everything Alexa recorded with the help of voice command and delete them on a rolling three-month or eight-month basis.
Amazon’s Ring doorbells have faced criticism from privacy and civil rights advocates because of its ties with police departments. “While more surveillance footage in neighborhoods could help police investigate crimes, the sheer number of cameras run by Amazon’s Ring business raises questions about privacy involving both law enforcement and tech giants,” a story by CNET revealed. To somewhat address this concern Ring video doorbells now have a new feature called Home Mode that stops audio and video recording when the owner is home.
Coming to the privacy of kids, Amazon announced that parents can use a new setting called Alexa Communications for Kids. This will help them determine the contacts their kids are allowed to interact with when using Echo Dot Kids Edition.
The Echo family
Echo with improved audio quality
Amazon has revived its baseline Echo speaker with improved audio quality. The new audio hardware includes neodymium drivers, more volume, and a stronger mid-range. Users now also have new colorful fabric covers (Twilight Blue, Charcoal, Heather Grey, and Sandstone) to choose from. It is priced at $99, the same as its predecessor.
Echo Studio, Amazon’s first high-end smart speaker with immersive 3D audio support
Amazon’s big reveal of its first high-end smart speaker, Echo Studio was probably one of the key highlights of the event. It is also the first smart speaker to feature 3D audio with both Dolby Atmos and Sony’s 360 Reality Audio codecs on board. It was built with Amazon’s new Music HD streaming service to provide Echo customers with a way to listen to lossless music.
Echo Studio achieves its immersive 3D soundscape with the help of five drivers. These include three 2-inch midrange speakers, a 1-inch tweeter, and a 5.25-inch woofer. Out of the three mid-range speakers, two emit the sound from the sides, while the third emits from the front of the cylinder. These are strategically placed so that Echo Studio is able to “position” sound in a 3D space.
Echo Dot with Clock
Amazon’s popular entry-level smart speaker, Echo Dot now has a digital alarm built into the front, next to the speaker grille. Its LED display also allows the Dot to show the weather or a countdown timer. This new version will not replace the current Dot, but will instead exist alongside it in the company’s current Echo lineup.
Echo Show 8, a smaller 8-inch version of Echo Show 10
Back in June, Amazon introduced Echo Show 5, which packs a lot of features into a compact smart display and serves as an alarm clock alternative. There is already a 10-inch flagship model of the Echo device. And, at Wednesday’s event, it announced yet another version of the smart screen: Echo Show 8.
Echo Show 8 provides audio quality similar to the 10-inch version and has a built-in privacy shutter. It also includes the new Drop-in On All feature that lets users create a large group chat with family and friends.
Echo Loop and Frames
This time Amazon has also ventured into smart wearables with Alexa-powered Echo Loops and Frames. The main purpose of these two smart wearables is to enable customers to use Alexa wherever they go, whenever they want.
Echo Loop is a smart ring made out of titanium that activates when you press a tiny discreet button. It features built-in microphones and speakers to facilitate interaction with Alexa. It allows you to shut off the microphones by double-tapping an action button.
Echo Loop comes in three sizes: small, medium, large and extra-large. You can also get ring sizing kit to help you figure out which size is best for you. Coming to its battery life, Amazon is promising that it will last about a day. It has a vibrating haptic engine for notifications and connects to your phone’s Alexa app via Bluetooth.
Echo Frames look like your typical black-framed spectacles. They are lightweight and compatible with most prescription lenses. It has built-in directional microphones for interacting with Alexa that can be turned off with the double-press of a button when not needed. It relies on Amazon’s open-ear technology to send a response from the assistant to your ears.
Echo Buds with Bose noise cancellation technology
Amazon is challenging Apple’s AirPods and Samsung Galaxy Buds with its new Echo Buds. It provides hands-free access to Alexa and includes Bose’s Active Noise Reduction Technology. Each earbud has a pair of balanced armature driver to deliver good bass. Though its five hours of battery life isn’t great, charging case brings the total runtime up to 20 hours before you need to plug in again.
Echo Glow, a multicolor lamp for kids
Echo Glow is a multicolor lamp for kids that do not have Alexa onboard. However, to make it work you need to connect it to any of your Alexa-enabled devices and ask Alexa to change the color, adjust brightness, and create helpful routines. It can also be controlled with a tap. A couple of its interesting use cases include “rainbow timer”, wake up light alarm, and campfire mode.
Echo Flex is a small Echo that plugs directly into the wall
Echo Flex is the affordable and versatile version of Echo Dot smart speaker. You can plug the device directly into a wall outlet to get Alexa’s smart assistant at places where the smart assistant otherwise couldn’t reach. With Echo Flex, you can manage all your compatible smart devices using voice commands. For instance, you can switch on the lamp before getting out of bed or dim the lights from the couch to watch a movie.
Amazon Sidewalk, a low-power, low-bandwidth network
Most wireless standards including Wi-Fi, ZigBee, and Z-Wave have low-range and are typically confined to your home. Other major wireless standards like LTE have a much larger range, but are expensive, hard to maintain, and eat up a vast amount of power.
Amazon says that its Sidewalk network can solve this problem. It is a new wireless standard that casts a signal as far as a mile keeping low-power and low-bandwidth. To achieve this the company has repurposed unlicensed 900 MHz spectrum. This is the same spectrum that is used by cordless phones and walkie talkies to communicate. But unlike walkie-talkies or cordless phones, devices using Amazon Sidewalk will form a mesh network.
Among the use cases of this network includes water sensors to keep the plants in your garden quenched or a mailbox device to let you know when you’ve got mail. The company will also be introducing a smart dog tag next year called Ring Fetch to help you track your dogs.
This announcement started a discussion on Hacker News. Though some users were impressed by the Ring Fetch use case, others felt that the company has re-invented the wheel and is trying to introduce another proprietary protocol. “Maaaan, why in gods name do companies have to keep reinventing the wheel. There’s so many protocols and specifications out there already that they just have to pick one and improve upon it with the goal of making it backward compatible with “older” versions of the protocol,” a user added.
People discussed LoRaWan, a low power, a wide-area networking protocol for connecting battery-operated devices to the internet. A user commented, “LoRaWAN fits exactly this use-case and depending on the region, can operate on any of the ISM bands. This article is very bare on technical details, but I’m so confused. LoRa’s made so much effort in this space by literally mapping out every single ISM band they can (sub-GHz) and reaching out to regulators where they couldn’t find a compatible match. Amazon can’t possibly think the 900 MHz device is “free” globally.”
Liz O’Sullivan, an AI activist also shared her perspective on Twitter.
I’m freaking out about this Amazon Sidewalk mesh network stuff. Here’s why:
1. Amazon is pushing WiFi so you have to send all your traffic through their access points. W/e, no surprises there. But did you know they can track you even if you’re not logged onto their network? https://t.co/F5pJNsFiT7
— Liz 🎃'Sullivan (@lizjosullivan) September 26, 2019
Amazon also made some announcements for people who love cooking. It unveiled an Alexa-compatible kitchen countertop appliance, the Amazon Smart Oven. It is a 4-in-1 microwave that functions as a convection oven, microwave, air fryer, and food warmer. Users will also be able to leverage a new feature in Alexa called “scan-to-cook”. This will allow them to scan pre-packaged food products including the ones sold by Amazon-owned Whole Foods and Amazon Smart Oven will cook them automatically.