Ahead of schedule the smart assistant Amazon Echo completed the trial period and has been available for sale on the marketplace for any German customer 2 weeks now. The Handelskraft editorial staff was quick to order one and test it for a few days. We were more than curious to “experiment” and “talk” with a virtual assistant and obviously many questions arose while waiting for the package to be delivered: How useful and spontaneous could Alexa be? Could she become part of the family? Could the conversation be fluent and natural?
It is not a surprise that still today humans only feel fascination for the possibility of communicating with machines and interacting with them proactively. However, initially the rise of voice search functionalities (OK Google) and more recently the emergence of virtual assistants such as Amazon Echo, Google Home or Siri might contribute to change this perception. However, how far are we until it comes to normality?
In our 2-part series about Alexa we are going to the very heart of these questions that we are pursuing.
How can we establish a first contact with Amazon Echo?
Between people, it is usual to give to your family or group of friends a little bit of information about your new friend with the objective of helping them to put that person in context before officially introducing him or her. Thus, proceeding with the initial greetings, we should say that Amazon Echo is available in two formats: the premium and large loudspeaker (Echo) and the little and compact one (Echo Dot).
The first thing you should do (here comes the first disappointment) is to plug it into a socket (yes, it is not wireless unfortunately!) and afterwards download the relevant free app in order to connect the integrated voice-controlled virtual assistant Alexa to the internet via W-LAN. Once the internet connection is established, Alexa welcomes you.
The communication process flows thanks to speech recognition capabilities which are responsible for enabling Alexa’s bot to identify the words we say, send them to a data centre, where it can search for the corresponding answer, and to send the answer finally back in less than one second.
After saying “Alexa”… what we can do?
In order to alert Alexa that we want to communicate with her, we should say the magic word “Alexa”, “Echo” or “Computer”, depending on the one you have selected. Immediately, a revolving blue LED light, that is located in the upper part of Amazon Echo, flashes. Then you can start asking questions about the following topics: music, sport updates, news, audio books, traffic, weather, calendar, lists, timer and alarm and smart home and, of course, shopping.
- Music: As Amazon Echo has the soul of a smart loudspeaker, one of its biggest strengths is to play music. You can ask Alexa to play songs from Metallica but also to regulate the volume by saying “volume to 4” or “stop”. Amazon Music and Spotify can only be used with premium accounts, by the way.
- Calendar: By linking your Google or Microsoft account calendar to Alexa, the smart assistant is able to inform you what tasks are scheduled for today or to add new tasks for the following days. If the information is not clear enough, Alexa asks you if it is am or pm, for example.
- Smart home: With Alexa you can control other smart appliances by linking them to the smart assistant. In this context, Amazon launched the new version of its Amazon Fire Stick that incorporates a voice control with an integrated microphone just a few days ago. Thanks to this, Alexa’s entire functions are also available on the TV.
How is the shopping experience?
Yes, the subscription economy is more present than ever. If you are not a Prime member yet, you are not allowed to order and purchase products from Amazon. However, Alexa offers you other possibilities such as to add the item to the shopping cart, to add it to the Alexa’s shopping list or to discover other alternatives within the app.
On the other hand, if the question is very broad, Amazon is going to give you the highest ranked prime article of the category. However, sometimes, the more you want to specify the more frustrating the process is. To this respect, one manager responsible for building Echo said recently: “we are working on also understanding emotions in the future“.
We are very curious to see how this last affirmation comes to reality. Do you imagine that after a stressful day at work, Alexa feels that you are grumpy and, consequently, decides to order a good bottle of wine to make you happier?
It is worth mentioning that you can also set up a 4-digit security code which has to be said prior to confirming the purchase, what can be helpful to avoid unwished orders.
How does Alexa protect our privacy?
Since virtual assistants are constantly listening what is going on through a microphone and remain vigilant to take action in case one of the activation words is named, Amazon Echo is seen as an intruder by many users. As a result, many consumers are reluctant to leave it switched on for long or behave as if a stranger is present.
“As a data protection commissioner, I am critical of smart voice-controlled assistants permanently “eavesdropping” on their environment via microphone”, Federal Data Protection Commissioner Andrea Voßhoff stated recently.
To this respect, Amazon assures that the information heard is only sent to the data centre once the activation word is named. Luckily, for the reluctant users, there is the option of disabling the microphone function through a button.
How communicative and self-learning is Alexa?
In our second part of the series next week we will share with you our opinion about Alexa’s communication and learning skills as well as our final judgement. Don’t miss it out!