Amazon’s Echo Show adds more accessibility features, including ‘Gestures’ and text-to-speech

Amazon today is introducing a small handful of new features for its digital assistant Alexa that aim to make the device more accessible. The company is launching two new ways to interact with Alexa without speaking including support for Gestures on Echo Show devices that will users to interact with the device by raising their hand — something that can also come in handy for anyone using Echo while cooking who want to quickly dismiss a timer without having to speak. In addition, Amazon is rolling out text-to-speech options and a way to turn on all closed captioning features at once across devices.

The new features are the latest to arrive in a push to make Alexa a more accessible tool, and follow the fall launch of a “Tap to Alexa” option for Fire tablets that allow users to interact with the voice assistant without speaking.

With Gestures, Amazon says users will be able to hold up their hand — palm facing the camera — to dismiss timers on the Echo Show 8 (2nd Gen.) or 10 (3rd Gen) devices. Beyond enabling nonverbal customers to use the device, Amazon also envisions a common scenario where users in the kitchen are cooking while listening to music and don’t want to have to scream over their tunes to be heard by Alexa or touch the screen with messy hands. The gesture could give them an easier way to interact with Alexa, in that case.

Gestures are not enabled by default — you’ll have to visit Settings, then Device Options to access the option. (Presumably, by calling it “Gestures” and not “Gesture,” Amazon has other plans in store for this feature down the road.)

To work, Gestures uses on-device processing to detect the presence of a raised hand during an active timer, Amazon said. Users will not have to enroll in other visual identification features like Visual ID, the Echo Show’s facial recognition system, to use it.

The company is also launching text-to-speech functionality to the new Tap To Alexa feature, which today provides customers with a dashboard of Alexa commands on the Echo’s screen which they can tap to launch. With text-to-speech, customers will now be able to type out phrases on an on-screen keyboard to have them spoken aloud by their Echo Show. These commands can also be saved as shortcut tiles and customized with their own icon and colors.

The feature aims to help customers with speech disabilities, or who are nonverbal or nonspeaking who can use text-to-speech to communicate with others in their home, for example by typing out “I’m hungry.”

Image Credits: Amazon

The third new addition is called Consolidated Captions, and allows customers to turn on Call CaptioningClosed Captioning, and Alexa Captions at once across all their supported Echo Show devices. This enables customers to turn on captions for things like Alexa calls and captions for Alexa’s responses, which helps those who deaf, hard of hearing, or who are using Alexa in loud or noisy environments, Amazon says.

This feature is enabled by tapping Settings, then Accessibility, and selecting “Captions.”

Image Credits: Amazon

The new features come at a time when Amazon is trying to determine how to proceed with Alexa, whose division at the company saw significant layoffs and, per an Insider report, is said to be on pace to lose Amazon around $10 billion this year as opportunities to monetize the platform, like voice apps known as Skills, have failed to gain traction with consumers. Alexa owners also tend to only use the device for basic tasks, like playing music, operating smart home devices, using timers and alarms, and getting weather information, among other things.

More recently, Amazon has been positioning its Echo Show devices as more of a family hub or alternative to the kitchen TV. Its wall-mounted Echo Show 15, for example, offers widgets for things like to-do lists and shopping lists and just rolled out Fire TV streaming.

Amazon says the new Echo Show features are rolling out now.

Amazon’s Echo Show adds more accessibility features, including ‘Gestures’ and text-to-speech by Sarah Perez originally published on TechCrunch

Amazon eyes devices group as it undertakes broad cost cutting

The Echo business has always looked like Amazon playing the long game from the outside. Above all, the company’s home consumer hardware is a convenient vessel for getting Alexa into millions of homes. But when a corporation is doing some serious belt tightening amid broader economic headwinds, no divisions are safe from cost cutting — certainly not one that is reportedly operating at a $5 billion a year revenue loss.

The Wall Street Journal this week noted that Amazon’s devices group could be the latest to get hit with cuts as the company braces for further macroeconomic disruption. The paper notes that “Amazon’s leadership is closely evaluating its Alexa business, according to some of the people,” citing internal documents.

Many of the cutbacks thus far have been focused on longer-tail products. Devices is a mature division for the company, however, encompassing a wide range of Echo home devices, Fire tablets and Kindles, among others.

Amazon offered TechCrunch a fairly boilerplate response to the report, while noting that the normal performance review is certainly being impacted by the overall financial climate.

“We remain excited about the future of our larger businesses, as well as newer initiatives like Prime Video, Alexa, Grocery, Kuiper, Zoox, and Healthcare,” the company writes. “Our senior leadership team regularly reviews our investment outlook and financial performance, including as part of our annual operating plan review, which occurs in the fall each year. As part of this year’s review, we’re of course taking into account the current macro-environment and considering opportunities to optimize costs.”

A second comment, meanwhile, highlights Alexa’s overall successes:

Alexa started as an idea on a whiteboard. In less than a decade, it’s turned into an AI service that millions of customers interact with billions of times each week in different languages and cultures around the world. Even in the last year, Alexa interactions have increased by more than 30%. We’re as optimistic about Alexa’s future today as we’ve ever been, and it remains an important business and area of investment for Amazon.

Andy Jassy has been tasked with cutting costs across the firm — not an enviable task in any economy. In his 2021 shareholder letter, the CEO took a trip down memory lane, beginning with the first Kindle in 2007, while highlighting the ups and down of the category, including a little insight into the life (and death) of Fire phone, noting, “The phone was unsuccessful, and though we determined we were probably too late to this party and directed these resources elsewhere, we hired some fantastic long-term builders and learned valuable lessons from this failure that have served us well in devices like Echo and FireTV.”

Jassy also highlighted the division’s evolving future, writing:

Our goal is for Alexa to be the world’s most helpful and resourceful personal assistant, who makes people’s lives meaningfully easier and better. We have a lot more inventing and iterating to go, but customers continue to indicate that we’re on the right path. We have several other devices at varying stages of evolution (e.g. Ring and Blink provide the leading digital home security solutions, Astro is a brand new home robot that we just launched in late 2021), but it’s safe to say that every one of our devices, whether you’re talking about Kindle, FireTV, Alexa/Echo, Ring, Blink, or Astro is an invention-in-process with a lot more coming that will keep improving customers’ lives.

Amazon eyes devices group as it undertakes broad cost cutting by Brian Heater originally published on TechCrunch

Dame Products expands sexual wellness product line following $7M raise

Sexual wellness company Dame Products is targeting audiences at a new price point after raising $7 million in new Series A funding.

The New York–based company launches the Dip vibrator on October 12, which it describes as “an unintimidating, inclusive entry point to pleasure for people who are in the early stages of their sexual wellness journey.” Dip is priced at $49, which is about $50 less than similar Dame products.

Dame was founded in 2014 by CEO Alexandra Fine, who initially wanted to be a sex therapist. She kicked off the company with $575,000 from an Indiegogo campaign and turned Dame into a profitable business that was bootstrapped until December 2020. That was when Fine raised $4 million to expand the team and product line.

Fine told TechCrunch that Dame is known for its products aimed at “innovating for sexual wellness through real people.” The company offers about 30 different items, from the traditional vibrators to gummies to serums.

“About 40% of our products are not vibrators, and we have been able to expand through some tried-and-true processes, tweaked for the product type; then we work with consumers to make something they think is good,” Fine added. “The new funding enables us to continue to expand our product line with Dip, especially our replenishables, do more product innovation and add to our content and community.”

Since the seed round, the company launched several new products, including gummies; settled with the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority to run ads on the subway; and went into Sephora and started its Clinical Board focused on sexual health. In addition to direct-to-consumer and Sephora, Dame is carried by other retailers like Bloomingdale’s, Nordstrom and Free People.

Meanwhile, Dame has doubled revenue, customers and employees each year for the past two years, Fine said. With the sexual wellness market expected to reach $125.1 billion by 2026, Fine wants to continue growing faster and stronger, so Dame closed on this new round of funding, a $7 million Series A, earlier this month.

The investment is led by Amboy Street Ventures with participation from Listen Ventures, Flybridge, Echo and Forest Road Company. Dame has now raised a total of $13 million.

Carli Sapir, founding partner of Amboy Street Ventures, told TechCrunch the firm’s thesis is sexual health and women’s health and invests in companies like Dame that are out to destigmatize both of those spaces. We’ve seen other companies doing this as well, including Cake and Emjoy.

“We are seeing the stigma, overall, shift away, especially as mainstream retail has opened its doors to Dame,” Sapir added. “There has been an explosion of startups coming into this space and growing, largely due to the hurdles that Dame has taken down for the rest of the industry.”

Next up, Fine is focused on investing in customer retention, educational content via Dame’s Clinical Board and furthering the company’s retail presence.

“It’s most important to be authentic, ourselves and do what feels good to us,” she said. “We are trying to not get so caught up with what everyone else is doing. We don’t shy away from believing that pleasure is healthy.”

Dame Products expands sexual wellness product line following $7M raise by Christine Hall originally published on TechCrunch

Alexa will soon be able to read stories as your dead grandma

At its annual re:Mars conference today in Las Vegas, Amazon’s Senior Vice President and Head Scientist for Alexa, Rohit Prasad, announced a spate of new and upcoming features for the company’s smart assistant. The most head turning of the bunch was a potential new feature that can synthesize short audio clips into longer speech.

In the scenario presented at the event, the voice of a deceased loved one (a grandmother, in this case), is used to read a grandson a bedtime story. Prasad notes that, using the new technology, the company is able to accomplish some very impressive audio output, using just one minute of speech.

“This required inventions where we had to learn to produce a high-quality voice with less than a minute of recording versus hours of recording the studio,” the executive notes. “The way we made it happen is by framing the problem as a voice conversion task and not a speech generation path. We are on questionably, living in the golden era of AI, where our dreams and science.”

Details are scant, at the moment. There’s no timeline or further specifics, but – at very least – this is the kind of news that will likely invite all manner of scrutiny over potential applications beyond something as banal or even heartwarming as reading a child The Wizard of Oz.

Amazon expands its Sidewalk IoT network with an enterprise-grade bridge

Back in 2019, Amazon first announced its Sidewalk network, a new low-bandwidth, long-distance wireless protocol and network for connecting smart devices — and keeping them online when your own WiFi network, for example, goes down, by piggybacking on your neighbor’s network. Since last year, Amazon has been turning its Echo devices into Sidewalk bridges and select Ring and Tile devices can now access the network. Now, Amazon is launching its first professional-grade Sidewalk device meant to cover large areas like a university campus or park.

The full name for the new device is a mouthful: the Amazon Sidewalk Bridge Pro by Ring. It could be installed inside but is mostly meant to be set up outside — and ideally on a high spot — and can cover hundreds of devices up to five miles away (depending on the local circumstances, of course).

To test the devices, Amazon partnered with Arizona State University, which will install these new Sidewalk bridges on light poles on its Tempe campus. The University Technology Office plans to use it as a proof-of-concept with plans to connect sunlight and temperature sensors, CO2 detectors and particle counters.

Image Credits: Amazon

Amazon is also partnering with Thingy, an IoT company that specializes in environmental monitoring, to install its air quality monitoring tools to alert first responders of potential wildfires.

“Amazon Sidewalk Bridge Pro brings us the power of [Long Range] in a massive number of needed locations, easy integration with our existing applications in AWS, and trusted security for the devices and applications. We are very excited to work with Amazon Sidewalk to measure air quality and wildfires with our sensors and help solve the connectivity challenges for these critical applications,” said Scott Waller, CEO and co-founder of Thingy.

But beyond the device itself, it’s the fact that Amazon continues to invest in the Sidewalk ecosystem that’s most important here.

“We’re building a network, we’re enabling actors to help the IoT industry,” Stefano Landi, the director of Amazon Sidewalk, told me. “At the end of the day, if we want to drive the proliferation of smart and connected devices everywhere, you need to have the right network. If you talk to IoT developers today, yes, there are many options, but either it’s very expensive, from a connectivity perspective vs. cellular, or the range is limited, or it’s draining the battery, or it’s just that the overall development cycle is too complex. So we felt that we should invest and that’s what we’ve done and we continue to invest in enabling these networks so that the IoT community can build any type of application: consumer, enterprise, public sector. ”

Landi noted that only a few months after launching the network, the company now has very strong residential coverage in more than 100 major U.S. metro areas. In part, of course, that’s because there are a lot of Echo devices in America’s homes and unless users opt out, most modern Echo smart speakers now have Sidewalk enabled by default. Not everybody is comfortable with that, though Amazon would argue that it designed its network to be privacy-first and that it won’t use a lot of bandwidth (it’s mostly for passing alerts, not your Ring camera’s video feed, after all). But it’s a fair guess that most users aren’t even aware of Sidewalk to begin with.

Covering a residential area is one thing, though. With the Sidewalk Bridge Pro, businesses can now also cover entire swaths of land to connect their sensors. There seems to be some demand for this, because Landi noted that “more than a few thousand companies” have already reached out to Amazon to ask about commercial use cases — mostly in connection with AWS IoT, the company’s cloud-based managed IoT service. A lot of this interest, Landis said, is coming from companies that want to build public sector solutions, mostly around smart city services.

“The Sidewalk Bridge Pro is a professional-grade bridge that is exactly tailored to be deployed outside of those [residential areas],” explained Landis. “So that now you have coverage pretty much everywhere. Think about commercial centers, parks, city parks, state parks, municipal parks, wildness areas, commercial area, and so on. Now you really bring that ubiquitous connectivity, so when you’re there, building a solution, you know that coverage is going to be pretty much anywhere that you need it.”

Landis noted that while he expects most users to install the bridge outdoors, it can also used indoors to cover a warehouse or a large store. And even though it’s explicitly called the ‘Pro,” we shouldn’t expect the company to launch a consumer-style “non-pro” version anytime soon. That’s what the Echo and Ring devices are for, after all.

Amazon to lower its cut of Alexa skill developer revenue starting in 2022

Amazon is joining other tech giants by lowering its cut of developer revenue generated by voice apps, known as Alexa skills, which run on Amazon’s smart speakers and other Alexa-powered devices. The company this week announced it would next year reduce its commission from 30% to 20% for Alexa skill developers who earn less than $1 million in revenue through things like Skill purchases (paid installs), in-skill purchases (the Alexa equivalent of in-app purchases) and skill subscriptions.

The changes will go into effect starting in the second quarter of 2022, and will be joined by an expansion of developer benefits designed to help third-party developers generate traffic and increase their skills’ visibility. Amazon says developers who generate less than $1 million in the previous calendar year, as well as new Alexa developers, will be eligible for the new program.

The update to Amazon’s commission structure for Alexa developer revenue follows similar moves made by other tech giants, including Apple, Google, and Microsoft.

Just over a year ago, Apple responded to the increased regulatory scrutiny of its App Store business by dropping its commission rate to 15% for small businesses developers with under $1 million in App Store revenues over the course of a year. Previously, those developers had to pay Apple’s standard 30% commission. Google soon followed suit with a similar program for Google Play which lowered its cut to 15%, with a slight differentiation as to how it calculated when the lowered commissions would apply. Both companies have since gone on to carve out further exceptions to their standard commission rates for select categories of apps, including news publishers and other subscription apps.

In addition, Microsoft this year updated its revenue share terms to more favorable rates, with an 85/15 revenue split for app developers using its payments platform and an 88/12 split for game developers.

Amazon’s Alexa platform, however, isn’t quite in the same category as these other, larger app ecosystems.

While the company had originally planned for a voice app catalog to rival any other app store, the reality is that few developers have been able to capitalize on Alexa’s sizable footprint in U.S. consumers’ homes to create profitable businesses.

In fact, Amazon has struggled over the years with skill discovery, as studies found that Alexa device owners largely used their smart speakers and screens for their built-in functions — like controlling smart home devices, playing music, making shopping lists, setting timers, listening to news and getting quick updates on things like the weather or sports scores, for example. Even voice-based shopping, which Amazon had hoped would take place through Alexa devices, never fully took off.

In other words, Amazon’s adjustment to its commission rates can’t be viewed in the same light as the changes to other app stores’ policies. While, to some extent, Amazon likely feels pressure to follow market trends, it clearly also hopes that lowered commissions could incentivize Alexa developers to build for its platform.

In the same announcement, Amazon also said it will roll out more benefits designed to increase developers’ potential revenue under the new program that begins next year. These additional perks could be worth “up to an additional 10 percent” of a developer’s potential revenue, Amazon noted. The benefits will include incentive programs, personalized feedback to help developers optimize their skills, help identifying monetization opportunities, and more.

Amazon has repeatedly tried direct payments for top skill developers over the years. It’s unclear for now if the new incentives will be different, or just more of the same. Amazon said it will share more details about the program closer to its launch next year.

The company over the past year, has tried to bring back interest in skill development, by introducing more opportunities to make Alexa skills profitable. It launched Paid Skills, where consumers pay upfront to access the add-on voice app, introduced Alexa Shopping Actions to allow developers to sell from within their skill (and earn affiliate income), expanded access to in-skill purchases to more international developers, and reduced the cost of hosting skills to nearly $0.



Amazon launches a $70 air quality monitor for Alexa

Amazon unloaded a whole slew of new smart home devices back in late September, but a smattering of products are still trickling out ahead of the holidays. Certainly a Smart Air Quality Monitor isn’t as exciting as, say, a giant Echo Show, home robot or even a thermostat, but the at least the inherent value in such a product it clear.

The device is designed to measure the air for particulate matter, including carbon monoxide, dust and volatile organic compounds – essentially chemicals in the air that could harm you. There’s also built in temperature and humidity detection. As the product page notes, the device doesn’t have a built-in microphone or speaker, meaning it relies on a connected Echo device or the Alexa app to send alerts when something is off. So, one fewer microphone in your house. That’s a plus.

The company says the device was the product of user feedback during a testing period, noting,

By making small adjustments like venting rooms more frequently, opening windows while cooking, and opting to turn on air purifiers and humidifiers, testers experienced a noticeable improvement in their overall air quality. With these small adjustments, they also told us they were able to breathe easier in their homes and sleep better throughout the night.

Along with alerts, it also gauges changes over time to the levels it monitors, so users can see how different activities impact these issues. The Smart Air Quality Monitor is up for pre-order today and starts shipping next month.

Apple debuts a $4.99 per month Apple Music Voice plan, designed mainly for HomePod or AirPods use

In 2019, Amazon introduced a more affordable way to stream Amazon Music in their home with the launch of a free, ad-supported music service that streamed over its Echo speakers. Today, Apple is catching up with its debut of a new, lower-cost version of its Apple Music subscription it calls the “Voice plan.” Unlike Amazon’s service, the Voice plan is not free. Instead, it’s a more affordable, $4.99 per month ad-free subscription that limits consumers to only being able to access the Apple Music via Siri voice commands.

Explained the company at its October event today, the new Voice plan will allow customers, in 17 countries to start, to use Siri to play songs, playlists, and all stations in Apple Music when the service launches later this fall. This will also include access to a series of new playlists based on moods and activities, as well as personalized mixes and genre stations. That means you’ll now be able to ask Siri to play you music for a dinner party or something that would help you to wind down at the end of the day, for example. Hundreds of new playlists will be available, said Apple.

Apple Music rivals, including Spotify, Amazon Music, and Pandora already offer such a feature — and have for years. So this is a matter of Apple playing catch up in the space with its own expanded set of editorially crafted mood and activity playlists. Currently, its editorial selections are more limited to its “Made for You” lineup which includes personalized playlists like your Favorites Mix, Chill Mix, New Music Mix and Get Up Mix.

While Apple says the new Voice plan can be used to access Apple Music across “all your Apple devices,” it’s clearly been designed with HomePod in mind — similar to Amazon’s free music streaming for Echo. If using a phone, tablet or computer, it wouldn’t necessarily make sense to speak to Siri to play music when you have a device with a screen. However, the service could possibly be interesting to those who primarily listen to Apple Music via their AirPods — and don’t mind speaking all their commands.

Apple says the service will also work via CarPlay, in addition to iPhone and other devices like iPad, Mac, Apple TV, and Apple Watch.

Subscribers will see a customized app interface that displays suggestions based on their music preferences and a queue of their recently played music through Siri. There will also be a section called “Just Ask Siri,” which teaches users how to optimize Siri for Apple Music.

The new plan joins the other Apple Music subscriptions, the Individual plan and Family plan, at $9.99 per month or $14.99 per month respectively. Like the Individual plan, the new Voice Plan is also limited to just 1 person per subscription, Apple said. It provides access to the full Apple Music catalog of over 90 million songs.

Image Credits: Apple

At launch, it will be available in Australia, Austria, Canada, China mainland, France, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Spain, Taiwan, the U.K. and the U.S. The company didn’t offer an exact launch date besides “later this fall.”

Apple said it will market the service to non-subscribers who ask for music through Siri. They’ll be able trial the service for 7 days for free, with no auto-renewal.

To complement the launch of the new service, Apple also announced new, third-gen AirPods and more colorful lineup of HomePod mini smart speakers.

Apple October Event 2021

Why Amazon built a home robot

iRobot’s CEO once told me, with a wink, that he didn’t become a truly successful roboticist until he became a vacuum salesman. It’s a good line, and one that betrays some fundamental truths about the industry. Robots are hard, and in a lot of ways home robots are doubly so.

That no one has managed to crack the code beyond the wild success of robotic vacuums like the Roomba is not for lack of trying. To date, it’s largely been the realm of startups like Anki and Jibo (or the rare exception of the Bosch-created Kuri), but today, Amazon announced that it’s throwing its own tremendous resources behind the problem.

Image Credits: Amazon

In fact, it’s doing more than that. The company just announced its first robot, Astro. The product is taking its first baby steps to market as part of Amazon’s Day One Edition program. Previously Amazon has used the platform in a manner akin to Kickstarter or Indiegogo, where customers effectively vote with their preorders. The new robot, which shares a name with the Jetsons dog, a track on the White Stripes debut and major league baseball team in Houston, will be available on a limited basis later this year. Astro is, far and away, the most ambitious device to be launched with the program, which has thus far included things like a receipt printer and smart Cuckoo clock. It’s also the most expensive, with a price tag of $999.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The robot serves three primary functions at launch:

  1. Home security
  2. Monitoring loved ones
  3. Offering a kind of mobile version of the in-home Alexa experience

The company begun work on the robot roughly four years ago, leveraging different Amazon departments to build a fully realized home robot.

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“We talked about AI, computer vision and processing power, and one of the topics that came up was robotics,” Amazon VP Charlie Tritschler tells TechCrunch. “How has robotics changed to make it maybe possible for consumers. We have a lot of experience using robotics in our fulfillment center, of course, but we thought about what could you do for the consumer in the home to make things more convenient or provide more peace of mind. That started us thinking about it, and by the end we were saying, ‘jeez, does anybody think we won’t have robotics in the home in five to 10 years?’ ”

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Amazon Robotics — which began in 2012 with the company’s acquisition of Kiva Systems — formed a sounding board for the consumer team’s ideas. But the company’s existing robotics are industrial and primarily focused on getting packages delivered in the least amount of time possible. Ultimately, Amazon said it had to build many of Astro’s components from scratch — including, most notably, the SLAM (simultaneous localization and mapping) system it uses to map and navigate the home.

That last bit struck me as particularly surprising, given not just how complex an undertaking it is (it’s something iRobot has effectively been iterating on for a decade), but also given some of the robotic technologies Amazon currently houses. Most notably, the company acquired Canvas, a fully autonomous warehouse cart startup, in 2019. But Amazon insists that the new SLAM system was built from the ground up, and while it considered making robotic startup acquisitions, it ultimately didn’t do so in order to build Astro. Other in-house technologies did factor in, however, including Ring’s security monitoring and various Alexa and home technologies, built into the robot, which features Amazon’s smart assistant.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

I had the opportunity to interact with Astro last week, and the robot’s got a bit of a dual personality, from that perspective. The robot’s primary personality is best described as something akin to R2-D2/BB8 or Wall-E. Its face, which is effectively a screen or a tablet, sports a pair of minimalist eyes — like a set of lowercase, bolded letter “o”s. They blink and dart around from time to time, but they’re nowhere near as expressive as what Anki hired a team of ex Pixar and Dreamworks animators to create with Cozmo.

This is augmented by the occasional bleeps and bloops, which bring to mind the aforementioned Star Wars droids. The robot can be summoned with a “hey Astro,” but when you need to converse more directly, that requires an “Alexa,” at which point, the familiar voice assistant takes over.

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Beyond offering some personality, Astro’s 10-inch touchscreen face also serves as a standard Echo Show display, so you can do things like watch a movie, teleconference and control your smart home. The screen moves on its own and can be manually tilted 60 degrees for a better look. The screen also supports Amazon’s new Visual ID facial recognition to personalize interactions with Astro.

There are a pair of speakers on-board, as well. Though the robot itself is surprisingly quiet (it’s no robotic vacuucm). In fact, Amazon tells me that they had to introduce sound a la an electric car, so you know when it’s cruising around the house. You do hear the occasional servo sound, however, when it pivots to turn by changing the directions of its wheels.

There’s a cargo bin on the rear (which has an optional cupholder) that can carry up to 4.4 pounds. Inside is a USB-C port so you can charge your phone. Astro itself has a Roomba-like dock and takes less than an hour to charge from zero to full.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Not surprisingly, there are a whole bunch of sensors on board. That includes proximity sensors built into its base and a pair of cameras, including a five-megapixel RGB built into the bezel of its face/screen. The other is decidedly more surprising, popping out the top of its head. This 12-megapixel RGB/IR camera sticks up for livestreaming purposes. Its retractable base can extend as tall as four feet, to serve as a kind of periscope for the robot to get a better look.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Having spent around an hour with the robot and its creators, I have to say I’m pretty impressed with what the team has built here. Of course, the question of how many people are interested in owning the thing is a different one entirely. The company says it has tested Astro in “thousands” of homes to work out some of the kinks — like getting stuck in the occasional corner. The Day One program is less a public beta than a method for gauging customer interest in the product.

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“I think this is the first of the robot series that we’re doing. This is an invite-only program — we want to make sure that people that get Astro can have a great experience with it, given the challenge of homes and different spaces,” says Tritschler. “As we think long term, as we think of consumer robotics, of course we want to have all different kinds of price ranges and capabilities, and have a more directed mainstream product as part of that. But we think Astro is a good place to start to reaffirm all of the work we’ve done to create value from day one and ensure that what we’ve done actually makes sense for the consumer. We’re going to be interested in getting that feedback when we start shipping the product later in the year.”

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Amazon Fall 2021 Hardware Event

Alexa’s new features will let users personalize the A.I. to their own needs

Amazon is preparing to roll out a trio of new features that will allow consumers to further personalize their Alexa experience by helping train the Alexa A.I. using simple tools. In a few months’ time, consumers will be able to teach Alexa to do things like identifying specific sounds in their household, such as a ringing doorbell or instant pot’s chime, for example. Or, for Ring users, the A.I. could notice when something has visually changed — like when a door that’s meant to be closed is now standing open. Plus, consumers will be able to more explicitly direct Alexa to adjust to their personal preferences around things like favorite sports teams, preferred weather app, or food preferences.

The features were introduced today at Amazon’s fall event, where the company is announcing its latest Echo devices and other new hardware.

The new sound identifying feature builds on something Alexa already offers, called Alexa Guard. This feature can identify certain sounds — like glass breaking or a fire or carbon monoxide alarm — which can be helpful for people who are away from home or for those who are hard of hearing or Deaf, as it helps them to know there is a potential emergency taking place. With an upgraded subscription, consumers can even play the sound of a barking dog when a smart camera detects motion outside.

Now, Amazon is thinking of how Alexa’s sound detection capability could be used for things that aren’t necessarily emergencies.

Image Credits: Amazon

With a new feature, consumers will be able to train Alexa to hear a certain type of sound that matters to them. This could be a crock pot’s beeping, the oven timer, a refrigerator that beeps when left open, a garage door opening, a doorbell’s ring, the sound of water running, or anything else that makes a noise that’s easy to identify because it generally sounds the same from time to time.

By providing Alexa with 6 to 10 samples, Alexa will “learn” what this noise is — a big reduction from the thousands of samples Amazon has used in the past to train Alexa about other sounds. Customers will be able teach Alexa a new custom sound directly from their Echo device or through the Alexa mobile app, Amazon says.

However, the enrollment and training process will take place in the cloud. But detection of the sound going forward will happen on the device itself, and Amazon will not send the audio to cloud after enrollment.

Once trained, users can then choose to kick off their own notifications or routines whenever Alexa hears that noise. Again, this could help from an accessibility standpoint or with elder care, as Alexa could display a doorbell notification on their Fire TV, for instance. But it could also just serve as another way to start everyday routines — like when the garage door sounds, Alexa could trigger a personalized “I’m Home” routine that turns on the lights and starts your favorite music.

Amazon says Custom Sound Event Detection will be available next year.

Along similar lines, consumers will also be able to train the A.I. in their Ring cameras to identify a region of interest in the camera feed, then determine if that area has changed. This change has to be fairly binary for now — like a shed door that’s either open or closed. It may not be able to handle something more specific where there is a lot of variation.

This functionality, called “Custom Event Alerts,” will start rolling out to Ring Spotlight Cam Battery customers in the coming months.

Finally, another Alexa feature will allow the smart assistant to learn a user’s preferences related to food, sports, or skill providers. (Skills are the third-party voice apps that run on Alexa devices.) Consumers will be able to say something like, “Alexa, learn my preferences,” to start teaching Alexa. But the learning can be done in subtler ways, too. For instance, if you ask Alexa for nearby restaurants, you could then say something like, “Alexa, some of us are vegetarian” to have steakhouses removed from the suggestions.

Meanwhile, after Alexa learns about your favorite sports teams, the A.I. will include more highlights from the teams you’ve indicated you care about when you ask for sports highlights.

And after you tell Alexa which third-party skill you’d like to use, the A.I. assistant will default to using that skill in the future instead of its own native responses.

For now, though, only third-party weather skills are supported. But Amazon wants to expand this to more skills over time. This could help to address skills’ lower usage, as people can’t remember which skills they want to launch. It would allow for a more “set it and forget it” type of customization, where you find a good skill, set it as your default, then just speak using natural language (e.g. “What’s the weather?”) without having to remember the skill by name going forward.

Amazon says that this preference data is only associated with the customer’s anonymized customer ID, and it can be adjusted. For example, if a vegetarian goes back to meat, they could say “Alexa, I’m not a vegetarian” the next time Alexa returns their restaurant suggestions. The data is not being used to customize shopping suggestions, the company said.

This preference teaching will be available before the end of the year.

Amazon says these features represent further steps towards its goal of bringing what it calls “ambient intelligence” to more people.

Ambient A.I., noted Rohit Prasad, SVP and head scientist for Alexa, “can learn about you and adapt to your needs, instead of you having to conform to it.”

“Alexa, to me, is not just a spoken language service. Instead, it is an ambient intelligence service that is available on many devices around you to understand the state of the environment, and even acts proactively on your behalf,” he said.

Amazon Fall 2021 Hardware Event