http://www.itpro.co.uk/desktop-hardware/26577/google-home-vs-amazon-echo-vs-apple-homepod-smart-home-assistant-dials-911-to

Smart speaker interprets apparent threat for a voice command

The sci-fi vision of a connected home is quickly becoming a reality: both Amazon and Google have launched smart assistants, with an Apple offering based on Siri was announced at WWDC 2017.

These products are designed to act as standalone hubs for your digital life. Voice activation systems allow users to ask questions, perform tasks control their IoT appliances, without even having to touch their phones.

We look at how the three major smart assistant products compare to each other, based on the information we’ve currently got. We’ll be updating this article as and when we know more so please stay tuned…

Latest News

10/07/2017: A smart home device has intervened in an alleged violent assault, calling 911 in response to what it perceived to be a voice command.

New Mexico resident Eduardo Barros and his girlfriend were house sitting in a town 15 miles outside Albuquerque, with his girlfriend’s daughter also being present, according to ABC News.

The two adults got into an argument, which reportedly escalated to a physical fight. According to the report, Barros threatened brandished a gun, asking her: “Did you call the sheriffs?”

A smart speaker in the home apparently heard this threat and took it as a command to call 911, Bernalillo County Sheriff Department spokeswoman Felicia Romero said.

Law enforcement officers responded to the call and were able to rescue the woman and the child, who haven’t been named. A standoff between Barros, a crisis negotiation team and SWAT then ensued, but was ended without injury and the man was taken into custody.

In a statement, Bernalillo county sheriff Manuel Gonzalez said: “The unexpected use of this new technology to contact emergency services has possibly helped save a life. This amazing technology definitely helped save a mother and her child from a very violent situation.”

The brand of the smart speaker involved hasn’t been revealed.

The story is the latest relating to alleged crimes where a smart home device has been a crucial witness.

In Arkansas, prosecutors were earlier in the year locked in a battle with Amazon over an Amazon Echo belonging to an alleged murderer, as reported by CNN.

Benton County prosecuting attorney Nathan Smith believed the Echo may have picked up the sounds of the final moments of a man who was found dead in a hot tub. Amazon would have potentially been in possession of the audio files on its servers, but pushed back against the request on the grounds of privacy.

Things don’t always go as intended when it comes to alerting emergency services via a smart home device. Late last year, a video emerged of a man telling his Amazon Echo he needed urgent medical assistance.

Alexa, the AI that powers the Echo, helpfully added the item to his shopping list.

28/06/2017: Amazon Echo Show offers Drop In snoopingThe Amazon Echo Show could offer friends and family a little more than they bargained for, with the Drop In feature that allows people you know to watch what you’re doing as and when they like.

However, Amazon will give you a bit of warning, blurring you out for ten seconds before you must decide whether to ignore the call, disable the camera or accept – if you’re not doing anything too dodgy at the time.

Unsurprisingly, this has triggered privacy concerns, although you will have to turn it on from the settings menu of the touchscreen speaker-come-smart home device because it’s turned off by default.

You can also pre-approve those who are allowed to just ‘drop in’, so it could be wise to limit the people who can watch you while you’re showering, getting dressed or doing anything else private to those that know you best (and maybe not your mum, either).

“Drop In is an optional feature for Alexa customers to enable and use,” an Amazon spokesperson told CNBC. “If customers decide to enable it, they have the option to turn on Do Not Disturb on one, or all, of their devices, which will block calls and messages from coming in. Customers will know when they are in a Drop In call as they will first hear a ‘chime’ and the green light on their Echo device will rotate throughout the call”

The company added Drop In could be useful to use as an intercom in a household, for example, to check in on an elderly relative, or to monitor a child being babysat if the parents are out for the evening.

26/06/2017: Google beats Amazon in home assistant trivia

Google Home is better at trivia than Amazon’s Alexa, according to a competition between the two voice assistants run by marketing firm 360i.

The New York agency developed its own software to pit the two AI-backed helpers against each other in a battle of their wits, asking each 3,000 unique questions. Google Home ran away with the competition, getting the correct answer six times more frequently than Amazon’s Alexa, according to a report in AdWeek.

It’s unclear whether Alexa was tripped up by its requirement to install “skills” before some questions can be asked, or if Home simply does better with search queries thanks to Google’s rather extensive background in the subject.

The results may lead trivia hungry smart assistant shoppers to favour Home, but so far Amazon’s Echo leads the real battle: sales. Marketing research suggests 70% of smarGt assistant speakers will use Alexa in 2017, not Google Home or Apple HomePod.

The results may lead trivia hungry smart assistant shoppers to favour Home, but so far Amazon’s Echo leads the real battle: sales. Marketing research suggests 70% of smarGt assistant speakers will use Alexa in 2017, not Google Home or Apple HomePod.

08/06/2017: Get live UK general election results through Alexa

Britain goes to the polls today to choose a new government to navigate the challenges ahead. Rather than staying glued to Jeremy Vine’s graphic visualisations on election night, however, Amazon Echo owners can simply ask Alexa for an update.

Amazon’s voice assistant will be able to provide a rundown of current polling information, as well as a summary of opinion polls, news and information on the major political parties and their respective leaders.

6/06/2017: Google beats Amazon in home assistant trivia

Google Home is better at trivia than Amazon’s Alexa, according to a competition between the two voice assistants run by marketing firm 360i.

The New York agency developed its own software to pit the two AI-backed helpers against each other in a battle of their wits, asking each 3,000 unique questions. Google Home ran away with the competition, getting the correct answer six times more frequently than Amazon’s Alexa, according to a report in AdWeek.

It’s unclear whether Alexa was tripped up by its requirement to install “skills” before some questions can be asked, or if Home simply does better with search queries thanks to Google’s rather extensive background in the subject.

The results may lead trivia hungry smart assistant shoppers to favour Home, but so far Amazon’s Echo leads the real battle: sales. Marketing research suggests 70% of smarGt assistant speakers will use Alexa in 2017, not Google Home or Apple HomePod.

08/06/2017: Get live UK general election results through Alexa

Britain goes to the polls today to choose a new government to navigate the challenges ahead. Rather than staying glued to Jeremy Vine’s graphic visualisations on election night, however, Amazon Echo owners can simply ask Alexa for an update.

Amazon’s voice assistant will be able to provide a rundown of current polling information, as well as a summary of opinion polls, news and information on the major political parties and their respective leaders.

Users can also ask general questions about the election, such as who is eligible to vote and who can call a general election, as well as asking for the latest news and headlines surrounding the campaign.

When asked by the Independent if the information would come from Amazon internally or from third-party sources, the company said that the polling data “is part of Alexa’s knowledge graph”.

Once the ballots close, users will be able to receive live information on the results as they come in, including the results in specific regions, current seat totals for each party and the current overall winner.

Operating system

The Amazon Echo is powered by Alexa, an AI core built on AWS’ cloud infrastructure. It’s essentially a voice-operated digital assistant, but thanks to machine learning algorithms, it’s designed to get smarter the more you use it, adapting to your vocabulary, speech patterns, and usage habits.

Google Now has been part of the company’s ecosystem for a while now, but it’s now been upgraded to become the Google assistant. Like Google Now, it works across the whole Google portfolio, including Android, ChromeOS and the new Google Home. It’s designed to respond in a natural, conversational manner to voice queries, and is also powered by cloud-based AI technology.

iPhone 7 Siri iOS 9

Apple was the first major company to introduce a digital assistant into its devices, with the launch of Siri. iPhone users can interact with their apps through Siri, and as of recent software upgrades, can also use Siri voice commands to control their Apple TV. This is what underpins Apple’s HomePod, allowing users to ask questions, control music playback and interact with HomeKit devices.

At the moment, the Google Assistant is the most useful of the current crop, with a wide range of commands, tasks and integrations with various services. It also understands context, meaning you can string consecutive requests together. However, it loses points for its speech engine, which doesn’t sound quite as smooth and fluid as Alexa.

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Smart speaker interprets apparent threat for a voice command

Design

The Amazon Echo is designed primarily as a connected speaker, and that’s what it looks like – a smooth cylinder, with a speaker grille around the lower half. Accented by a snazzy ring of blue light around the top, the Echo looks sleek and professional and would be at home in either an office or a bedroom.

The company also offers the Echo Dot, a smaller and more affordable version, lacking the proper inbuilt speaker seen in the full-size Echo. This is similarly small and unobtrusive and looks like what you’d get if somebody pulled off the top two inches of the Echo.

Google Home, as the name would suggest, appears much more domestic in its appeal. It’s shorter and fatter, with a rounded base and a slanted top. The base is also available in different colours and materials, so you’ll be able to customise it depending on your interior decorating tastes.

Physically, Apple’s HomePod is the largest of the three products. It’s squat and cylindrical, with a fine mesh covering. In fact, it’s been described as ‘a Mac Pro with a sock on it’, and the two products are eerily similar in size and shape. It’s somewhat surprising, considering Apple’s design pedigree, that the HomePod is perhaps the least visually arresting of the three devices, and while it’s unlikely to look out of place in your boardroom or living room it’s not particularly inspiring either.

App integrations

As you’d expect from a connected speaker, the Echo has great integrations with various music services. Spotify, TuneIn, Pandora and iHeartRadio are all supported, as are both Amazon Music and Amazon Prime Music. It also works with Amazon’s shopping platform, allowing users to order products with voice commands or check on the status of an order.

However, Alexa also connects to a host of other third-party applications. The most frequently-cited ones are the ability to order a pizza via Dominos or call an Uber, but you can also use the Echo to check the weather, get the latest headlines, or check what time the big game starts.

Smart home technology is supported too, and the Echo can talk to Internet of Things appliances from the likes of Wemo, Samsung, Nest, Hue and others to perform tasks like turning off the TV or dimming the lights. It’s also got the advantage of being an open ecosystem, meaning any developer can create ‘skills’ for Alexa.

Google Home offers similar integrations, which is no surprise, as Google’s ecosystem is one of the strongest around. It features integrations with a range of smart home products and music streaming services like Spotify and Google Play Music, with support for Deezer, Soundcloud and Spotify’s free tier coming in a future update.

Its most interesting feature, however, is that it integrates directly with Google’s Chromecast devices. This means you can ask it to play videos from Netflix and YouTube on your TV, or have it show details about your calendar schedule on the big screen.

The main service that HomePod is built to connect with is Apple Music, and the company claims that Siri will act as a ‘musicologist’, intelligently helping you to discover new songs based on your listening habits. However, HomePod will also interact with every HomeKit-enabled device, as well as every app and service that features integrations with Siri.

In practice, all three products work in much the same way to each other. The only real differences are that the Echo connects to Amazon’s shopping services, HomePod connects to Apple Music and Google Home can control your TV. Aside from these elements, there’s not a great deal to differentiate the three.

Price and release date

Both the Amazon Echo and Google Home are currently available in the UK. The Echo retails for a total of £150 including VAT, while Google Home is slightly cheaper at £129. If you’re slightly more budget-conscious, you can also get the slightly less capable Echo Dot for the very reasonable sum of £50. Apple’s HomePod is, unsurprisingly, the most expensive of the three devices. Retailing in December for a US price of $349, it’s more than double the price of its two main competitors.

Smart speaker interprets apparent threat for a voice command

Previous news

05/06/2017: Apple has finally revealed its long awaited Siri-connected speaker at this year’s WWDC, a direct rival to the likes of the Amazon Echo and Google Home.

The cylindrical speaker, known as the ‘HomePod’, resembles the Mac Pro at 7in tall and promises to “reinvent music in the home”. From initial images it appears the HomePod will be available in white or dark grey.

Its biggest selling point comes from its ‘Spatial Awareness’ feature, technology that allows the device to automatically detect the space around it, adjusting the audio to best match its surroundings. Demoed live on stage at the San Jose event on Monday, the HomePod showed off some pretty impressive auto-adjustment that meant sound was directed into open spaces rather than against nearby walls.

Apple also states that two HomePods will work in tandem to help create richer sounds. Powered by an A8 chip, the device also boasts echo cancellation technology and real time acoustic and bass modelling.

It is also designed to work with Apple Music subscriptions, able to access your music library and make recommendations based on song history.

Yet Apple wants to directly compete against the likes of Amazon’s Echo and the Google Home, and has built its smart assistant Siri into the speaker. Through six microphones fitted around the edges of the device, users are able to not only control music through voice commands, but also use Siri to access services like news, weather, translation apps, and reminders. It is also compatible with Apple’s HomeKit, allowing users to control connected home devices with speech.

“HomePod packs powerful speaker technology, Siri intelligence and wireless access to the entire Apple Music library into a beautiful speaker that is less than 7 inches tall, can rock most any room with distortion free music and be a helpful assistant around your home,” said Philip Schiller, Apple’s senior VP of worldwide marketing.

HomePod will be initially available in the US, UK and Australia this December. It will be priced at $349 in the US, with local pricing announced later in the year.

05/06/2017: In Apple’s quest to make Siri as intelligent as Amazon’s Alexa, it’s set to announce support for even more apps including music offerings, meaning iOS users will be able to control a wider range of services with their voice.

If these rumours are correct, it would give Apple the opportunity to launch a smart speaker like Amazon Echo or Google Home that would bring together the Siri smart assistant features in a standalone device.

However, people in the know have told Reuters Apple won’t go in full charge trying to make everything voice-powered like Amazon, but will instead focus on perfecting a few new features that work well, test them, then roll out more.

At the moment, Siri only works with six types of app, including ride hailing and sharing services, messaging and calling, photo searches, payments, fitness and in-car entertainment and information services.

The company is expected to announced new categories Siri will support at its Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) this week.

Although Apple has not confirmed whether it’s going to launch a speaker, industry analysts think WWDC could be where the company will announce its Echo-style, Siri-powered speaker, which will be used to announce new music support for Siri. It’s likely any speaker unveiled by Apple will of course use Apple Music to stream tunes and users can request songs to start playing with the power of their voice.

 02/05/2017: Apple may be gearing up to release a Siri-enabled speaker to take on the Amazon Echo and Google Home, according to reports.

According to a Bloomberg report, the company is finally ready to unveil its long-awaited AI hub at its annual developer conference next week, alongside the latest versions of its mobile and desktop operating systems.

Anonymous sources told Bloomberg that the device will be deeply tied into Apple’s ecosystem, presumably via integrations with Apple’s other hardware devices, as well as apps and services like Apple Music, Apple HomeKit and Apple TV. It will also offer ‘virtual surround sound’ technology.

Sources state that while the device will be shown off at WWDC, it won’t actually ship to customers until later on in 2017. The manufacturing duties have apparently been handled by the same company that makes the iPhone 7’s AirPods, with the devices being tested by Apple employees in secret.

Apple will be looking to the new product to help shore up falling iPhone revenues. As the company’s hardware sales start to slow, services and subscriptions are making up a larger and larger proportion of the company’s income.

01/06/2017: Amazon has added support for iCloud calendars, meaning iPhone and iPad users can now use the company’s Echo smart speaker to check and add appointments to their calendars, which should show up on their Macs and other iOS devices.

To add iCloud support to Alexa, two-factor authentication should be enabled on an Apple ID. They also need to set up an App-specific password on the Apple ID website for Alexa to access the iCloud calendar.

Then users can link their iCloud account using the settings section of Amazon’s Alexa app on their mobile. Once done, users can tell Alexa to add a calendar entry or check appointments.

With iCloud coming on board. Amazon now supports five major calendar services: Apple iCloud Calendar accounts; G Suite accounts; Google/Gmail accounts; Office 365 commercial customers with Exchange Online mailboxes; and Outlook.com email accounts.

The feature is available on Alexa devices in the US, UK and Germany.

The update comes as rumours abound of Apple developing a Siri-based smart speaker. This will possibly be announced at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) in San Jose, California on Monday. This speaker would be integrated with Apple HomeKit, giving the Amazon Echo a run for its money.

24/05/2017: Ikea’s £15 smart bulbs will get voice control

Ikea has announced that its Trådfri smart light bulbs will soon be compatible with digital assistants, including Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant and Apple’s Siri.

The functionality will be added later this summer, the company said, allowing the £15 bulbs to be controlled via devices like the Amazon Echo or Google Home.

“With Ikea Home Smart, we are challenging everything that’s complicated and expensive with the online home,” said Bjorn Block, chief of Ikea’s smart home division. “By ensuring that our products work with others on the market, we take another step to meet people’s needs and make it easier to interact with the products for the smart home.”

The Swedish company’s smart bulbs are currently controlled via remote control or via an app, but giving them voice control functionality would greatly increase their usability within a smart home environment.

Smart lighting tech hasn’t yet reached the stage of mainstream appeal, but the affordability and user-friendliness of Ikea could go a long way towards encouraging more everyday consumers to adopt it.

This is not the first time Ikea has tried to make cutting-edge technology accessible for the general public; in 2015, the company also unveiled a line of furniture products with Qi-based wireless charging technology built in, allowing users to charge compatible devices simply by setting them down on a table or nightstand.

17/05/2017: After causing a stir among the Alexa developer community by announcing a ban on any ‘skill’ containing advertising, Amazon has said it will begin paying creators directly based on popularity.

The new incentive will reward developers who create Alexa game skills based on how often they are downloaded and used. The company explained that this first scheme will only include those skills classed as games, but it would eventually roll it out to other categories.

“We are exploring new ways to reward our developers,” stated the company, in an Alexa support page. “Starting May 2017, we are offering game-skill developers the opportunity to earn money based on customer usage.”

“We are starting by rewarding game skill developers because game skills are not only fun and delightful but also represent some of the most engaging experiences on Alexa for our customers,” it added.

There is no indication as to how much developers will be paid for their work, but it appears this amount will depend on the exact usage stats for a given month.

Amazon’s market leading position for connected speakers has allowed it to attract a thriving developer community, which has created over 10,000 skills for the assistant. However given Amazon’s recent clamp down on advertising through the platform, developers have become concerned about the lack of ways to make money from their skills. Amazon is now the first connected speaker company to adopt a scheme of this kind, as neither Microsoft nor Google pays developers directly.

This new initiative will go some way to appease its developer community, but forcing creators to compete against each other for top rewards could prove problematic, as we could see most of the cash being shared among only a small group of developers.

11/05/2017: Amazon, Google, there’s a new speaker on the block, the Harman Kardon Invoke.

Harman Kardon, a US-based company that designs and manufactures audio products for car makers and consumers, has teamed up with Microsoft to bring the new Cortana-based Invoke speaker to the market.

The speaker was showcased at Microsoft Build 2017 in a live demonstration that aimed to show how meetings can run seamlessly through Microsoft Teams and its connected devices. Cortana was used on a mobile, at home through the Invoke, and in a car; three separate devices, all sharing one common trait, Cortana.

Behind the scenes, Cortana synchronises all the information you share with it, which makes interaction with the AI assistant life-like. Satya Nadella, Chief Executive Officer at Microsoft stated that “the user-experience is getting distributed across devices, which no longer applies to mobile-first”, he continued to say the “experience itself will span across devices”, reinforcing Microsoft’s aim to have a more complete ecosystem than its rivals.

Microsoft’s investment into home appliances is somewhat of a late move. By the time its Cortana-based speaker launches globally, it could be overshadowed by Amazon and Google’s smart speaker, which are both already on the market and cheaper.

The speaker will be available in the US autumn 2017. Pricing information and UK availability have yet to be disclosed.

09/05/2017: Amazon unveiled the Echo Show today, a voice-controlled AI with a touchscreen.

The new gadget is for sale on the US Amazon website for $229.99 and comes in black and white. It’s now available for pre-orders and will officially release on 28 June 2017 in the US.

The Show includes Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant but is unique as it has a 7in screen where you can view videos, photos and even security cameras if you happen to have them installed.

It’s reportedly the first AI voice device to sport a touchscreen and Amazon has said the device will be able to use apps such as Spotify and Amazon Music, too. Amazon seems to be pushing the Show to act as more of a hub for smart devices too, with an emphasis on controlling your smart home and keeping in contact with the family.

For instance, Amazon has included hands-free video calls to family and friends who have an Echo too, or those who have the Alexa app. There is also a new feature called “Drop In’, which seems to be a fast video call, for example when you want to let your family know dinner is ready or check in with a relative.

There are Dual 2in Dolby speakers located on the bottom of the device and eight microphones on the Show, so the device can hear you from any direction, apparently even when music is playing. Interestingly, if you have more than one Echo Show, Echo, or Echo Dot, Alexa will respond from the Echo you’re closest to.

The home assistant measures 187mm x 187mm x 90mm, weighs 1170g, has a 5mp camera, supports Bluetooth so you can connect the device to your Bluetooth speakers, and has an Intel Atom x5-Z8350 processor.

08/05/2017: Images of Echo “Knight” leak online

The first look of Amazon’s Echo with a built-in touchscreen has been found on Amazon.com. AFTV News was behind the discovery of the device, which is codenamed ‘Knight’ and is expected to be released later this month.

It is expected to be Amazon’s flagship device in the Alexa lineup, sporting better speakers and a 7in touchscreen screen, AFTV reported.

The device is angled upwards slightly with the main speakers located under the screen. A small circle exists above the screen, which looks like a camera that may be able to make video and phone calls if Amazon adds calling to the Echo.

The release date is unknown but AFTV predicts it will be later this month. As it is a superior device to the current Echo it will be priced above £149.99 but probably below £249.99, the publication said.

The device comes in two colours, black and white, like the current Amazon Echo, according to a separate leak from Evan Blass.

03/04/2017: Amazon unveils the Echo Look

Amazon have unveiled the new Echo Look, a “hands-free camera and style assistant” aimed at users who want to check their appearance from all angles.

Amazon highlights how you can see yourself from every angle using this device, allowing you to take photos and short videos which you can then share. The device also has built-in LED lighting and depth-sensing camera allowing users to blur the background of their photos.

The company is also using machine learning algorithms to give users feedback on what they are wearing in a new service called Style Check. Users are able to submit two photos for a second opinion on which outfit looks best based on fit, colour, styling and current trends. These decisions are meant to get smarter over time based on a user’s feedback and input from Amazon’s fashion specialists.

Users will also be able to access all of Alexa’s normal functions, including reading the news and audiobooks, setting alarms, getting traffic reports and more.

Currently the device is only available to buy only if you have an invitation, which you can request on the Amazon website.

Smart speaker interprets apparent threat for a voice command

25/04/2017: Google Home integrates with Onkyo audio gear

Onkyo and Pioneer audio products will soon be able to be controlled by Google Home. The brands have unveiled a firmware update that will allow its stereo, home cinema and network speaker ranges to be controlled via Google Home as well as Chromecast.

To operate devices, a user can ask Google Home to find music to play from a music streaming service and play it through an Onkyo or Pioneer device. It also allows voice commands to control volume or song selection.

Built-in Chromecast also enables playback of single or multiple audio sources simultaneously through Chromecast-enabled speakers.

The products supporting Google Home are:

Onkyo: PR-RZ5100, TX-RZ3100, TX-RZ1100, TX-RZ810, TX-RZ710, TX-NR676E, TX-NR656, TX-NR575E, TX-NR555, TX-NR474, HT-S7800, TX-8270, TX-L20D, LS7200, LS5200, R-N855, NS-6170, NS-6130, and NCP-302.

Pioneer: SC-LX901, SC-LX801, SC-LX701, SC-LX501, VSX-1131, VSX-932, VSX-832, VSX-831, VSX-S520D, VSX-S520, SX-S30DAB, NC-50DAB, N-30AE, FS-W50, FS-W40, XC-HM86D, X-HM86D, X-HM76D, X-HM76, MRX-5, and MRX-3.

21/04/2017: New Amazon developer agreement blocks ads on Alexa skills

A new clause has quietly appeared in the Amazon Skills Developer agreement that largely bans the use of advertising through Alexa Skills on the Echo platform.

The agreement used to only state that apps would be rejected if they made use of adverts in Alexa home cards – additional content notifications, such as a taxi pickup, that appear on the companion app.

However the change, spotted by developers on Tuesday and first reported on Techcrunch, essentially bans advertising of any kind of the platform. The only exception is in the case of music, radio, and news briefing streams, where ads aren’t part of the core functionality of the skill.

The newly updated agreement adds a ‘third-party’ clause

The new terms will almost certainly make it more difficult for developers to make money from their Alexa skills, although to incentivise further development, Amazon could introduce its own monetised platform or a skills ‘store’. Any skills that appear on the platform containing advertising will be considered in breach of the agreement and be rejected.

Earlier this month, an ad campaign by Burger King involved using a Google Home voice command that would read the ingredients list for its Whopper from Wikipedia. Google eventually blocked the function, although not timely enough to stop the restaurant from gaining free publicity.

It is likely Amazon is trying to get ahead of potential PR disasters of this kind by preventing companies from exploiting the direct access to consumers this kind of technology brings.

28/02/2017: Alexa may soon be able to identify users based on voice

Amazon is reportedly working on adding a much-requested feature to its Alexa AI – the ability to distinguish between different voices.

An anonymous source told Time that the technology – which has been under development since at least 2015 – has now been completed, and just needs to be integrated into the Alexa platform. However, this could end up being delayed by regulatory or privacy concerns.

The feature would match the user’s voice to a stored sample, allowing it to identify members of the household via their unique ‘voice print’. A primary use for this would be to restrict the ability to make purchases to certain authorised users, but it could also be used for dynamically switching between user accounts for services like Spotify or Google Calendar.

16/12/2016: Amazon has announced that popular automation service If This Then That (IFTTT) is now available for UK Alexa users.

IFTTT allows you to build custom rules that let applications and services interact with each other to perform specific tasks.

For example, users can set a rule which posts a reminder to Slack every time a Google Calendar event is about to start, or that sends out a notification if Fitbit goals aren’t completed within a certain timeframe.

US Echo owners have had this functionality for over a year and many have used it to hack new functionality into the device, such as dictating emails and text messages, or posting entries from Alexa’s to do list to a OneNote account.

UK users can now take advantage of thousands of pre-existing recipes, or even build and customise their own. The IFTTT integration requires a free account, as well as activation of the Alexa skill.

15/12/2016: Google has introduced support for Netflix to its home assistant Google Home, which now allows users to control the streaming app without opening it on a computer.

Users can ask Google Home to play a particular series, pause, rewind, and resume videos. They can even ask Google Home to turn on captions and move to the next episode.

In order for this feature to work, users need to have the latest version of the Google Home app installed (currently 6.9), as well as a Chromecast plugged into their TV.

To check what version of the Home app you are currently using, open the Google app and tap on Menu > Settings > About > Version. If you have a version prior to 6.9, you need to wait until you receive an update for the app.

To set it up, access the Home app and go to Devices > Home > Settings > More > Videos and Photos. Then insert your Netflix details to link the app to your Netflix account.

Once this is done, you can start asking Google Home to put on your favourite series, for instance by saying “Okay Google, Watch House of Cards”.

Google Home also allows users to access their Google Photos accounts, and look at their pictures on a TV. Similarly to Netflix, to access this feature users need the latest version of the Google Home app and a plugged-in Chromecast. To get started, they need to link the Home app to their Google Photos account, following the same process described above for Netflix. More details on how to set this up can be found here.

Once Google Photos is linked to the Home app, users can access their photos by asking the home assistant “Okay Google, show me photos from 2016 on my TV”. They can ask the home assistant for photos of specific places or things, as well as photos taken on a particular date/period, or those contained within a particular album.

Since its launch, Google Home has also gained support for YouTube, Google Play Music, Spotify and Pandora.

09/12/2016: Microsoft Home Hub could compete with Amazon Echo

A new Windows 10 update could turn Microsoft into a competitor to Amazon Echo and Google Home speakers, according to reports.

Sources within Microsoft claim the company is working on software that can transform Windows 10 computers into a smart speaker, Windows Central has claimed.

Microsoft’s recent partnerships with hardware manufacturers might also suggest the company is preparing for this move.

Microsoft and Intel are collaborating on a project called “Evo”, aimed at developing technology that will allow Microsoft’s AI, Cortana, to support far-field speech commands and wake-on voice functionality.

Amazon’s Echo speaker already uses a voice assistant called Alexa, and Google Home uses an AI called the Google Assistant.

Twitter user Walking Cat posted some preview builds of a future Windows 10 update that include a feature called Home Hub, that could take Windows 10 multi-user features in a new direction.

lol, apparently HomeHub is a family oriented feature of Windows 10 PC, called “Family Desktop”, basically a shared account

Home Hub would enable a shared Family Account and Family Desktop, with its own calendar, music, pictures and other resources, if the preview is accurate.

Windows Central said Home Hub is software that has been in development for a long while. It also reported that Microsoft might be planning to differentiate Cortana from an individual user’s profile to a family profile, a feature said to be referred to as “FamTana” internally.

It added that the majority of new Home Hub features should be included in two updates called Redstone 3 (expected by late 2017) and Redstone 4 (by 2018).

01/12/2016: Amazon could be about to launch a more premium version of its Echo speaker, taking home AI to a whole new level.

Using Amazon’s AI Alexa technology, the speaker features a 7-inch touchscreen as well as a cylindrical speaker that will enable users to view information such as weather forecasts, calendar appointments and news.

The design of the speaker will also be tweaked, with a larger structure tilting upwards so the scree is always easy to view, whether the user is standing or sitting next to a counter where the speaker is placed.

The sound coming from the speaker has also been given a bit of a boost, although th source wouldn’t reveal the specifics of the technology integrated into the device.

It will run on an optimised version of FireOS and just like its predecessor, it will respond to verbal commands and questions in exactly the same way as the Amazon Echo speaker, which also uses Alexa.

Bloomberg claims it was told about the upgrade by people familiar with the matter, although would not reveal whether its sources work directly for Amazon or not. They asked to remain anonymous until the device launches.

24/11/2016: A Chinese firm has made a move onto the digital home assistant market with a device to rival Amazon Echo and Google Home.

The DingDong A3, from Chinese manufacturer LingLong, is a cylindrical speaker allowing users to ask questions about the weather or play music, much like the Amazon Echo. However unlike its western equivalent, the DingDong understands Mandarin, Cantonese and basic English, meaning around 95% of the Chinese population will be able to use the device.

The device will be competitively priced at the equivalent of $118, providing news, stock updates, and schedule management apps, and home lighting controls. The device is to be released onto a Chinese market considered to be worth $22.8 billion by 2018, according to a study by Juniper Research.

Three wake up commands have been confirmed: Xiaowei Xiaowei (a girl’s nickname), BaiLing BaiLing (skylark), and DingDongDingDong, which will surely be the most popular.

The device is the result of a $25 million joint venture between Beijing’s LingLong, China’s largest online retailer, JD.com, and voice recognition firm iFlytek. LingLong claimed that the DingDong was already in development before the Echo made it onto the market, although the Chinese firm was “influenced a lot” by Amazon’s digital assistant, according to Wired.

Right now the device can only provide one response per question, but there are plans to integrate AI much in the same way as it is in Amazon’s Alexa. To improve the skills of DingDong’s digital assistant, the company hopes to work alongside other smart speaker manufacturers, including a partnership with Amazon to bring the Echo to China.

14/11/16: Amazon Music Unlimited arrives in the UK

Amazon has launched its new music streaming service, Music Unlimited, in the UK as a competitor to rivals like Apple Music and Spotify.

It offers around 40 million songs and over 1,000 playlists on demand to subscribers in the UK, Germany and Austria, after also launching in the US last month.

Prime customers can use the service for £7.99 a month, while non-Prime members will pay the full price of £9.99. However, a second, cheaper tier, is also available. Tied to the Echo and Echo Dot, users can choose to pay a £3.99 monthly subscription, but they would have to upgrade to listen to music on more devices.

“We’ve been thrilled with customer reaction to the launch of Amazon Music Unlimited in the US last month and we’re excited to quickly bring the service to customers in the UK,” said Steve Boom, vice president of Amazon Music. “Starting today, Amazon Music Unlimited offers our UK customers playlists and stations curated by our music experts in the UK, featuring British and international artists.”

Although Amazon Echo users may already be using Spotify, Amazon claims its own music service offers far more integration with the Alexa voice assistant. In one example Amazon gave, voice commands like “Alexa, play the song that goes, ‘I was doing just fine before I met you'”, Alexa will play ‘Closer’ by The Chainsmokers.

Users can of course play specific genres of music, artists, music from certain time periods and tell Alexa to put on a random shuffle of songs. Amazon has not yet allowed other streaming services to “teach” these functions to Alexa, and will hope its more sophisticated user experience can draw customers to the service.

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