Amazon Unveils Next Gen Echo Products

Amazon Unveils Next Gen Echo Products

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Recently, Amazon unveiled a plethora of new Echo products. From a true smart home hub to buttons that will come in handy during your next family game night, here is everything that Amazon unveiled at their September 27th event, and what it means for the future of the smart home.

 

Amazon has officially retired their original Echo smart speaker (RIP: 2014-2017) and replaced it with a second generation version at $99. The first update to the world’s most popular smart speaker sees a shorter, more compact design and a dedicated bass tweeter. The new Echo will come in six different styles: Charcoal, Heather, and Sandstone fabric or Walnut, Oak, and Silver finish. More importantly, Amazon is promoting an Echo “three-pack” for multi-room audio. The company first announced multi-room audio capabilities back in August, but have only started to heavily promote the feature with the unveiling of the new Echo smart speaker. There hasn’t been much testing yet of the new multi-room feature, so the jury is still out on whether or not Echo provides a synchronous, reliable performance across all devices throughout the home. Unlike Blackfire RED framework enabled smart devices, the Echo can not support multi-channel or low-latency for audio/video lip sync.

 

Additionally, the Echo is now able to make calls throughout North America. Amazon clearly wants the Echo to replace your home phone, and to help push the idea, they’ve also introduced the Echo Connect – a device that is tied to your existing home phone number that allows you to make landline calls through Alexa.

 

Amazon also rolled out the Echo Plus, which looks more like the original Echo than the Echo 2.0. The Echo Plus is the first one specifically designed to be used as a true smart home hub. With it, you can control compatible smart lights, locks, and thermostats. The Echo Plus also uses Zigbee so it’s compatible with more smart devices on the market. The Echo Plus has updated voice-recognition so you can talk to it from further away or in noisy settings, and more advanced speakers. Price-wise, the Echo Plus is comparable to the original Echo, at $149.

 

Amazon also introduced the Echo Spot, a sort of smart alarm clock with a 2.5-inch screen, that can be placed anywhere in the house and can be used for more than just an alarm in the mornings. The Echo Spot can make video calls and can play music through it’s own speakers or connect to external ones via cable or Bluetooth. The Echo Spot can do pretty much anything the Echo can do, but it’s much more compact and it has a screen. But this isn’t the first (and only) Echo product with a screen: Amazon released the Echo Show earlier this year to not overly positive reviews. Now, it seems that they’ve simplified and improved their interface for the Echo Spot. And at $130 for this little gadget, they needed to.

 

Lastly, Amazon introduced Echo Buttons: little discs that connect to your Echo device that you can use to play trivia games with your friends and family (with Alexa as the game-show host). The Echo Buttons light up in cool colors and can be purchased in pairs for $20.

 

So what does this mean for the the smart home of the future? Well, for one thing, Amazon has, once again, positioned itself to be the leader of smart home technology. However, they’ve got some serious competition. Google has also unveiled a whole new suite of products (which we will discuss in a later blog post) that may give Amazon a run for their money. As more and more smart home devices are gaining in popularity, it’ll be interesting to watch how manufacturers choose to align their brands and products with either Alexa or Google Assistant (or perhaps both). The war rages on!

Alexa, is this all just a fad?

Alexa, is this all just a fad?

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According to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, more and more electronic manufacturers in China, like Alibaba, are getting involved in the AI smart speaker market, fueling its growth and begging the question: are talking speakers just a passing tech fad or are they here to stay?

 

In the US, tech giants, Amazon and Google, dominate the AI smart speaker space with their Alexa-enabled Echo and Echo Dot; and the Google Assistant-powered Google Home, respectively. As the Wall Street Journal notes: “tech giants [and] consumer electronics makers…all see voice-activated products as the gateway to a future where platforms animated by artificial intelligence will power homes, cars and offices. To some, this first wave in the AI revolution already looks frothy.” And that sentiment is seen played out in Apple’s recently announced Siri-enabled smart speaker, HomePod. A late addition to the fray, the HomePod will be available to consumers by December 2017, and it’s capabilities are an indication that it’s entering a rapidly maturing market.

 

The HomePod’s positioning is geared more towards smart acoustics than smart AI. Yes, users can control the speaker via Siri voice activation, but the majority of the speaker’s smart functions are audio or music related. One reason for investing heavily in smart acoustics is because, so far, smart speakers don’t sound that great. To differentiate themselves from the pack, Apple is attempting to offer an alternative smart speaker for audiophiles, music enthusiasts and Apple loyalists. Will this positioning work? Perhaps. But the fact remains – the HomePod is merely a lateral move in terms of smart home advancement.

 

For a new technology, innovation in the smart speaker sphere has been fairly stagnant (for more on this, read my previous blog post “A Clear Path for Voice Control”), and many people who were looking to Apple as a game changer in the field were left mostly underwhelmed by the unveiling of HomePod. Therefore, the direction Apple took with it’s smart speaker only adds to the feeling that the smart speaker bubble is about ready to burst, since we’re still getting variations of “more of the same.”

 

Amazon, on the other hand, has spent this year rolling out AI smart devices that are not just music speakers, though this fragmentation of the Smart-AI market is already looking too niche for sustained growth. Products such as the Amazon Echo Show (an Echo with video capabilities) and the Amazon Echo Look (an Echo with a camera so you can take pictures of your outfits to log in your “virtual closet” and get fashion advice from “experts”) seem more like placeholder products than fully thought-through use-cases. Amazon knows that the design and UI of the Show are flawed (for example, there’s no way to decline a video call, so friends or relatives with a Show can pop into yours at any moment), and Amazon knows that the Look is about as useful as, what’s it called? Oh yeah, a mirror. But Amazon also knows that AI technology is in a moment of stasis, and between now and the next major smart home breakthrough, they are doing everything they can to keep the ball rolling (and capture an exuberant amount of data about its customers).

So, are AI smart speakers just a fad? Is the bubble about to burst? Perhaps the answer to that is a soft “no.” As smart speakers stand today, the use cases for it are fairly narrow, but that doesn’t mean more smart home innovation won’t branch out from it, as many see the smart speaker as playing a pivotal role in the future smart home. There’s a lot that can be done with an AI smart speaker in the future, but the technology needs to catch up to the possibilities.

A Clear Path for Voice Control

A Clear Path for Voice Control

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Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past year, you know that voice controlled Smart Home technology is taking over the tech industry and consumer electronics scene. This past January, the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) was chock-full of stainless steel refrigerators and high tech washing machines, all with Amazon’s voice-activated AI software, Alexa, built in. CES 2017 was dubbed by some as “The Year of the Amazon Takeover,” however, Amazon isn’t the only tech giant to venture into the realm of voice-activation: Google launched the Google Home smart speaker in late 2016, exactly two years after the Amazon Echo speaker (featuring Alexa) made its debut. Even later to the party, Microsoft just announced partnerships with HP and Harman Kardon to support Cortana (Microsoft’s version of Siri) in their speakers. Speaking of Siri, Apple just announced a Siri-enabled smart speaker, called HomePod, which will be available this December.

 

These “smart” speakers have proven themselves to be cool technology, but, for the most part, were  trading more on novelty value than utility. Until recently, Amazon’s Alexa enabled Dot and Echo speakers excelled at only three things: purchasing items off Amazon; playing music from a long list of streaming services or Internet radio stations; and pranking your roommate by setting it’s alarm for 3:00 am, 3:10 am, 3:20 am, and 3:30 am. A pretty solid list of features, sure, but it’s by no means the “Smart Home of the Future” we were promised.

 

That’s why CES 2017’s “Amazon Takeover” was actually a pretty significant breakthrough for Smart Home enthusiasts. Until recently, Smart Home gadgets such as smart thermostats and security systems were seen as standalone items. What Amazon is attempting to do this year (and succeeding at it, thus far) is to position its Alexa voice-activated speakers as the Smart Home’s “Central Hub,” from which, all of the individual smart devices in your home can connect, and be controlled. (Hence, the influx of gadgets and appliances with Alexa capabilities.)

 

And this isn’t an unwelcomed shift: according to new market data from Parks Associates, 55% of U.S. broadband households want to use their voice to control their Smart Home and entertainment devices. Moreover, they expect products to work together through “their entertainment systems, including automated voice assistant products like the Amazon Echo and Google Home.”

 

Additionally, at their annual “CONNECTIONS: The Premier Connected Home Conference,” Parks Associates announced a comprehensive IoT forecast that predicts 442 million connected consumer devices (entertainment, mobile, health, and smart home) will be sold in the U.S. in 2020. The fastest growing category in IoT, and the top trend of 2017, is, unsurprisingly, speakers with voice control (like the Amazon Alexa and Google Home), with a CAGR of 78.3% in 2015-2020. According to Elizabeth Parks, SVP, Parks Associates: “Parks Associates research shows U.S. consumers will buy more than 2.3 billion connected devices between 2015 and 2020, and they are showing strong preferences for voice as the interface for their devices. Companies in the smart home, entertainment, and connected car ecosystems are pursuing partnerships that can add voice control to a variety of solutions in the connected home.”

 

But developing Alexa or Google Home enabled smart products is only the first step. In order to achieve true, whole home connectivity, these products need to be able to work wirelessly through a reliable platform to communicate with each other. The truth is, Smart Home technology in its current form doesn’t lend itself to whole home, or even multi-room systems. Conventional WiFi uses TCP (Transmission Control Protocol) which was designed in the 1960’s for transferring files down wired Ethernet lines, not connecting Smart Home products or streaming real-time wireless audio (or video) throughout the home. (For more on why your WiFi sucks, read my last blog, titled “Why your WiFi sucks and what you can do about it”).

 

Here’s an interesting tidbit from Rob Conant, CEO, Cirrent: “Wi-Fi is by far the dominant technology for connected products – the vast majority of broadband homes have Wi-Fi. However, historically it has been too complex to get headless products connected to Wi-Fi. Nearly 40% of the negative reviews of smart home products are the result of connectivity and setup issues. Making it easy for end users to connect products is critical to the success of the industry.”

 

But the dream of a whole-home, voice-controlled, Smart Home isn’t impossible: using low-latency and high-accuracy sync, Blackfire has developed a software solution that successfully integrates voice AI into a multi-room system. We call it Blackfire Real-time Entertainment Distribution (RED), the industry’s only wireless streaming software framework built from the ground up to overcome the limitations commonly associated with conventional wireless products, truly enabling a whole-home voice-control system. Blackfire RED delivers high-performance multichannel, multipoint and multi-room 5.1 audio wireless streaming across multiple devices over standard Wi-Fi, so you can tell Alexa or your Google Home in your living room to read out a recipe to you when you are in the kitchen, or to play music from Spotify Connect in the bedroom.

 

As demand for voice-activated smart devices continues to grow and home audio manufacturers develop products to meet the demand, Blackfire will be the key to enhanced performance for today’s consumers and Smart Home dwellers of the future.

The CES Wrap Up

The CES Wrap Up

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Blackfire Research kicked off 2017 in Viva Las Vegas to participate in the world’s largest, annual consumer electronics trade show, CES. At the start of each year, CES (and roughly 4,000 exhibiting companies) takes over the Las Vegas Strip, showcasing the latest in hi-tech innovations and prototypes for technology of the future. The exhibition floors were abuzz with the soon-to-be year’s hottest trends: unbelievably thin TVs, autonomous vehicles, multi-screen gaming laptops, Virtual Reality headsets, and – in what tech bloggers are dubbing “The Amazon Home Takeover,” – a wide range of smart home appliances, such as toasters, washer & dryer units, refrigerators, security systems, fans, and more, all aided by Amazon’s voice-activated speaker – Alexa.

As exciting and eye-catching as the exhibition floors were, we at Blackfire couldn’t get too distracted, for we were on a mission to present the industry’s best wireless audio solutions for a wide variety of home entertainment systems and applications.

Over the course of four days, Blackfire held meetings at a suite in the luxurious Venetian, with global industry leaders, partners, investors, and old friends, to demonstrate why we are setting the standard for wireless home entertainment. Among those who visited our suite was Arabian Prince, founding member of the rap group NWA, and driving force behind INNOV8 NEXT. As you may recall, this past November, Arabian and Blackfire’s founder and CEO, Ravi Rajapakse, sat together on a panel to discuss innovation in the music industry at the annual Web Summit in Lisbon, Portugal.

This year at CES, Blackfire had plenty to boast, unveiling not one, but three wireless solutions ready for product integration: Blackfire MA – a cost-effective wireless audio solution for smartphones and multiroom music systems; Blackfire MXD – delivering high-resolution multiroom music with native GoogleCast Audio and Spotify Connect support; and Blackfire IXD – the industry’s first low-latency Wi-Fi surround sound solution enabling smart TVs and set top boxes to deliver the ultimate home theater experience. Blackfire IXD also supports multiroom media streaming, transforming the smart TV or set top box into a whole home media center.

In addition to presenting our audio solutions upstairs at the Venetian, we had the opportunity to visit products with Blackfire’s patented streaming technology on display downstairs at the Onkyo/Pioneer booth. The Onkyo SBT-A500 Network Surround Sound Bar System, The Pioneer SC-LX701 Network A/V Receiver, and the Pioneer MRX-3 Wireless Speaker all proudly displayed the Blackfire Logo. CES also revealed a new, Blackfire enabled 6.1-Channel A/V Receiver and Object-Based Surround Sound Bar from luxury consumer audio company, Integra.

At the Harman/Kardon floor in the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, we caught a glimpse of the wireless HD Audio line, The Omni+ Series, featuring Blackfire’s patented streaming technology. Recently, the Omni 10+ and the Omni 20+ were joined by the Omni Soundbar System, a 2.1 channel soundbar with a wireless subwoofer, powered by Blackfire wireless streaming technology.
So, at the end of a long, but successful conference, the Blackfire Team had plenty to celebrate (over margaritas) before packing up “The Beast” and heading back to San Francisco. Here’s to a great start to 2017!