Technology & Science

Amazon Echo challenges Toronto's Ubi voice assistant

Both the Amazon Echo and Toronto's Ubi have been marketed as Siri-like home computer assistants. But there's one key difference for technophiles eager to own one of the hands-free devices — only the Ubi can be purchased by anyone right now.

Rival products Ubi and Echo compete for space in market for hands-free voice assistants

Amazon's Echo, left, a cylindrical device that acts as a voice-activated personal assistant, is competing against a Toronto tech startup that created the Ubi, which was backed in part by $229,594 in Kickstarter funding. ( Press, Leor Grebler/The Ubi)

In the burgeoning market for hands-free computer assistants, two voice-activated products jockey for dominance — one peddled by Amazon, the world's largest online retailer; the other sold by a Canadian startup with 10 employees.

Both the Amazon Echo and the Toronto-made Ubi have been marketed as Siri-like smart computers for the home. Both perform simple tasks such as setting reminders, researching, sending dictated emails and streaming music — all without the user having to touch any buttons.

But there's a key difference.

"If you want an Echo, you're still in line waiting for it," said Dave Brown, a Toronto investor with Maple Leaf Angels who has helped finance the Ubi project.

Since Amazon introduced its cylindrical Echo in an online video last November, many customers have been been eager to own one. People attempting to place an order, however, have received automated responses informing them that they will receive an "invitation to purchase in the coming weeks" only "if selected."

That's a big "if" for those pining for one of the voice-activated systems in their home.

Some technology reporters have reviewed the Echo, but it's not yet widely available.

'Validated' by Amazon rival

Meanwhile, Brown has an Ubi in his kitchen.

"I get up in the morning, ask what the weather's like outside, what's the traffic like," he said. "We still use it when we play Scrabble, when the hands are all greasy from pizza and we want to check spellings and it's not easy to check your handheld [devices]," he said.

Amazon built big buzz over its Echo concept, particularly among technophiles who have long dreamed of having a digital assistant that responds to vocal prompts, much like the AI computer on the bridge of Star Trek's Enterprise.

Even before tech analysts gushed about the promise behind the e-commerce giant's plans, however, UCIC, a small startup in Richmond Hill, Ont., was delivering digital concierges with similar capabilities to U.S. addresses.

The Toronto-area entrepreneurs called their digital butler the Ubi (short for "ubiquitous device"), and when they learned of the multinational-backed rival to their little black box, their reaction wasn't what one might expect.

"We worried a little at first. But actually, we felt validated," said Leor Grebler, UCIC's CEO, adding that the company's founders felt "flattered."

Team Ubi issued a news release on Nov. 7, the day after Amazon's announcement and titled it, "Amazon Echoes, Ubi Speaks."

$199 for Echo, $299 for Ubi

The Ubi began as a Kickstarter project for "an always-on, voice-activated computer ready to help" in 2012. By its Kickstarter deadline, it drummed up $229,594, or six times the original goal of $36,000.

The Wi-Fi-connected computer plugs into wall outlets and retails for $299 in Canada. Its services activate when its microphone picks up the phrase, "OK Ubi."

Similarly, Amazon's Echo, which also must be plugged into an outlet, uses a "wake word" system that recognizes the word "Alexa." It retails for US $199, though it's only $99 for Amazon Prime members.

The Ubi can be paired to smart-home services such as Samsung's SmartThings and Google's Nest, allowing users to do everything from adjust thermostat settings to switch on room lights by voice command.

So far, according to Grebler, UCIC has sold about 3,000 Ubis, mostly to American consumers.

It's not yet known when the Echo will be widely available for purchase. Amazon did not respond to requests asking about a possible release date in Canada.

In the mean time, Grebler said the company enjoys having the market share. About 200 devices have gone to Canadians' doorsteps since Boxing Day, with most orders coming from Ontario residents.

"People should know we're now proudly shipping to Canadians, and there are Canadian consumers who own Ubis now," Grebler said, adding that the company's website isn't the only place to purchase the device online.

"You can buy the Ubi on Amazon as well," he said.


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