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Smart home tech is still in its early days, but a new product from Amazon may help bring it into the mainstream.

Called Amazon Echo, it’s a cylindrical speaker that uses far-field voice recognition to pick up and respond to your commands. For now, it seems to function mostly as a personal assistant — akin to Siri or Google Now — but, assuming it takes off, the future could hold much more.

What Is Amazon Echo?

As you can see from the video, Amazon Echo may have the standard purpose of a speaker, but there’s so much more built into this little device.

A Bluetooth Speaker

At first glance, Echo looks like a typical Bluetooth speaker — and it serves that purpose quite well. You can play any song or playlist at just the right volume to suit the occasion perfectly.

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The device’s 360-degree firing speaker can play music from your phone or tablet via Bluetooth, and it has built-in support for Amazon Music, Prime Music, iHeartRadio, and TuneIn.

But Echo is so much more than a speaker.

A Personal Assistant

Under the hood lies an array of seven “always on” microphones that can hear your voice from any direction. When it detects the wake word — Alexa, by default — it lights up and sends your command to the cloud, where Echo quickly processes and responds to your request.

Echo is always listening, but it does have an onboard mute button in case that makes you uncomfortable.

As far as commands go, it’s similar to current smartphone-based assistants like Siri. You can ask about the weather, request a specific type of music or playlist, add an event to your calendar, and so on.

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Because its brain lives in the cloud, powered by Amazon Web Services, it continually learns and adds more functionality over time. And, perhaps more importantly, Amazon Echo is a standalone personal assistant. It’s not tied down by the baggage or technical limitations of a smartphone, which will likely make for a more intuitive product than its phone-based competitors.

Interestingly, the beauty isn’t in the feature set. What makes Echo great is that it’s completely hands-free, all the time. There are no buttons to press, and it doesn’t matter how close you are to the device. It takes everything we love about Siri Do More With Siri Using The New iOS 7 Siri Commands Do More With Siri Using The New iOS 7 Siri Commands If you find yourself fumbling with your iPhone to make a simple phone call, launch an app, set a reminder or wake-up alarm then you're probably not using Siri enough. Read More , Google Now, and Cortana, and removes that last little bit of friction.

Setup

Amazon Echo is super easy to set up. Just connect it to your home WiFi network and follow the setup process in the free companion app on Fire OS and Android, or desktop and iOS browsers. Once you’ve got it all ready, you can connect your devices to stream music via Bluetooth, or just give it verbal commands at any time.

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Simple enough, right?

The Future

I’m a fan of Amazon Echo as it exists today, but what really makes it interesting is what it could turn into.

The Face Of Smart Home Tech

Echo is the perfect starting point for what could become the face of smart home technology. Think about it: you could interact with all of the smart devices in your home by simply speaking to Echo.

“Turn off the lights in the kitchen.” Off go the lights.

“Set the heat to 72 degrees.” Done.

By always listening for spoken commands, Echo could facilitate process of controlling your smart home tech. No need to pull out your phone and use an app. Just ask.

Instant Amazon Orders

amazon-shopping

Let’s not forget that this is a product by Amazon, and that Amazon is primarily an e-commerce company. Why would an e-commerce company want to make a product like Echo? For the same reason they want to make tablets and smartphones.

As TechCrunch’s Greg Kumparak points out, Echo could remove the friction from shopping on Amazon:

You’ll be able to say “Alexa, order me a copy of Kung Fu Panda 2,” and it’ll be done.

“Alexa, order me some dope-ass high thread count egyptian cotton sheets.” Bam. Done. Sheets are on the way.

Of course that serves Amazon’s interests, and some folks would surely object, but wouldn’t it make your life easier if you could place an order just by saying it out loud? That would be awesome for both Amazon and its customers.

None of this is set in stone at this point, but there’s no doubt that Amazon will integrate shopping into the experience if it gains enough traction.

What do you think?

It’s up to the market to decide whether Amazon Echo succeeds or fails abysmally like the Fire Phone 5 Privacy Reasons Not To Buy An Amazon Smartphone 5 Privacy Reasons Not To Buy An Amazon Smartphone Are you considering a new smartphone? If you are, Amazon's Fire phone might be high on your list. But there are five privacy reasons why this might not be a good idea… Read More — but even if this particular device doesn’t take off, similar competing products are likely to pop up.

What about you? Can you see yourself using Amazon Echo or a similar device? Let us know in the comments below!

Image Credit: CODE_n / Flickr

  1. coal
    April 24, 2015 at 11:20 pm

    Mine sits in-between two computers monitors and I love it, I use it for the math conversions and spelling which is quicker than the computers when typing. I also have one in the bedroom as it is the best alarm you can have. I also like the feature of setting the alarm to with the app for those at home that need to be reminded to do things. Lol

  2. Dan
    January 20, 2015 at 3:47 am

    Is it possible to change the Wake Word to Echo or Amazon? I kinda don't want to call it Alexa.. On Amazon's site, it says "Manage your Wake Word preference. The Wake Word is the word you use to initiate voice requests to your Amazon Echo." Can you choose out of a small number of options or can you type in a name and have it recognize it? Well, I was unlucky enough to get an invite on 1/9, so I won't see my Echo until much later =( [4/23!! =((( ]. I can't wait to try it out with my Cowon J3 and getting this (almost) on the ground-floor so that I can see how this piece of tech will evolve!

    • matt
      February 21, 2015 at 11:55 pm

      You can change the word, currently the only other choice is "Amazon". I really want to call oyr "computer" but think of how many times you use that word I a day.

  3. Doug
    January 14, 2015 at 11:33 am

    I love my Echo more and more every day. You would pay more than $200.00 for a good set of speakers.

  4. Steph C
    December 27, 2014 at 4:40 am

    I got one of the original invitations and decided to save the fun for Christmas (I received it a couple weeks before) The whole family had a blast asking her questions and once you get used to what "she" can do, you use it more. I was baking and forgot to set the kitchen timer. Too tired to get off the couch once again to set it, I said, "Alexa, set timer for 10 minutes" and in 10 minutes she interrupted my Prime "Chillin" playlist to let me know the cookies were done. The speaker is remarkably loud and clear, it is well worth the price, as I have paid a similar amount for a plain old bluetooth speaker that doesnt talk back. Adding items to a shopping list is incredible for ADD-heads like me who only remember some things for a split second, lol. Here are some fun questions we discovered:
    "Alexa, where do babies come from? "
    "Alexa, will you be my best friend?"
    "Alexa, how tall are you?"
    "Alexa, do you have a mom?"

  5. Amoyle
    December 27, 2014 at 1:34 am

    I love my Echo, too - lucky to have gotten it in the first wave, and use it every morning. I sure hope they add the reading capability - I would even pay a premium for reading services, it's that appealing to me. Otherwise, having fun with it and seeing my husband try to piss Alexa off with bizarre questions. Is it me, or does she get just a little testy the fourth time she tells you she's added a Bing search to the app?!

  6. Bob
    December 7, 2014 at 10:54 pm

    Another microphone for the NSA can use when my smart phone runs out of battery.

  7. Kathleen
    December 5, 2014 at 1:45 pm

    got mine about a week ago and use it every day. love the music streaming, love the timer function (it's in our kitchen), used the shopping list and it's really handy

  8. Corina C
    December 5, 2014 at 12:05 am

    I love my Echo! I have only used it for music and for my flash briefing (news recap that you can customize to the sources and topics you want) as well as weather and time, alarms and timers. However, my son and daughter-in-law use theirs for a lot more things. Because it is totally hands free, it is great for working in the kitchen or maybe a hobby/craft room or maybe out in the garage where you don't want to have to empty and wash hands to manipulate any device. It's also fun to "play" with it. Ask it what its I.Q. is. Ask it what its favorite color is. Ask it the height of a specific building like the Empire State or the Sears Tower or the Space Needle. Ask it to tell you a joke. I love mine! I am looking forward to doing other things when there are additional capabilities built into it.

  9. Craig Powell
    December 4, 2014 at 10:06 pm

    I got my invite yesterday and ordered it today...it should arrive tomorrow 12/5. I am excited to give it a try! My wife is also excited for having it and she is not "overly technical". Should be interesting!

  10. MrScott
    December 4, 2014 at 9:22 pm

    Makes me nervous. I loaned my cell to someone and they bumped buttons which placed a few small Amazon orders. Get Echo, and then discover your friend with a sense of humor taught your parrot the phrase to order a TV and your 7-year-old now orders pizza and ice cream delivered every night. A new custom-painted car arrives a few days after a party...

  11. John
    December 4, 2014 at 7:49 pm

    I enjoy mine so far! I find it to be like a tablet in that I didn't know what to do with it at first, but I'll grow into it. I have lots of ambient and environment recordings in my Amazon account so it's nice to be able to pick up a book and tell Alexa to play Summer Rain, etc. I'm not a news junkie, but I've gotten into the habit of listening to my personalized news flash in the mornings. Amazon has been encouraging programmers to think of new uses so I'm excited to see where this goes!

  12. Rodney
    December 4, 2014 at 7:38 pm

    I've had mine for almost four days, and for the most part I really like it. It isn't as smart as Siri or Cortana yet, but I like it's ability to stream from multiple places. I can essentially turn on the radio to the station I want with just my voice., and it will read the news to me while I'm making breakfast.

    I just wish now that I could have at least 2 more to get full coverage throughout the house. The potential is huge, because it is just like the Star Trek computer.

    For kicks, I said "make me a sandwich" and it responded "I'm not a replicator". Funny.

  13. janet schmidt
    December 4, 2014 at 6:44 pm

    can more than one perdon use this? TIA

    • Lance Ramsdell
      February 12, 2015 at 8:47 pm

      Yes, they can, but it's tied to one person's Amazon account. This could present difficulties if one-click ordering is turned on and one of your friends is feeling humorous. :)

  14. Al
    December 4, 2014 at 2:40 pm

    I'm not a technology chaser but when I watched the demo I was intrigued by the possibilities. Got my invite to purchase yesterday and it should be here tomorrow. We shall see:)

  15. Ben
    December 4, 2014 at 4:22 am

    Lindsey Stirling got her album featured in a MakeUseOf Article.

    That makes me so happy.

    Seriously though, I would love the chance to get my hands on something like this. I find Siri a little bit awkward to use. It takes time to open the interface, and I can never get the automatic 'okay Siri' to work.

  16. Ed
    December 4, 2014 at 4:22 am

    Still waiting on my invite. Maybe before Christmas, I hope :)

  17. Anonymous
    December 4, 2014 at 4:09 am

    I received an invite today and look forward to receiving it on Friday. Read several reviews and am anxious to see it.

  18. Cindy Henderson
    December 4, 2014 at 1:08 am

    I see the same potential in the Echo you have set out here. I would love to be able to have it turn on the tv, my PS3, read books I purchased on Amazon or otherwise (I sent a request in for that one), set timers for the lights, etc. I put in a request for an invite as soon as I got an email about Echo from Amazon. I'm one of the lucky folks who got their Echo in the first wave. Im having a blast with it and every day I think of the potential this little gizmo has.

  19. Brian Tkatch
    December 3, 2014 at 10:58 pm

    I'm tempted by this because it's just cool. It also comes with a a nice speaker and a free Prime membership. (Since Prime costs $99 and Prime members get $100 dollars off.)

    From the mac, voice commands don't seem to work well, rarely recognizing my words. It makes me wonder how well this device handles that. Also, how good is the speaker? I get the feeling this is a controlled beta, and the next revision of the product will be even better. But then i'm out $99, stuck with the old version. Is it really a good time to buy it?

    • Jon
      December 5, 2014 at 4:50 pm

      I just received mine yesterday and was mostly checking out how it played music and I'd have to say that the speaker was much louder and clearer than I expected. I have to have my pc speakers up to max and still barely can hear the music while in the shower, however echo was at about 50% and I could hear it pretty clearly.

      As far as price goes, and assuming you're a prime member and maybe even have the amazon visa, you can use your points as well to make it even cheaper (mine cost me $50 in the end).

      For voice recognition, it doesn't listen that well for me yet (but I'm told I can be hard to hear). Yesterday, it recognized "What is the spleen?" just fine. This morning when I was trying to show my wife, she (echo) though I asked "what is speeding?" But that may be an issue with the remote mic Vs the mic on echo, as I used the remote mic while in another room this morning.

  20. Sam Martin
    December 3, 2014 at 10:33 pm

    I like your positive outlook on the Echo. I am looking forward to it if I get an invite to purchase one. I signed up soon after it appeared on my amazon homepage and have heard nothing from Amazon since. It's very disappointing seeing that other folks already have one. Oh, well. It is what it is.

  21. Dann Albright
    December 3, 2014 at 7:29 pm

    I think this is going to be really interesting . . . I don't know what the stats are on how many people use Siri or Cortana or Google Now on a regular basis, but I don't know many people who do (that could just be my social circle, though). Not sure how many people will use this for the voice-activated things and how many will just use it as a cool speaker that has some fun functions to play with occasionally. Time will tell!

    Good write-up, Brad!

    • Brad Merrill
      December 3, 2014 at 7:47 pm

      Thanks, Dann! You're definitely right - most folks don't use their personal assistants very often. Should be interesting to see if that changes at all with something like Echo where it's always on and always listening.

    • Dann Albright
      December 4, 2014 at 10:37 am

      Or if that phrase, "always on and always listening," just terrifies people out of using it. :-)

  22. CoolHappyGuy
    December 3, 2014 at 5:34 pm

    Once again, Star Trek has predicted this. Remember all those episodes in all the different flavors of Star Trek (Voyager, DS9, etc.), you'd have someone say "Computer," you hear the wake-up sound, and the computer would do whatever the Star Fleet officer requested.

    • Brad Merrill
      December 3, 2014 at 7:50 pm

      Haha - yes!

    • TechMan
      December 4, 2014 at 7:47 pm

      Once again, Star Trek brought to the TV screen sci-fi ideas that have been around for decades prior. Although ST did it in their own manner, the concept is not inclusive to Star Trek.

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