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Paul Gilster: New products extend reach of Amazon’s voice recognition system

The introduction of a new line of products built around the Amazon Echo – or more precisely, its Alexa voice recognition system – is evidence that Amazon is in the thick of things as we move toward ever more connected homes. Amazon now speaks of unprecedented demand for the Echo, which is a cylinder, usually compared to a Pringles potato chip can, that boasts an always-on microphone and the ability to take voice commands from anywhere in the room.

Walk around your living room, in other words, and ask Alexa for a given song from your playlist, or find out the weather forecast, or track yet another presidential debate, all using only your voice. When the Echo turned up in a Super Bowl ad, I figured Amazon would be doubling down on its investment in voice in the home. Now we get not one but two new product introductions, one of them, the Amazon Tap, a shorter and more mobile version of the parent device.

Place to flourish

Shipping begins at the end of March for this $130 product, which runs off a rechargeable battery, as opposed to the Echo’s connection to an electrical socket. You can think of the Tap as the latest in a long line of wireless speakers, and yes, it can play music from your phone through its speaker. But the point is to spread voice recognition technology into new areas, and while people do need to push a speaker button to activate Alexa on the Tap, the fact that Alexa’s voice recognition is available on a portable device gives the product its appeal.

If you’re thinking this is just another way for Amazon to lock you into buying more stuff, you wouldn’t be wrong, but you’d only be seeing part of the picture. The move toward spreading voice recognition parallels the rapid growth of Apple and Google in making intelligent assistants like Siri and Google Now a seamless part of our lives. Most people don’t use voice recognition extensively – not yet – but Amazon sees the home as the place we’ll get accustomed to its convenience, and products like the Amazon Tap help extend the paradigm wherever we go.

Besides, Amazon’s Fire Phone was a flaming disaster. It needs the Echo to give its voice recognition technology a place to flourish. Instead of your pocket, it’s in your home.

Extending its reach

Also new is the Echo Dot, a small device in the shape of a can of tuna that, like the Tap, can draw on Alexa to give you the latest scores or put out an order for a pizza. The Dot fits into the big picture this way: It’s Amazon’s extension of Alexa throughout the house, bringing it into rooms beyond the living room (where presumably the Echo is) at a cost of $99 per unit. With only a small speaker, the Dot will need to be connected to an external speaker for music playback – either Bluetooth or a wired connection will do – but like the parent product, the Dot can listen for your commands and act on them without any buttons being pushed.

So if you want to use your voice to connect to services from online radio to spoken encyclopedias (very handy for quick lookups of word definitions or facts on the fly), the Echo is being transformed into not one but a range of products. What we move toward now is extending its reach. Thus the announcement that the Echo can now control the Ecobee 3 connected thermostat, a product designed to work directly with Alexa, and one that is also compatible with Apple’s HomeKit, which lets you use Siri on your iPhone to control temperatures.

Coming soon is compatibility with Honeywell and Nest, the latter a smart thermostat company owned by Alphabet, the parent of Google. What a scramble we’re seeing as the big players work to insinuate their brand of voice recognition into our lives, first through our smartphones and now into our homes. Having electronic gadgets listening to our every move may seem creepy at first, but the sheer convenience will play into paradigms for future home design.

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at gilster@mindspring.com.

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