Amazon’s Alexa Is Getting Chattier, and That’s Actually a Good Thing | Wirecutter

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Amazon’s Alexa Is Getting Chattier, and That’s Actually a Good Thing | Wirecutter

After Amazon announced that it was cutting 10,000 jobs due to a $10 billion loss on Alexa at the end of 2022, we worried that the technology heavyweight was having second thoughts about the smart home.

But the company’s announcement this week of massive upgrades to Alexa and a slate of new products prompted a galactic sigh of relief. Amazon has clearly recommitted itself to getting people comfortable with living in a smart home, and we’re optimistic about its vision for improving the experience very soon.

During a press event on Monday in Arlington, Virginia, Amazon announced a cornucopia of new devices, including items from Ring and Blink, a few new FireTV devices, and the Eero Max 7.

For those of us who love the smart home, the juiciest announcements involved an updated Echo Show 8 and especially a new wall-mounted display, the Echo Hub. The Echo Hub aims to simplify your smart home with easy-to-use controls that are accessible to anyone in your home—even guests and household members who may not enjoy dealing with smart speakers and apps. The clear, standout theme of the day was that an updated and upgraded Alexa, along with this new hardware, is the basis of Amazon’s plan for a far friendlier smart home. Here are the announcements we found most enticing.

Amazon talked a lot about Alexa’s AI-fueled upgrade, which includes allowing users to create Routines by voice and adding the next generation of generative artificial intelligence. Amazon says that it’s a pivotal change, and that it will result in far more fluid conversations and more capabilities. During the event, Dave Limp, senior vice president of Amazon Devices and Services, had a chat with Alexa, which answered with more natural, personalized responses than we’ve ever encountered from any voice assistant. The demonstration felt more like an actual conversation and less like a person yelling commands that a machine can sometimes frustratingly misunderstand. We’re looking forward to seeing how this works outside of a demo setting; a timeline for the improvements, however, was listed as merely “soon.”

While Amazon remains focused on Alexa’s marquee feature—voice control—the company also announced what we think is a wonderfully simplified way to interact with smart devices when you’re using a touchscreen device.

Later this year, the Alexa app will add Map View, an opt-in feature that allows you to use your phone’s camera to scan and create a digital floor plan that includes all connected devices as “pins.” This map makes it easy for you to see devices at a glance versus scrolling through lists or multiple apps. The way the Alexa app is currently set up, it’s trying to be everything for everyone—and as a result, the smart home seems more complicated than it should be. It’s easy to get lost and get frustrated. After all, no one wants to go through multiple button presses just to flip on the lights. The new map feature should make that task far easier, via one-touch access to what you want, where you want it. In addition, thanks to the map, you no longer have to try to recall the precise names of devices or groups—instead, you just pull up the map and tap the pin in the living room to turn on the lights, for example.

The demo reminded us a bit of the Roomba app (which makes sense, considering Amazon’s ongoing quest to purchase the robot vac company), but the map feature also seems poised to make the Alexa app far more useful and user-friendly.

As part of the effort to make Alexa and the smart home more accessible and easier to use, Amazon announced the Echo Hub, a $180 Alexa-enabled touchscreen display that you can wall-mount or place on a counter. A key element is that the 8-inch touchscreen houses a smart-home hub that supports most of the major wireless protocols, including Bluetooth, Matter, Sidewalk, Thread, and Zigbee. The device connects to your home network wirelessly or by Ethernet (via a Power over Ethernet adapter). According to Amazon, the Echo Hub will be compatible with more than 140,000 existing smart-home devices.

Once you have at least a few compatible devices up and running, you’ll be able to use the Echo Hub as a dashboard for one-touch access to connected devices such as lights, camera feeds, your security-system controls, and your smart-home Routines. It provides a way for the entire family to access and use smart-home devices, especially those household members who hate using voice commands or balk at confusing smartphone apps.

To make things even more accessible, the Echo Hub uses an infrared sensor to detect your proximity and then automatically adjusts the layout and design of the screen, transitioning from a decorative clock to a smart-home control interface. While some people may think that the addition of another sensor could be a cause for concern, this arrangement is no different than having a motion sensor to turn off your bathroom light. And thanks to this type of functionality, you don’t need to have smart-home widgets on the Echo Hub’s screen all day. Instead of a clock face, you can choose to have the Echo Hub display a photo stream from your collection, making it more like wall art than a wall wart.

For years, we’ve been talking about how smart-home devices can provide more independence for those with accessibility needs. Amazon has announced even more ways for people with limited vision, hearing, or mobility to get the most out of the smart home.

One of the most notable new accessibility features is what Amazon calls Eye Gaze, which uses a camera to track a person’s eye movements. Using specific movements, a person can trigger preset actions, without ever relying on voice or touch. To set everything up, a caregiver may assist the person in customizing the Alexa dashboards to have a menu of tiles, each of which represents a specific action, such as controlling the music, TV, or lights. This free feature will launch on FireMax 11 tablets later this year.

Another new feature, Call Translation, is exactly what it sounds like: a built-in service that instantly transcribes Alexa audio and video calls in real time. Designed for multilingual families, as well as those who are deaf or hard of hearing, this feature will be initially available for Echo Show and Alexa mobile app customers and at launch will be able to handle 10 languages. We know that a common complaint regarding Alexa is that it has difficulty hearing certain voices and speech patterns, so we’re hoping that this feature along with Alexa’s increased brainpower will be an improvement.

Amazon had previously tried to find a way into monitoring your home and loved ones in case of emergency via Alexa Guard and Alexa Together. Now the company is launching the more affordable—and seemingly more useful—Alexa Emergency Assist service.

For $6 per month (or $60 per year), users can call out to Alexa 24/7 for help, no phone necessary, and receive a live response from a dedicated agent, who will notify emergency services. The service can also send texts and push notifications to family, friends, and caregivers. It’s an interesting, more affordable alternative to Alexa Together and some of the other services we’ve seen. We’re especially curious to see if the company can somehow work the Eye Gaze feature in for nonverbal users. When the service launches next month, it will work with all generations of Alexa devices, and existing Guard Plus customers can sign up at a discounted rate of $5 per month or $50 per year.

This article was edited by Jon Chase.

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Amazon’s Alexa Is Getting Chattier, and That’s Actually a Good Thing | Wirecutter

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