All posts in “Alexa”

Amazon Alexa is coming to hotel rooms

“Alexa, can I get a toothbrush?”

At the mention of Amazon’s digital assistant, the light ring on the white Echo Plus sitting on the end table lights up, then blinks for a second after the question is asked. Ordinarily, if you made that query to the Echo in your home, Alexa would respond by simply adding a toothbrush to your shopping list.

But I’m not in my home, and this isn’t your ordinary Alexa. I’m sitting in a suite on the 17th floor of the Brooklyn Marriott, and the person bugging Alexa about his dental-hygiene needs is Daniel Rausch, vice president of smart home for Amazon.

“OK, how many toothbrushes do you need?” Alexa responds

“10,” Rausch says. Whoa, you opening up your own drugstore, buddy?

Alexa clearly has the same thought: “Sorry, but I can only bring up to five of any item. How many toothbrushes would you like?”

“One.”

“OK, to confirm, you would like one toothbrush sent to your room. Is that correct?”

“Yes.”

And boom — or rather, knock-knock — a hotel staffer arrives at the door with the toothbrush, in a rather classy gray plastic box, about 20 minutes later.

The privacy question

This is Alexa for Hospitality in action, Amazon’s new push to bring its digital assistant into even more aspects of your life besides just your home. Following a move into business and a slow-but-steady encroachment into car dashboards, Alexa for Hospitality officially puts the voice assistant in your hotel room. Marriott will be the first major hotel chain to offer the service.

The idea has two motivations. One is to give Echo customers what Amazon says they want — putting Alexa into more “contexts,” giving them the convenience of voice control in places it didn’t previously exist. And Marriott says that synced up nicely with its goal of reducing the friction that travelers experience by virtue of being in a new place.

The Amazon Echo Plus is one of the devices available to hotels as part of Alexa for Hospitality.

The Amazon Echo Plus is one of the devices available to hotels as part of Alexa for Hospitality.

Image: Pete Pachal/Mashable

“We saw an opportunity to bring over the experience that consumers are having today in their homes — to simply use your voice to get information, to make requests, to take notes — and bring that over into a hotel environment,” says Jennifer Hsieh, vice president of customer experience innovation for Marriott International.

Isn’t there a third goal here, though, that being the opening of another avenue for technology companies to harvest your data? That may be true, but at least Amazon appears to have thought through the privacy concerns.

For starters, the hotel doesn’t have access to any voice recordings or interactions that don’t involve the hotel itself. In the case of the toothbrush example above, Alexa will hand off the request to the hotel’s back end, but that’s it. There is no “god mode” for the hotel to see what you’re doing with Alexa; all it gets is a dashboard that shows whether or not specific devices are offline (ostensibly an anti-theft measure) and some aggregated, anonymized data from Amazon. Voice recordings are also deleted daily, Amazon says.

At launch, Alexa for Hospitality will provide a generic experience customized by the hotel, but Amazon plans to offer customers the option of connecting a personal Amazon account to the in-room experience, so guests will be able to access their own playlists, audio books, contacts, and more.

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Perhaps too convenient? Amazon says the hotel gets zero access to your personal data.

“If you connect to your personal account, it’s exactly like home,” says Rausch. “We consider that data, at that point, yours. All of your voice utterances work just like at home. You’d see them on the Alexa app or online — you can delete them one at a time, you can delete them all at once.”

What Alexa for Hospitality can do

OK, so Amazon did its privacy homework. But what can you do with this traveler-oriented version of Alexa?

For starters, you don’t need to have an Amazon or Prime account to use it, and hotels will hand-hold guests with in-room brochures. Of course, Alexa for Hospitality will field everyday queries (“what’s the weather?” “who is president?”), but its special abilities fall in three main areas, each customizable by the hotel:

  1. Hotel stuff: Ordering toothbrushes and the like, calling the front desk, room service checking out — now you can do all of that via voice. Depending on how the room is set up, you may even be able to control various smart home gear like lights and blinds. (Notably, Drop In, the service that lets you make quick calls to other Echoes, isn’t enabled.)

  2. Get recommendations: The hotel can preprogram Alexa to give tips on restaurants and activities in the area. However, if you hear something you’re interested in, it’ll connect you with the concierge — Alexa for Hospitality can’t make reservations on its own.

  3. Play media: With access to default audio services TuneIn and IHeartRadio, Alexa for Hospitality can play a decent amount of music, and hotels can create their own custom playlists that suit the mood of the hotel.

There’s nothing special about the hardware. The Echoes in hotel rooms — limited to screenless models like the Echo 2, Echo Plus, and Echo Dot — are no different from the consumer versions, with two exceptions: they can’t be factory reset, and they’ll only connect to the hotel Wi-Fi (so don’t bother trying to stuff one in your bag on the way out).

Amazon’s partnership with Marriott extends to several of the hotel chain’s brands: Westin, St. Regis, Aloft, and Autograph. The company says it’s been quietly piloting the service, and that 90 percent of customers who used it rank the in-room Alexa experience as “good to excellent.”

It’s not surprising. Amazon consistently ranks highly in consumer-trust surveys, and users who’ve already bought into the Alexa experience at home likely won’t hesitate to bring it into their hotel room, too.

In the future, in-room voice control could be as essential as in-room Wi-Fi, with one difference: This game has a winner. By extending Alexa’s tendrils into into yet another part of our lives with one of the biggest hotel chains in the world, Amazon is still making Apple’s Siri and Google’s Assistant look like also-rans, eye-popping tech conference demos notwithstanding.

Alexa may speak softly, but she carries a big stick of influence. It’s very early days for Alexa with Hospitality, but as more people associate the service with posh hotels, the more in the digital-assistant space looks like Amazon’s world. Everybody else is just renting a room.

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Amazon’s Fire TV Cube is the futuristic TV experience we’ve all been waiting for

If an Amazon Fire TV 4K and an Echo mated, the new Fire TV Cube would be its baby.

The $119.99 cube-shaped device is part Fire TV set-top box, part Echo, and 100 percent awesome for controlling your entertainment system with Alexa voice commands.

This is the the TV future we’ve all been waiting for.

To be clear, there are already several ways to use Alexa commands to control your Fire TV and entertainment setup, but none are as convenient and easy to set up as the Fire TV Cube. If you own a Fire TV, you can use its Alexa Remote for voice commands, but you still need to press and hold the microphone button.

Alternatively, you can connect an Amazon Echo to your Fire TV for true hands-free voice controls, but good luck figuring out how to get your cable box or sound bar working with them. 

The Fire TV Cube simplifies all of these cumbersome steps with an all-in-one device that just works with Alexa voice commands.

Don't worry, there's a mute button on the top.

Don’t worry, there’s a mute button on the top.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

Right off the bat, it’s immediately apparent the Fire TV Cube is an Amazon product. The plain black cube is small and unassuming when placed on top of a media center next to a flatscreen.

All four sides of the glossy plastic box are “IR transparent” with an IR blaster inside that’s capable of controlling any compatible devices.

The only giveaways that the box is more than meets the eye is a thin LED strip on the front that lights up blue when you say the “Alexa” wake word, the familiar Echo control buttons (volume, mute, and a push-to-activate-Alexa button), and the eight far-field microphone holes located on the top.

On the back, you’ve got a couple of ports. A Micro USB port, an IR port, HDMI, and power. 

Inside, there’s 1.5GHz quad-core processor and 16GB of storage (double the regular 8GB Fire TV 4K). The Fire TV Cube also supports Dolby Atmos audio.

And, don’t you worry, there’s still an Alexa Remote included in the box.

TV is better with Alexa

The LED light will glow when Alexa is called upon.

The LED light will glow when Alexa is called upon.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

Of course, the box is less important than the TV experience, and man, does it look good.

After giving me a brief intro on the Fire TV Cube and the challenges Amazon wanted to solve (namely, the complicated setup for adding Alexa to your TV and easier content discovery), Sandeep Gupta, vice president of product development for Amazon Fire TV, wasted no time with a demo.

“Alexa, I’m home,” Gupta said to the Fire TV Cube.

With just that one voice command, the smart lights illuminated, the TV turned on, and the sound bar was ready to go.

“We use [HDMI] CEC to turn on the TV, IR to turn on my sound bar, and an Alexa skill to turn on the lights,” said Gupta. “So all of that coming together, orchestrated by the Fire TV Cube. So it uses every simple easy way to come home and turn on the lights and start watching TV.”

He then continued to ask Alexa to find him a drama, add Suits to his watch list, scroll the menus, download Crossy Road, switch TV inputs, and more. 

I had a go, and though I didn’t show it in front of Gupta, I was absolutely floored inside. The Fire TV Cube is exactly the kind of hands-free TV viewing experience we’ve all been waiting for. No more remote controls — just tell your TV what you want and it does it all for you.

The Fire TV's interface has been tweaked to be more friendly for voice navigation.

The Fire TV’s interface has been tweaked to be more friendly for voice navigation.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

Amazon has tweaked the Fire TV interface specifically for far-field voice controls. It’s a familiar tile-based UI, but one with multiple ways to access your content. For example, to select shows and apps, you can either call them by their title name or the number labeled next to them.

“It borrows a lot from what we do on the Echo Show with a nice grid layout that’s easy to navigate — obviously expanded because you can do more with this bigger [TV] canvas,” said Gupta.

At launch, only some apps, such as PlayStation Vue, will have full-blown voice controls, but the plan is for all apps to eventually work with Alexa commands only. 

One of those apps is Netflix, which is a huge win for Amazon. Gupta told me the streaming video service will have full Alexa voice control support when the Fire Cube TV is released later this month.

Apps without Alexa voice controls will default to the Alexa Remote for controls, which kinda sucks. Hopefully that’s just temporary and apps will get updated quickly.

All the contents, even from your cable box

The Fire TV Cube controls your cable box with IR.

The Fire TV Cube controls your cable box with IR.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

Fire TV Cube users will have access to all of the content already available from Fire TV, including Prime Video, Netflix, Hulu, HBO, Amazon Channels, etc. Apps like PlayStation Vue and Hulu that have live content also work with voice controls, so you can say something like “Alexa, tune into CNN on PlayStation Vue,” and then continue to switch between channels within the app.

The Fire TV Cube also works with your cable box, because you know, not everyone has cut the cord. Gupta showed me how this worked and it’s practically black magic.

“Alexa, tune into CNN on cable,” Gupta said to the Fire TV Cube.

The Fire TV Cube automatically changed the input on the TV to the cable box and then IR-blasted the CNN channel number to the cable box.

All of this happens invisibly and in a split second so that you don’t even notice the digital handshake between the Fire TV Cube, TV, and cable box.

“It’s kind of effortless and the goal here is to reach the devices that our customers already have and not have to redefine how to do things,” said Gupta. “When you set up your device, you tell us your cable company, your location, and we do the rest for you. We get your channel lineup, we put it in the cloud, we voice enable it so we take care of it for you. Users don’t need to do anything to set up IR; it’s done with this device.”

If you love the Fire TV and Echo, it's hard not to not love the Fire TV Cube.

If you love the Fire TV and Echo, it’s hard not to not love the Fire TV Cube.

Image: amazon

Fire TV Cube users will also notice many Alexa skills will have visual information — the same kind you’ll find on the Echo Show. For instance, if you ask Alexa for the weather, it’ll show the forecast on your TV. Or if you ask for a news flash briefing, it’ll show a video clip along with it. Or if you play Jeopardy, you’ll actually be able to see answer on the TV, while the Fire Cube TV listens for voice answers.

One particular feature I liked was for Amazon Music. If you’re playing a song, you can ask Alexa to show lyrics on the screen and they’ll scroll while the song plays. It’s like your own karaoke setup.

Alexa, can you hear me?

Naturally, you’re probably wondering how well an Echo speaker can pick up your voice if it’s next to a sound bar or TV speaker that’s playing pretty loud.

Gupta says they’ve arranged the far-field microphones inside of the Fire TV Cube vertically instead of horizontally so it’s not a problem. And sure enough, in my demo, the Fire TV Cube was still able to hear my voice clearly, even next to a sound bar.

And if you have another Echo already installed in the same room as the Fire TV Cube, Gupta says the bias will be towards the Fire TV Cube. Amazon believes this is what the user will expect and want, but they’ll be collecting user feedback to see if it matches with intent once the product’s released.

RIP remote controls

Amazon’s Fire TV Cube looks to be the gadget to rule our entertainment setup. It might actually inch us closer to never needing a remote control ever again.

And to that, I say good riddance. How many times have you lost your TV remote? Who can even look at a cable remote and not vomit from the million buttons? 

Voice controls are the future, and Amazon’s leading the charge with the Fire TV Cube.

The Fire TV Cube will be available on June 21 for $119.99. And for a limited time this week, Prime members will be able to pick it up for a discounted $89.99.

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Amazon Alexa will begin suggesting skills for random requests

Image: LILI SAMS/MASHABLE

Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant has so many skills, it can be hard to know exactly how to activate them sometimes. But the company is building a new way for people to discover skills without having to request them specifically by name.

Amazon announced today that it’s launching a new beta feature called the CanFulfillIntentRequest interface that developers can use to make their Alexa skills more easily discoverable. 

The tool uses machine learning to find skills that can help fulfill a person’s request when they don’t know exactly what you’re looking for. For example, if they ask, “Alexa, where are the best surfing spots today near Santa Barbara,” the voice assistant will scour all the various surfing skills on the platform to determine whether they can understand and help process the request.

Since the feature is still in beta, developers will have to opt-in to the new tool, and they’ll also be required to essentially spell out what their skill can do. We expect to start seeing more real world examples of this in the coming weeks and months.

On the user side of things, when you ask a question without specifying the Skill, Alexa will run it through a handful of options before routing you to the one it thinks can best answer your request. It will then tell you which skill might be able to help.

Over time, Alexa will get better at suggesting the right skills for a wider range of random questions. The eventual goal as Amazon writes in a blog post is that “customers find the right skill faster, using the search terms they say most naturally.”

We’ve reached out to Amazon to see if they can comment further, and will update this post if we hear back. In the meantime, we can’t wait to begin testing the wits of our beloved Echo devices.

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Family claims their Echo sent a private conversation to a random contact

A Portland family tells KIRO news that their Echo recorded and then sent a private conversation to someone on its list of contacts without telling them. Amazon called it an “extremely rare occurrence.”

Portlander Danielle said that she got a call from one of her husband’s employees one day telling her to “unplug your Alexa devices right now,” and suggesting she’d been hacked. He said that he had received recordings of the couple talking about hardwood floors, which Danielle confirmed.

Amazon, when she eventually got hold of the company, had an engineer check the logs, and he apparently discovered what they said was true. In a statement, Amazon said “We investigated what happened and determined this was an extremely rare occurrence. We are taking steps to avoid this from happening in the future.”

What could have happened? It seems likely that the Echo’s voice recognition service misheard something, interpreting it as instructions to record the conversation like a note or message. And then it apparently also misheard them say to send the recording to this particular person. And it did all this without saying anything back.

The house reportedly had multiple Alexa devices, so it’s also possible that the system decided to ask for confirmation on the wrong device — saying “All right, I’ve sent that to Steve” on the living room Echo because the users’ voices carried from the kitchen. Or something.

Naturally no one expects to have their conversations sent out to an acquaintance, but it must also admitted that the Echo is, fundamentally, a device that listens to every conversation you have and constantly sends that data to places on the internet. It also remembers more stuff now. If something does go wrong, “sending your conversation somewhere it isn’t supposed to go” seems a pretty reasonable way for it to happen.

I’ve asked Amazon for more details on what happened, but as the family hasn’t received one, I don’t expect much.

Alexa gets smarter about calendar appointments

As digital assistants improve, we’re learning new things to expect from them, but the tasks that a real-life assistant may have handled before can still be a bit of a challenge to home assistants.

Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant is gaining functionality to help it get smarter about working with your calendar. The new abilities will let users move appointments around and schedule meetings based on other people’s availability.

If you’ve been shared on someone’s calendar availability, Alexa will be able to suggest times that work for both of you. Just say, “Alexa schedule a meeting with [name]” and Amazon’s assistant will search through your schedule for a good time, suggesting up to two time slots that could work.

On a more basic feature level, Alexa won’t make you cancel appointments and reschedule them if a meeting time changes. You’ll be able to just ask Alexa to move an existing meeting, something that should have probably been supported from the beginning, but hey, better late than never.

Both of these features are available to U.S. users today.