Puneet Varma (Editor)

Amazon Echo

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Covid-19
Developer  Amazon.com
Operating system  Fire OS
Manufacturer  Amazon.com
Amazon Echo
Type  Smart voice-enabled wireless speaker
Release date  November 6, 2014 (2014-11-06) (Amazon Prime and invited members) June 23, 2015 (2015-06-23) (released in the U.S.) September 28, 2016 (2016-09-28) (released in the U.K.) October 26, 2016 (2016-10-26) (released in Germany)
Introductory price  US$179.99 GB£149.99 EUR€179,99

Amazon Echo (shortened and referred to as Echo) is a smart speaker developed by Amazon.com. The device consists of a 9.25 inch (23.5 cm) tall cylinder speaker with a seven-piece microphone array. The device connects to the voice-controlled intelligent personal assistant service Alexa, which responds to the name "Alexa". This "wake word" can be changed by the user to "Amazon", "Echo" or "Computer". The device is capable of voice interaction, music playback, making to-do lists, setting alarms, streaming podcasts, playing audiobooks, and providing weather, traffic and other real time information. It can also control several smart devices using itself as a home automation hub.

Contents

Amazon had been developing Echo inside its Lab126 offices in Silicon Valley and Cambridge, Massachusetts since at least 2010 in confirmed reports. The device was part of Amazon’s first attempts to expand its device portfolio beyond the Kindle e-reader. The Echo was prominently featured in Amazon's first-ever Super Bowl ad in 2016.

Echo was initially limited to Amazon Prime members or by invitation, but became widely available in the United States on June 23, 2015. Press speculated that it would make its Canadian debut in mid-to-late 2016, after Amazon posted job listings for developers for Alexa and co-hosted a hackathon in Toronto. The Echo became available in the United Kingdom on 28 September 2016. Additionally, the Alexa voice service is available to be added to other devices and other companies' devices and services are encouraged to connect to it.

Overview of operation

In the default mode the device continuously listens to all speech, monitoring for the wake word to be spoken, which is primarily set up as "Alexa" (derived from Alexa Internet, the Amazon owned Internet indexing company). The device also comes with a manually and voice-activated remote control which can be used in lieu of the 'wake word'. Echo's microphones can be manually disabled by pressing a mute button to turn off the audio processing circuit.

Echo requires a wireless internet connection in order to work. Echo's voice recognition capability is based on Amazon Web Services and the voice platform Amazon acquired from Yap, Evi, and IVONA (a Polish-based specialist in voice technologies used in the Kindle Fire).

Echo performs well with a 'good' (low latency) Internet connection which minimizes processing time due to minimal communication round trips, streamable responses and geo-distributed service endpoints. While the app is free, an Amazon account is required, and setup is not possible without one.

Available services

Echo offers weather from AccuWeather and news from a variety of sources, including local radio stations, NPR, and ESPN from TuneIn. Echo can play music from the owner's Amazon Music accounts and has built-in support for the Pandora and Spotify streaming music services and has support for IFTTT and Nest thermostats. Echo can also play music from streaming services such as Apple Music, and Google Play Music from a phone or tablet. Echo maintains voice-controlled alarms, timers, shopping and to-do lists and can access Wikipedia articles. Echo will respond to your questions about items in your Google calendar. It also integrates with Yonomi, Philips Hue, Belkin Wemo, SmartThings, Insteon, and Wink. Additionally, integration with the Echo is in the works for Countertop by Orange Chef, Sonos, Scout Alarm, Garageio, Toymail, MARA, and Mojio.

It does not appear to be capable of playing music streamed from a local UPnP/DLNA media server.

Echo also has access to skills built with the Alexa Skills Kit. These are 3rd-party developed voice experiences that add to the capabilities of any Alexa-enabled device (such as the Echo). Examples of skills include the ability to play music, answer general questions, set an alarm, order a pizza, get an Uber, and more. Skills are continuously being added to increase the capabilities available to the user. The Alexa Skills Kit is a collection of self-service APIs, tools, documentation and code samples that make it fast and easy for any developer to add skills to Alexa. Developers can also use the "Smart Home Skill API", a new addition to the Alexa Skills Kit, to easily teach Alexa how to control cloud-controlled lighting and thermostat devices. All of the code runs in the cloud – nothing is on any user device. A developer can follow tutorials to learn how to quickly build voice experiences for their new and existing applications.

Voice system

Echo's natural life like voices result from speech-unit technology. High speech accuracy is achieved through sophisticated natural language processing (NLP) algorithms built into the Echo's text-to-speech (TTS) engine.

Software updates

The Echo functionality periodically evolves as Amazon releases new software for it. Most new releases will fix bugs in addition to including enhanced functionality. New releases are pushed to the devices on a gradual basis so it may take several days to a week or more for a particular device to be updated. Because much of Echo's intelligence lies in the cloud, significant functional enhancements can be made to Echo without updating the software version it is running. For example, in April 2015, the Echo added the ability to give live sports scores without updating the software version, running on the device.

Hardware

The Echo hardware complement includes a Texas Instruments DM3725 ARM Cortex-A8 processor, 256MB of LPDDR1 RAM and 4GB of storage space.

Connectivity

Echo provides dual-band Wi-Fi 802.11a/b/g/n and Bluetooth Advanced Audio Distribution Profile (A2DP) support for audio streaming and Audio/Video Remote Control Profile (AVRCP) for voice control of connected mobile devices.

Input

Although the Echo is intended to be voice-controlled at the unit, a microphone-enabled remote control similar to the one bundled with the Fire TV is available for purchase. An action button on top of the unit is provided for user setup in a new location, and the mute button allows the microphones to be turned off. The top half-inch of the unit rotates to increase or decrease the speaker volume. The Echo must be plugged in to operate since it has no internal battery.

Amazon Echo Dot

In March 2016, Amazon unveiled the original Amazon Echo Dot, which is a hockey puck sized version of the Echo designed to be connected to external speakers due to size of the onboard speakers, or to be used in rooms such as the bedroom as an alternative to the full-sized Echo. The Amazon Echo Dot allows you to use all the same functions as the original Amazon Echo just in a smaller size.

The second generation of the Amazon Echo Dot was available on October 20, 2016. It is priced lower, has improved voice recognition, and is available in black and white. The new Echo Spatial Perception (ESP) technology allows several Echo and Dot units to work together so that only one device answers the request.

Amazon Tap

The Amazon Tap is a smaller portable version of the Echo with dual stereo speakers.

The Amazon Tap can do the same things as the Echo; however, it is battery powered so it is portable. Initially the user had to press an activation button on the front of the Tap to speak commands. However a February 2017 software update allows the option of activating the Tap with an activation word, just like the Echo and the Dot.

Privacy concerns

There are concerns about the access Echo has to private conversations in the home, or other non-verbal indications that can identify who is present in the home and who is not—based on audible cues such as footstep-cadence or radio/television programming. Amazon responds to these concerns by stating that Echo only streams recordings from the user's home when the 'wake word' activates the device, though the device is technically capable of streaming voice recordings at all times, and in fact will always be listening to detect if a user has uttered the word.

Echo uses past voice recordings the user has sent to the cloud service to improve response to future questions the user may pose. To address privacy concerns, the user can delete voice recordings that are currently associated with the user's account, but doing so may degrade the user's experience using voice search. To delete these recordings, the user can visit the Manage My Device page on Amazon.com or contact Amazon customer service.

Echo uses an address set in the Alexa companion app when it needs a location. Amazon and third-party apps and websites use location information to provide location-based services and store this information to provide voice services, the Maps app, Find Your Device, and to monitor the performance and accuracy of location services. For example, Echo voice services use the user's location to respond to the user's requests for nearby restaurants or stores. Similarly, Echo uses the user's location to process the user's mapping-related requests and improve the Maps experience. All information collected is subject to the Amazon.com Privacy Notice.

Amazon retains digital recordings of users' audio spoken after the "wake up word", and while the audio recordings are subject to demands by law enforcement, government agents, and other entities via subpoena, Amazon publishes some information about the warrants it receives, the subpoenas it receives, and some of the warrant-less demands it receives, allowing customers some indication as to the percentage of illegal demands for customer information it receives.

Echo as criminal evidence

Police have been investigating the death of Victor Collins, which occurred on November 22, 2016, in the home of James Andrew Bates, in Bentonville, Arkansas. Citing privacy concerns, Amazon refused to turn over Echo data to authorities.

Limitations

Purchasing merchandise in the categories of apparel, shoes, jewelry, and watches is not available. In addition, Amazon Fresh, Prime Pantry, Prime Now, or Add-On items are not supported by Alexa's ordering function. In addition, the shopping list function requires that no more than one item can be added at a time.

Echo has demonstrated hit-or-miss results when asked common questions that users would expect better answers to. Echo sometimes confuses certain homophones.

The current location of the device is set to Seattle (Amazon headquarters) by default and must be changed manually, but can only be set to a location within the United States, United Kingdom, or Germany. This is different from smartphone-based voice assistants that can get the actual location via built-in GPS locators. This restriction can lead to undesired or seemingly "wrong" results for questions that imply the location such as "What is the weather" (around here) or "Set an alarm for 10:00am" (local time here). There are several attempts to circumvent the United States only restriction, particularly by users in Europe and Australia. One such workaround is to set the Echo to a timezone that is exactly 12 hours difference from the local time. For example, if the current time in London is 11:30am, the user can set Echo to Hawaii Standard Time, which would be 11:30 pm. This would enable Echo to report the correct time. There are two undesirable effects with using this method. One is the incorrect AM/PM notation and the second is the incorrect date. Another more sophisticated workaround is by manipulating the data that is transmitted and received by Amazon's servers as described by user "stonewater" on the unofficial Amazon Echo forum. This method produces accurate and desirable results. However, it requires technological know-how with the aid of Request Maker for Chrome to accomplish the task.

Interaction and communication with Echo is currently only available in English and German.

References

Amazon Echo Wikipedia


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