Don’t you want to talk less and smile more? That’s Amazon’s vision for your home. According to the company who literally invented the smart home voice assistant, talking to them is just a temporary stage. Soon, they’ll “just know” what we want and do it for us, automatically.
To prove this theory, the consumer technology giant showed off a slew of new gadgets at its annual hardware event last week, including a security drone for your home, an Echo speaker that moves, and significant advances in the artificial intelligence capabilities of Alexa.
This vision of an “ambient home” as opposed to a command drive home outlined by Amazon’s Senior Vice President David Limp at the event, has been the roadmap for home automation for decades. The true smart home doesn’t just react to commands, it is predictive and proactive, determining what you need, when you need it.
Lights turning on when you arrive home, heating turning off when the house is empty, security drones activating when an intruder breaks in. Amazon says it’s ready for this domestic revolution, even if it may still be a few decades off.
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The first step is connectivity. The revamped Echo smart speaker line unveiled last week doesn’t just have a showy new spherical look and some pretty fabric covers, it comes packing a suite of radios to keep everything connected.
The fourth generation Echo and the new Echo Show 10 both include a Zigbee smart home hub, in addition to WiFi and Bluetooth Low Energy radios. And all the Echos act as bridges for Amazon Sidewalk – a low-bandwidth IOT (Internet of Things) network that stretches the connectivity of your home beyond the four walls to the “sidewalk” (pavement) and even to your neighbours’ garden, if they are so obliged.
This extended network, which will launch in the US later this year, is designed to support expanding the smart home out to the smart garden and the smart driveway and beyond to the smart neighbourhood. When it was first announced in 2019, Sidewalk was touted as the ideal connectivity solution for a dog tracker, the type of moving object that can be hard to pin down with spotty WiFi or intermittent mobile networks. Now it has a new use: your car.
Ring Car Alarm ($59.99), from the smart security company owned by Amazon, is a small device that plugs into your car’s OBD-II port and sends alerts to the Ring app on your phone if someone tries to mess with it while parked. It has a built-in alarm that can be triggered remotely and links with your Ring cameras for footage of the event. Ring also announced a dashboard camera, the Car Cam ($199.99) for on-the-go monitoring.
Back inside the home, Alexa is also getting smarter. The AI can now react to common household sounds such as a baby crying, a dog barking or a person snoring – and do helpful things including turn on the light in the nursery, play music to sooth the dog, or white noise to drown out the snores, without you having to say a word.
This and other new capabilities, such as a conversational mode where you don’t have to keep repeating “Alexa,” the ability to respond differently when a child talks to it, and a learning feature where it can figure out why it doesn’t understand you, are all thanks to Amazon’s new chip – the AZ1 Neural Edge processor.
This promises to super charge the AI’s ability to learn and make it faster and more natural. Thankfully, it also allows a lot of the calculations to be done locally – so your snores aren’t sent to the cloud.
Along with these changes, Alexa took one step closer toward becoming an actual robot, with the first ever Echo device that can move – albeit just side-to-side. The Echo Show 10 ($249.99, coming later this year) is the second generation of Amazon’s flagship smart display, and features a screen perched on a motorised speaker base that can rotate to track any human figures in its field of view.
The technology deploys computer vision with sound source location to adapt as you move around, helping keep a recipe in your view as you cook in the kitchen, or hold you in the frame during a video call (you can read more about the science of this on Amazon’s blog). It can also act a security camera, periodically panning the room for human shapes when you’re gone and alerting you if it spots one.
Amazon also showed off an actual robot. The Ring Always Home Cam ($250, coming in 2021) was perhaps the most dystopian offering from the event, and certainly raised a fair number of eyebrows, coming as it does from two companies with a history of privacy issues.
At roughly 13 centimetres high, the Always Home Cam is a drone with what looks like a Ring video doorbell attached to it. It rises up from its docking station and flies on pre-set paths at your request or if a security event is detected (such as a door sensor tripping while your Ring Alarm is set), streaming footage to your phone.
If the concept of having a flying camera in your home fills you with dread, you’re not alone, and Amazon’s attempts at justification (you sometimes just don’t have enough cameras in your home) fall on deaf ears when so much of the smart home is already designed to address many of the issues it claims to solves (“Did I leave the stove on, or the window open?”).
Ultimately, the ambient smart home won’t rely on voice or omnipresent cameras. Instead, less obtrusive technologies such as sensors, computer vision, and artificial intelligence (plus maybe a robot or two) will work together to respond to our needs without infringing on our privacy. But, as Limp said, the ambient home “is a long-term vision, and there’s still lots to be done to make that a reality”.