Like any decent feminist, Alexa is busting out of the home. Previously relegated to the kitchen, living room, or study (in fact, I recently met someone who had installed one of these devices into every single room of his house, including bathrooms) Amazon’s “home assistant” is being let loose onto the streets. The company announced at a Sept. 25 event that it will be releasing a series of wearables for the human and non-human residents of your home, allowing the public to consult the AI assistant anywhere they go.
New Alexa Wearables
Alexa is always evolving, with new features being added in a constant stream. While the product launch seemed to unleash a landslide of new items onto the market, the wearables have gained the most attention – possibly because these are the first devices that will allow you to carry Alexa around town.
The new devices include:
- Echo Frames: Designed to look like regular spectacles (they are able to take prescription lenses), directional microphones are built into the frames, which can play sound into users’ ears.
- Echo Loop: A titanium-framed smart ring that is worn on the finger. Users press a button and wait for a vibration before asking the accessory a question, and then hold up to the ear for an answer.
- Echo Buds: “The first wearable to offer customers completely hands-free Alexa on the go,” according to Amazon executive Dave Limp. These are voice-activated Bluetooth earbuds that will play Alexa’s dulcet tones directly into the ear.
- Ring Fetch: A pet tracker made to be worn on an animal’s collar.
To begin with, the Loop and Frames products will be manufactured in small quantities, and distributed to invited users in the US only, while the Buds will receive a standard release.
As Limp announced the devices, he reiterated that the aim is to incorporate Alexa into users’ everyday lives, with people barely noticing that they are using the AI assistant. “It’s a way to snack on information throughout your day,” he said of the Loop, and he emphasized that the Frames were deliberately designed to fade into the background. “We’ve intentionally not put a display in them, not put a camera in them” he said, “we want you to focus on your everyday, and Alexa should be here to augment that through the day.” Presumably, customers have no qualms wearing these Bluetooth-enabled, electromagnetic devices in direct proximity to their brains, all day, every day.
“Customers don’t want to be bound by the technology that we put in any particular box,” Amazon smart home Vice President Daniel Rausch told CNET, further emphasizing this message. “They want things like Alexa with them all the time. That is literally the feedback.”
Privacy has always been a key concern of people who are yet to jump on the Echo bandwagon. Limp took the opportunity to set the public’s mind at rest. “We care about this,” he assured attendees, “Privacy is absolutely foundational to everything we do in and around Alexa.” As such, Amazon is enabling users to implement an auto-delete setting for recordings. To allay fears over bias or hidden agendas, the company will also allow users to ask Alexa, “Why did you do that?”
An ‘Avalanche’ of New Stuff
At the same time, Amazon launched a series of additional products designed to fit into various aspects of customers’ lives. This includes, among others, a revamped version of its original smart speaker, an Echo Studio home theater system that uses audio feedback to actually model the rooms in your house, the Echo Flex (small, cable-free Alexa devices that can be plugged into outlets around the home), an Alexa enabled “smart oven,” and the imminent integration of Alexa into General Motors vehicles. The company also announced its Amazon Sidewalk idea, which would provide a long-range, low-bandwidth network in the 900MHz spectrum to allow users to stay connected out in public, without relying on Bluetooth, wifi, or 5G. This fits into the Internet of Things vision, whereby all items are connected into one big “smart” web. The Ring Fetch pet wearable is slated to be the first product trialed in the system.
“This avalanche of new products underlines Amazon’s desire to extend Alexa’s reach to every part of people’s lives – be that in the home, or on the move via new Echo Buds, or in the car through the deal with General Motors,” Geoff Blaber, an analyst at tech market research firm CCS Insight, commented to the BBC. “Not only will it will strengthen Amazon’s reach with existing customers that use Alexa-powered products,” but would “also provide the opportunity to woo more consumers to embrace its increasingly ubiquitous voice assistant.”
In sum, the former home assistant is taking it to the streets, the home, and, well, everywhere. First, you have devices for the home and office. Next come the hand-held objects. Then, you have wearables. As technology becomes more portable and clings closer to the body, what’s next in this Silicon Valley evolution?