The Amazon Echo – Oh Mama!

The Amazon Echo – Oh Mama!

It’s been a while since I’ve posted about a gadget and that’s because its been a while since I’ve been really excited about something. But that has changed in the last 12 hours….

Back before Christmas, my beautiful wife asked me the dreaded question – “what do you want for christmas?”. That question normally fills me with dread – because I never know what I want or what won’t be obsolete within 2.5 seconds!! I started thinking about asking for socks (yes everybody loves socks) but then I suddenly realized I had an out! I had a gadget which I was not planning on buying myself but would fit in brilliantly as a Christmas gift! The Amazon Echo. I had found myself intrigued by it in the months prior but scorned at the $189 price tag as too high for a trivial gadget…. oh how wrong I was!

Fast forward to present day and my Echo was delivered this morning. I knew when I ordered it that it wouldn’t be here until late Jan early Feb but that didn’t bother me.

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The Amazon Echo Setup
Unwrapping the Echo
Unwrapping the Echo

I’d deliberately not done a ton of research about the Echo as I knew I would enjoy exploring it more when it arrived. That lasted until about 2 days ago when I realized that you could develop your own functionality for the echo (something Amazon call “Skills”). Since then I’ve been researching and in fact have started development on a way to integrate it with SAP’s S/4HANA system as part of a boardroom of the future – but that will be another blog later in this weekend I think!

NLP

So back to the device. I can honestly say that I am fall-over impressed with the quality of the NLP or natural language processing. There have been maybe 3 times during the day where it has failed to understand me and during all of those times I would forgive it as there was either background noise or I was phrasing things in a questionable way (don’t forget, I am from Cork, Ireland after all!). During all of my tests it understood and responded excellently from asking it to play podcasts right through to detailed forecast information. The 7 microphones in this thing are astounding and even pick me up while it is playing music and I am on the other side of a noisy kitchen.

Audio Books

As a consultant I spend at least 5-9 hours on a plane each week so one of my must-have site subscriptions is of course Audible – the audio book website. The Echo, being an Amazon product, integrates incredibly well with Audible, picking up where I left off and switching seamlessly between my Audible app and my Echo. The beauty now is that my office is another space where I can continue to enjoy my books in an easy way!

TuneIn

The Echo has integration with the popular radio app TuneIn so that I can listen to live radio stations and podcasts from around the world. This is awesome for keeping up with Irish news for me and catching up with my favorite podcast Security Now on the TWIT network. My only gripe with this integration is that I’m a TuneIn pro user and have a lot of favorites built up over the years – it would be nice to be able to link that account with my Echo but it’s not the end of the world!

General Functionality

The Echo, like it’s competitors Cortana, Google Now and Siri, attempts to answer most questions from the web and it does a pretty good job. I tried questions like:

  • What’s the population of the US – “The population of the US is about 322 million”
  • What time does my local Whole Foods close – “Your local Whole Foods at __ closes in 19 minutes but will be open tomorrow from 10am”
  • What do you think of Siri – “I think Siri’s Great”
  • Be honest about Siri – “Siri’s a great app but I’m different”
  • How are you different to Siri? – “I’m more of a home body”

They are just some of the questions I tried. What I marveled at was that the device understood what I was asking with nearly 95% accuracy. I’ve played with Google Now and Siri over the years and neither has the quality of recognition that this device has.

It also has other functionality that I won’t cover here in detail such as controlling home automation like light bulbs and more. It also integrates with Amazon’s music service so you can easily ask it to play an artist or playlist. One of the coolest features is the light on the top of the device. Now, hear me out!!! When you say the magic word “Alexa” to activate the device the light at the top glows blue, BUT there is a dark blue spot in the ring that moves around and pin-points where in the room you are! Such a trivial feature but looks so cool!

Alexa's Directional light ring
Alexa follows your voice around the room with directional lights

You can extend it

As I mentioned earlier, Amazon now provide developers the ability to create extensions for the Echo called “Skills”. I created one in Node.js in about 20 mins which I plan to extend into a corporate scenario. My experience is that it is incredibly easy to extend even from scratch (which is what I’ve done) and that creates endless possibilities for what you can do with the device. More on this in a future blog!

What could Improve

This is after all a 1st generation device so naturally it could do with some enhancements. So here is my wish-list:

  • The device has Bluetooth and I can stream music from my phone but it would be awesome to be able to use it as a speakerphone for calls
  • Spotify integration (not going to happen with Amazon music being a huge competitor – but this may make me use A.M. – at home at least)
  • If you decided you wanted a few of these devices they currently don’t co-operate. So for example I could see me having one in my office and my wife having one in hers – it would be nice if they could talk and share music/content.
  • Building on the previous point, if this became something I liked and used I would like to extend it with mini-Echos throughout the house.

So there you have it, my view after spending about 12 hours with my Amazon Echo. Obviously I’m sure after a month or two I’ll have a more critical eye on the device but for now I like it and can’t see myself returning it.

Thank you Amazon and I look forward to seeing generation 2!

 

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