My four-year-old daughter is trying to wake up our Amazon Echo. Alexa gets better at understanding her every day, but she still only wakes up for her about half the time. Once Alexa is awake, however, she has an uncanny ability to figure out what my daughter is asking for.
(Alexa wakes up for me just about every time).
“Ah. Lex. Ahhhhh!”
The little blue ring illuminates. Alexa is listening.
“Alexa, play Harry Potter Audio Book on Spotify!”
Somehow, out of all that word soup, Alexa knows to play Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s stone from my Audible account. LJ knows that she wants Harry Potter. She knows I listen to a lot of Spotify. She’s just not 100 percent sure how to put it all together. It doesn’t matter, because Jim Dale’s soothing voice is now filling our bedroom. (I’m sorry, Amazon engineers, for what my daughter is doing to your machine learning).
I yell at Alexa from the other side of a wall and she hears me. I yell at Alexa from the shower in the next room over and she hears me. My daughter yells nonsense at her, and she mostly hears it. The Echo’s voice recognition is spot on.
We’ve come a long way from “Eat Up Martha” to “Alexa, play the Red Sox game.”
There are some drawbacks to using an Echo, of course. You can’t group your Echos together, Sonos-style. And most of what I listen to is on premium audio services. Which means that, if I’m in my office upstairs, and I fire up an audio book… there is going to be a very sad little girl running up to ask why Harry Potter went away.
Browsing for music doesn’t work very well using voice control. You can say, “Alexa, play Adele” but you’re going to get the same top five tracks every time you ask. She sometimes understands that I’m asking for a Spotify playlist, but she mostly gets confused when I ask her for “Relax and Unwind.” I usually fire up music from my phone or laptop (the Echo will show up as an available Spotify device from the app) and then say “Alexa, pause!” and “Alexa, resume!” as I take phone calls over the course of the day.
Every Friday, I get an email from Amazon letting me know “What’s New With Alexa.” Some of it is pretty corny (she told us some truly terrible Star Wars-themed jokes on May the 4th), but there are some pretty cool skills available as well. It took some doing to enable the Major League Baseball skill (mostly because MLB accounts are a total pain to manage), but now I can listen to any baseball game I want on our Echos (I was already paying for MLB Premium). Alexa will tell you about current events. She delighted my daughter by singing Happy Birthday to her. And she makes a very persistent alarm clock.
All of the major residential controls manufacturers have announced partnerships with the Echo (more on the Crestron skill when it’s officially released), meaning that our clients are probably going to start asking to integrate them into their houses. None of is going to get rich installing $50 Echo Dots (Amazon isn’t either, they’re hoping you’ll use your Echos to order more toilet paper from them). But we can make ourselves relevant by providing extra programming, guidance, and training. The Echo works pretty great right out of the box. But it takes some real configuration to realize its full potential. Tell Alexa where you work and she’ll give you traffic information. Let her know what your favorite news outlets are, and she’ll use them for a flash briefing. Not only did I link her to my Spotify account, I went into my settings and set Spotify as my preferred music player. Now when I say “Play Adele,” I don’t have to add “on Spotify.”
Some people might find Alexa’s dossier on me slightly creepy, but I am one of those jaded millennials (I’m at the tail end of the generation, but I am *technically* a millennial) who assumes that most of this information is already out there anyways. I fully admit that I have given Amazon a bunch of my personal information in exchange for a honey-voiced personal assistant.
Alexa’s other biggest downside is that a certain little girl can now wake us up at 7 a.m. on a Saturday by blasting Harry Potter at us. But I think that one falls under “parenting.”