Last month, we took a look at Facebook Dark, raising some concerns (and perhaps alleviating a few) about what the service does and doesn’t do. This month, we’re focusing on Amazon Echo, which promises an at-home “smart assistant” that does almost everything but fetch us coffee.
Unlike voice-activated information services like Apple’s Siri that are part of a smartphone, Echo is a standalone cylindrical device that can pick up your voice commands from across a room. You can set it on a counter and then ask questions like, “What will the weather be like tomorrow?” or “Is gelato on my shopping list already?” The device will then either search the Web for an answer or find info that you’ve input. You can also stream music from services like iTunes, Pandora and Spotify.
Over time, the device adds functionality by learning your speech patterns, vocabulary and personal search preferences. Amazon promises that more services and features will be coming soon, and will be integrated into the device through automatic, cloud-based updates.
Praise and Potential
Reviews about Amazon Echo have been mixed. A recent Forbes article called it “far superior to any smart assistant product available today.” On technology news and review site ZDNet, the device scored a perfect 10 from the reviewer. But major technology site CNET only gave Echo three stars out of five, and the reviewer complained about speaker quality, lack of a battery-powered option and generally glitch-prone functionality.
Even in the negative reviews, however, there’s been acknowledgement of Echo’s potential. As the device becomes more refined, Echo could become an ideal connected-home system, allowing you to adjust the thermostat, lock the front door or turn on the TV as you lounge on the couch. And yes, it’s possible that with a smart coffee maker, Echo could even start your morning brew, just like a real personal assistant.
Consumer Privacy Concerns
Apart from Amazon Echo’s functionality, consumer privacy is likely a concern for many potential users. Amazon hasn’t responded to questions about privacy from users who wonder whether their conversations can be picked up by the device and retained — or worse, used by Amazon or third parties to sell you more products.
A Time article about Echo and similar devices notes that there’s “a certain creep factor,” especially since Echo stores your Web search preferences in the cloud. Although users can view and delete any of their audio recordings, some privacy experts worry about the potential uses of the data it collects, especially if Amazon gets hacked.
Because Echo has just been released, it’s worth keeping an eye on consumer privacy issues as the device gains a bigger foothold in the marketplace.
Image courtesy of Flickr user Scott Lewis.