Amazon’s Echo speaker has slowly but surely been winning over consumers and the tech press. Reviews are overwhelmingly positive and people that have one can’t stop raving about it. We’re now seeing the Alexa Voice Service being added to 3rd party speaker products – but why stop there?
What makes Alexa different than other Siri and other digital assistants is its always-on nature and the fact that the built-in microphones is much better at catching your ‘wake word’ and subsequent commands.
Alexa also offers significant benefits over traditional speakers – it’s possible to request a wide range of artists or songs from streaming services, something you wouldn’t be able to do with traditional speaker controls.
Talking to things in public is embarrassing
Unlike other digital assistants, Amazon’s Echo avoids the embarrassment problem that often prevents us from using voice input with our phones or tablets in public: If you’re listening to something with your Echo speaker, you’re probably in an environment where you’d be comfortable talking to a product. Amazon’s Echo and Echo Dot sidestep the embarrassment issue by being tethered to a power outlet. The new battery-powered Amazon Tap is the exception to this rule, but since it requires a button press to activate voice input, it’s likely you’d still only use it in scenarios where you wouldn’t be afraid of disturbing others.
So Amazon has built a pretty useful voice-enabled home speaker ecosystem. How will that lead to other ‘Alexified’ home appliances?
Third party Alexa speakers are here
The Triby is a speaker designed to be mounted on your fridge that also includes a screen for note-sharing and other interactions – a first glimpse of an Alexa-enabled appliance that is more than just a speaker (and it’s the first Alexa product available in Germany on Amazon.de).
Isn’t voice interaction annoying?
So when is voice actually the better user interface? Why not just use an app on your phone or physical controls on the appliance? It has to be a) Faster and b) Easier to use voice as an input.
Let’s look at washing machines as an example: Today’s models often have a range of options and settings that can be confusing to understand. But nobody is clamouring for an iPhone app to control their washing machine either. Why? Because you rarely want to stand in front of your machine and take out your iPhone to manipulate controls that you have right in front of you. An app offers little additional benefit over the built-in controls and there’s little benefit to being able to do it remotely since you still have to load up the machine.
But if you had a hands-free way of programming the washing machine while you’re putting in the next load, it would allow you to do two things at once, a very tangible benefit. “Washing machine – wash my whites at 40° this afternoon” is something that takes a few minutes and a bit of experience to input via buttons, but is easy to do with your voice. And you can do it while you’re putting in the detergent.
Other product categories for voice input
So what other product categories could be contenders for Alexification? Let’s say a product has to fit the following criteria:
Good candidates are devices that…
- … are always connected to power
- … are primarily used at home
- …have complex user interfaces
These criteria rule out simple on/off appliances like light switches and kettles: there is very little convenience to be gained from talking to your kettle, the interaction would take longer than just flicking it on.
But appliances such as coffee machines, microwaves, ovens and washing machines could all benefit from voice interfaces:
Order a coffee with extra milk from your automatic coffee maker, tell the microwave to heat up your soup to 36°C and tell your washing machine to start washing your whites later this afternoon – all examples of interactions that are non-trivial to accomplish via traditional button-based controls, but could easily be added to an ‘alexified’ modern home appliance.
Voice input: One possibility for limited inputs
I don’t think voice will be the primary mode of interaction for a wide range of complex interfaces – intention analysis just isn’t there yet and we’ve all cursed at Siri for getting a text message wrong. But when it comes to limited sets of commands to direct our appliances, I think voice interaction can offer real utility.
Amazon has done a great job of creating tools for third-party developers to build additional Skills within the Echo/Alexa ecosystem and now we’re seeing the first hardware products take advantage of Amazon’s back-end and voice recognition technology.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see the next generation of appliances add Alexa capability at CES 2017: imagine an Alexa-enabled washing machine that offers Alexa voice-control and can order its own detergent via the Amazon Dash API.
That’s the future Amazon is building.