Why everyone's talking to Amazon's virtual assistant Alexa
From dishwashers to robot vacuums, Amazon's voice-controlled Alexa is everywhere at this year's CES.
For a long time, talking to computers was an exercise in futility — a plaintive struggle to get voice recognition software to understand the difference between "Call Dad" and "Call dog."
But it seems those days are over. Apple, Google, Microsoft and others finally believe that voice interaction is good enough to play an important role in the home. Over the past year these companies have intensified efforts to include voice interaction into phones, TVs, and other devices — by way of intelligent, personal assistants like Apple's Siri, Google Home, and Microsoft's Cortana — and are now opening their platforms up to developers, too.
But it's Amazon, with the Echo speaker and virtual assistant Alexa, that has embraced third-party software and hardware developers the most so far, and in the process, created an ecosystem of products and services that provide the most cohesive glimpse yet at one possible future for connected homes.
Talk to your dishwasher
Amazon is taking a two-pronged approach: Working with companies that want to manufacture devices with Alexa's intelligence baked in, and those that want to build products and services that can be controlled and queried using Alexa.
At this year's CES — the big consumer electronics show held annually in Las Vegas — there's so far been a marked abundance of both approaches.
And then there are the products that you can't talk to directly, but can control using an Alexa-powered device. You can ask Alexa to tell Samsung's latest robot vacuum to start cleaning the house, or your Belkin light switch to dim the lights. Home appliance maker Whirlpool announced that select ovens, refrigerators, dishwashers and more can be controlled using voice, too, joining similar GE devices announced last year.
And the list goes on: A connected air purifier from Conway, a home security camera from Somfy, even new televisions from Seiki and Westinghouse that have microphones in their remotes for Alexa-powered search. There will undoubtedly be more.
All of the new products being shown at CES can be traced back to June 2015, when Amazon announced it was opening up its Alexa platform to developers — at least a year before its competitors.
It certainly hasn't hurt that Amazon has thrown money at developers, announcing an investment fund of up to $100 million in 2015 for companies with "ideas for how voice technology can improve everyday life."
Nevertheless, Amazon's competitors aren't standing still. Some products at this year's CES that are compatible with Alexa also work with Google Home, Siri, or both. Meanwhile, Hyundai is hoping to make a splash with a Google Home integration on certain models of its cars — meaning you can ask Google Home to start your car. Nissan, meanwhile, has hinted at integration with Microsoft's Cortana in its cars, though it's not yet clear what shape this feature will take. And many smart home devices — mostly light bulbs, home security, and environmental sensors — are boasting support for Apple's Siri as well.
The challenge, of course, will be justifying how these products can fit into people's lives — and whether voice interaction will make people's lives better. In other words, while we can talk to a dishwasher or a light bulb, will we grow to prefer voice activation over buttons, apps, or displays?
At a CES preview event, there was a smart shower head designed to track water consumption — and you could ask Alexa how much water you had used or saved.
"Just for convenience's sake," the spokesman said. But later, he added: "It's more of a test."