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Do you hear an Echo?

June 23, 2015

Max The Magnificent-June 23, 2015

A couple of months ago, I was looking for suggestions for a target for a teardown session at the forthcoming ESC Silicon Valley, which will take place July 20-22, 2015. EETimes community member Mark Rackin emailed me to say that he'd just returned from visiting with his son and daughter-in-law where he'd seen something called an Amazon Echo.

Mark further said that his young grandchildren loved playing with this, and that maybe we should consider performing our teardown on one of these little scamps (an Amazon Echo, not one of his grandchildren -- at least, that's the way I took it).

I immediately bounced over to the Amazon Echo Landing Site to learn more. This mat-black little beauty is approximately the same size and shape as a cylindrical Pringles Chips container -- it's 3¼" in diameter and stands 9" tall. Once you've plugged it in and set it up, it answers to the name Alexa.

Before we go any further, if you haven’t already seen an Amazon Echo and have no idea what it's all about, you might want to take a quick peek at this video over on YouTube.

As soon as I saw this video, I was sold. In the fullness of time, the price of the little scamp to the hoi polloi is going to be $199, but it's not available on general release yet. Currently, you can only lay your hands on one of these little beauties if you are an Amazon Prime member, and even then they say that it's "By Invitation Only" and you have to click a "Request Invitation" button.

Be warned, they are backlogged, so you may have to wait a while before your number comes up. It's worth it! When I first saw this, the price to Amazon Prime members -- assuming the folks at Amazon deigned to grant your invitation request -- was $99. It's now gone up to $149. It's still worth it!

At that time, I wasn't yet a member of Amazon Prime, which costs $99 a year. I was aware of some of the advantages, like access to free music (which I wasn't too bothered about) and free postage, but that wasn't really an issue because I would wait until I had sufficient items on my "Wish List" to get the shipping for free. So I wandered over to the office of my chum Paul, who I knew to be a Prime member, and asked him to request an Amazon Echo with the promise that I would pay him back when it arrived.

After mulling things over for a few days, however, I decided that it was time to become a Prime member myself, so I signed up, and then I requested an Amazon Echo on my own behalf. As I say, this was a couple of months ago. Wouldn’t you believe it -- they both arrived here at the office last Friday, so I took one home to play with and left the other here in the Pleasure Dome.

Setting the Echo up is easy-peasy. You place it where it's going to live -- on the small occasional table in our family room, in our case, as seen in the image below -- and plug it in. The ring at the top lights up blue, then transitions to orange, at which point Alexa introduces herself to you and instructs you to download the Echo App to your smartphone or tablet.

Following the app's instructions, it takes only a couple of minutes to integrate Alexa into your home's Wi-Fi network, after which you are ready to rock and roll.

So, what can you do with Alexa? To be honest, I'm still finding out. First of all, you can ask her to play music from Amazon Prime. You can also play music you've uploaded into your Amazon music library, but I haven’t worked out how to do that yet. Your selections at this point are somewhat limited, but if you set yourself up with a free account on iHeartRadio, you can say things like "Alexa, play Genesis on iHeartRadio," and she will go off and start playing something that may or may not be Genesis, but that is certainly of that ilk. Furthermore, you can then say "Alexa, what's this song?" And she will respond with the name of the track and the group and the album.

"Yes, I did say "she" -- it's hard not to anthropomorphize this device. I've actually noticed my wife saying "thank you Alexa" after receiving the answer to some question. And it's amazing how many questions spring to your lips when you have Alexa around. Suppose you are reading a book, for example, and you come across an unfamiliar word like formication. Until now, I would have been obliged to look this up in a dictionary or open a browser and track it down on the Internet, but "That's so 20th Century, my dear!" Now all I have to do is to say "Alexa, define formication," and then sit back and relax as the little darling caresses my auditory organs with the corresponding definition in her dulcet tones.

The sound from Alexa's speaker system is surprisingly good. Furthermore, she can detect the "Alexa" keyword from far across the room, even if she's playing music at the time, at which point she will fade the tune down and await your question or command (change volume, pause, resume, skip, stop, etc.).

When I called my dear old mom in England, I told her about Alexa. My mom starting posing questions, which I relayed to Alexa, and then I held the phone up to the speaker so my mom could hear the responses. A few minutes after our call, mom emailed me to say "I LOVE Alexa!" I may be taking a wild stab in the dark here, but I think I have a batting chance of guessing what mom will be asking for this coming Christmas.

As soon as I arrived at my office on Monday morning, I powered-up the second Echo. Unlike other systems I've played with in the past that have gone a bit "wobbly" when you try to use more than one, these little scamps seem to play nicely together. As an example, one very tasty feature is that you can use Alexa to maintain shopping and "to-do" lists. Until now, I've typically wandered around with a piece of paper and a pencil stuck in my pocket, noting things down as they popped into my mind. Now, I just say something like "Alexa, add coffee to my shopping list" and forget about it. Later, I can access and print the list from my iPad or my computer at work. The thing is that both Home Alexa and Office Alexa automatically subscribe to the same master shopping list, which certainly makes my life easier.

This is not to say that Alexa doesn’t make mistakes. For example, I just asked Office Alexa to add "squirrel brains" to my shopping list, but the silly sausage decided I really meant to say "square ruled grains" (like there's any chance I would put a square ruled grain in this temple that is my body).

It has to be said that, currently, Alexa is pretty simple-minded -- she responds to some things well, but she totally messes up on others. When she succeeds, she's a delight; when she fails, it can be extremely frustrating. Everyone who sees her falls in love with her; everyone who uses her ends up being vexed at some stage -- but still we come back for more.

Continue reading on Embedded's sister site, EE Times: "The amazin' amazon echo... echo... echo."

 

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