The day we’ve been waiting for is finally here – we can finally pre-order the Amazon Echo, welcoming her into our homes in early February.
But what exactly will the Aussie Alexa, with her new ‘strayn accent, be able to do?
Three devices are launching here in a couple of weeks time – here’s a quick run down on what they are.
The $149 Amazon Echo is the “classic” model, you could say. At its core it is a hands-free, voice-controlled speaker lets access Alexa from anywhere in the room, using far-field voice recognition. All you need to do is say “Alexa” and she wakes up, listening for how she can help. You’ll know she’s heard you when the light ring on the top of the device glows blue. This is when she’s chatting to her brain – the cloud – to get you the info you need.
Alexa can hear you clearly, even in a busy environment, thanks to seven microphones using e beam-forming technology and noise cancellation. Beam-forming combines the signals from the individual microphones to suppress noise, reverberation, the music currently playing, and other people talking.
The $79 Echo Dot is like a baby Echo. Also hands-free, voice controlled device and powered by Alexa, is uses the same far-field voice control as Echo. The idea is to have one of these in every room so you can talk to Alexa from everywhere, connecting it to your existing speakers either via bluetooth or cabled.
The $229 Echo Plus is a super-powered Echo – with a built-in smart home hub. “Alexa, discover my devices” triggers the echo automatically finding and setting up lights, smart plugs, and switches. On launch, Zigbee-supported lights, smart plugs, and switches will work. This includes the Philips Hue range, LiFX, TP-link, and Harmony products.
If you have a bunch of Echo devices within hearing distance, you don’t want them all answering you at once. This is where Amazon’s “ESP technology” kicks in. It will calculate the clarity of your voice to work out which Echo is closest. This feature is smart, Amazon says, so performance gets better over time, continuously improving as you use Echo.
But what exactly is Alexa, you ask?
Alexa is Amazon’s database of information, built in the cloud, with both Amazon and third party developers around the world creating “skills”.
Developers can use the Alexa Skills Kit to build skills. There are over 10,000 skills available in Australia on launch – including those developed by local brands. We’re talking surf reports from Coastalwatch, recipes from Taste.com.au, Qantas lets you check travel details and get loyalty program updates and you can check your account balance with Westpac or NAB. There’s a whole lot more, too.
You can set routines for your smart home devices connected to your Echo plus. “Alexa, good night” can become a customised dimming of the lights and turning off the telly. You can also create routines based on the time of day. So yes, you can have Alexa turn on the kitchen lights, start the coffee maker, and read the weather forecast at 6am every weekday and at 9am every Saturday and Sunday, if you wish.
You can get news updates from Ten News, Sky News Australia, SBS, and Fox Sports. “Alexa, what’s the news?” and “Alexa, read my flash briefing”
She also knows the weather – both locally, and anywhere in the world. “Alexa, will it rain tomorrow?”, “Alexa, what’s the weather in Melbourne?” and “Alexa, what’s the weather in Tokyo this weekend?” are all valid questions she will have the answer to.
Then, of course, there’s music. You can read all about that here.
There’s hands-free calling and messaging – you can talk to anyone else with an Echo device, or even the Alexa app. And you can send messages via voice or text, too. “Alexa, call Mum,” and “Alexa, send a message to Kylie” will both be understood, loud and clear.
You can also talk to other people in your home – wherever there’s an echo device. It’s called the “Drop-In” feature, and is basically room-to-room calling. “Alexa, drop in on the kitchen/bathroom/bedroom/lounge room” makes this happen
Okay, okay, this is all very handy – but what about the proper Aussie stuff?
You know by now you can ask Alexa almost anything – famous people, dates, places, calculations, conversions, spelling – and that includes Australian trivia too.
“Alexa, who is the Australian Prime Minister?”, “How long is the Sydney Harbour Bridge?” and “Alexa, what’s a sausage sizzle?” are all in there, and the classic “Alexa, tell me a joke” has been given a local twist, too.
Alexa knows her Aussie sports now, too! She can give you live scores or scores for completed games, tell you when your favourite team plays their next game, that kind of thing. Tennis fans can just ask, “Alexa, when is the Australian Open final?” or cricket fans can ask, “Alexa, when does the Australian cricket team play next?”
One of the common uses for Alexa is as an alarm clock and a timer. You can set up multiple alarms and timers with your voice – including setting repeating alarms. “Alexa, wake me up at 6am tomorrow morning, “Alexa, how much time is left on my timer?” and “Alexa, set a repeating alarm for Tuesday at 9am” are all useful requests.
Alexa can also manage To-Do and Shopping lists. Just say “Alexa, add Vegemite to my Shopping list,” or “Alexa, put ‘change oil’ on my To-Do list.”
Alexa can also sync to your calendar – only one at this stage, although she can read shared calendars – to add or read events. “Alexa, what’s on my calendar tomorrow at 9am” and “Alexa, add an event to my calendar” or “Alexa, add ‘shopping’ to my calendar for Saturday at 10am” are examples of what can trigger this skill.
For more info on when and where you can get an Echo, head here.