Voice controls are the wave of the future. Siri, Cortana, and Google Now have been duking it out for years, but now other players are getting into the game. Amazon is the latest company to throw its hat into the ring with Alexa, the assistant that powers the company’s voice controlled home hub and speaker, the Echo. Alexa may not be available on phones or any other devices yet, but she soon will be — Amazon just opened up an SDK to developers, so they can incorporate Alexa’s powers into their connected devices and apps.
Amazon’s Alexa Skills Kit (ASK) contains “self-service” APIs to help developers create new ways of using voice controls in their products. With Alexa, Amazon aims to spin a far-reaching web and link all connected devices with your voice. In this voice-controlled future that Amazon envisions, Wi-Fi enabled alarm clocks will tell you the day’s forecast, your schedule, and how bad the traffic is at your command. Your car will read your audiobook to you as you drive and remind you to pick up milk on the way home. You’ll talk to your TV, sprinkler, lamps, and air conditioner, and they will automatically respond to your every whim.
Although most smartphones with voice assistants can already perform most of these tasks, voice controls are not seamlessly integrated into our lives yet, and the assistants often get the wrong message. Amazon hopes to remove both of these obstacles with its Echo home hub, which is powered by Alexa. Echo is always listening, so you don’t have to turn it on and off or activate it. All you have to do is say her name, ask a question or make a request, and the Echo will respond accordingly, as if it were a person.
Of course, Alexa is still learning natural language, and early reviewers of the Echo describe her shortcomings in great detail. Just like Siri, Cortana, and Google Now, Alexa has her limits. However, that’s part of the reason why Amazon is opening up the voice assistant to developers — so that it can make her smarter and more effective.
In the meantime, Amazon is selling the Echo for $180 on its website. Currently, the Echo can control WeMo smart switches, Belkin products, and Philips Hue lights. The choice of apps with which Echo can interact is also limited, though it is supported by Audible, IFTTT, and Evernote. You can even make shopping lists and go on to purchase the items from Amazon. Echo can’t respond to Gmail emails or text messages yet, though, which is a definite shortcoming.
However, Amazon hopes to increase the number of devices and apps it supports very soon, now that’s it’s opened up to third-party developers and manufacturers.
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