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    August 13, 2015

    Amazon Echo and Alexa: Is this the future?

    Disclaimer: This opinion piece does not necessarily represent the views of BandwidthBlog, its employees or its affiliates, but is from a third-party and is solely those of the author.

    By Keenan Jacobs

    The world is moving forward in technology by leaps and bounds. From a recent flyby of the dwarf planet Pluto (which took 9 years), to Google‘s self-driving car. The future, one may say, seems to be marvellous and scary all at the once. While some of you may have just heard about these marvels, the future is not far from your hands. We can now see it infiltrating our pockets, bags and home. We hold these marvels of technology in our hands hours upon hours, traveling the world with us, sharing our lives with people we may never meet“¦“but first, let‘s take a selfie“

    The biggest trend right now is a personal assistant software, aka Virtual Assistants. Yes, it seems that we‘ve replaced the assistant that ran after you, made your appointments, listened to your problems, made you coffee and confirmed your lunch meetings. Well, not quite as far as that, but don‘t blink. A phone what makes you coffee? Now that‘s something I‘d pay hard earned money for. If you have an iPhone, you‘d be well aware of one of these personal assistants, Siri (the personal assistant software running behind iPhones since 2010). Then there‘s Google Now, Android‘s answer to the hugely successful Siri. We can‘t forget the software giant, Microsoft, and their attempt at the personal assistant Cortana. A seamless system doing exactly what the rest can do, just powered by the world‘s biggest software company. Finally, I would like to introduce you to Amazon‘s answer to all of these: Alexa.

    Alexa is the personal assistant software behind Amazon‘s recently released Echo. The Amazon Echo was announced to the world in 2014, but was only available to customers on an invite only basis, until recently. It‘s a 9.25-inch tall cylinder speaker which boasts 7 microphones, WiFi 802.11a/b/g/n (not supporting peer-to-peer), Bluetooth, 2.5-inch woofer and companion App for mobile connectivity. The device is not portable but with dual-band and dual antenna WiFi, it enables it to be connected to devices at extended distances. The dual antenna offers a solution to the problem of Wi-Fi fading, dead spots, and drop-outs. There are 7 microphones situated on the top section of the device with far-field recognition.

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    Alexa recognizes voice commands when you use the trigger word, “œAlexa“. The far-field microphones do their job, in that wherever you are in the room, she will hear you. Amazon currently has an App that works in conjunction with the Echo, allowing you to connect to the device when you‘re not at home or for the times when you want something without having to open your mouth. The Bluetooth doesn‘t stop at mobile phones either, if you‘re able to afford a house full of Bluetooth lights (yes the gimmick exists), then she can turn the lights on and off for you. Currently only compatible with the Belkin WeMo, Philips Hue, and Wink connected devices.

    So could this be the future? Imagine, always being connected to an ecosystem that boasts movies, books, audible books, music, apps, fresh food and products. The only difference between Alexa and the rest of the personal assistant apps, and the most important one at that, is that Alexa can now order Kellogg’s Special K cereal just by asking her. She adds the product to your cart and then you will need to log in to complete your purchase. This ensures that it‘s safe and that you don‘t get to the till with your favourite packet of chips.

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    Amazon.com has recently released the AVS (Alexa Voice System) Developer Preview, which will allow you as a developer to intertwine your developing skills with Amazon‘s Echo. Coding on this device will allow you to connect to other Bluetooth devices such as the Nest Thermostat.One would need to be quite a coder to get this done, I‘m sure. It‘s a pity that this device is only available in the USA, which means that we can‘t really put it through its paces but keep a look out for reviews straight out of the US.

    This could be common place in the future. We‘ve seen personal assistants evolving as the years go by, from Siri‘s introduction in 2010 answering questions, to Google‘s Now being able to dictate you messages on the well-known WhatsApp messenger. Now we are introduced in 2014 by personal assistant software that allows us to order food and movies without leaving the comfort of your home. With the technology behind these devices, and the “œRecommendations for You“ section, these devices will learn more about us than we think we let on. As these devices get smarter, should you be worried? I for one, hope that this does exactly what it says it can. If the Echo were to come to South Africa, you‘d find me at the front of the queue saying “œshut up and take my money.“

    Follow Theunis on Twitter: @Theunis_BWB

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