The New Alexa Experience: Upgraded Speakers, Wild Wearables And Celebrity Appearances 

Amazon Alexa

Another day, another tech event announcing the latest and greatest hitting the market this fall checked off the list.  Apple and Amazon are finished — Microsoft and Alphabet are still preparing to take the stage.

Unlike its competitors, Amazon’s annual announcement is a somewhat smaller production.  To see the event live, enthusiasts need to be in the room where it happened — Amazon does not live stream its announcement event or quite go in for the number of theatrical embellishments that have become more common among its fellows.

But if Amazon’s announcement events are relatively modest affairs, the volume of products released is anything but.  This year’s event featured several enhancements and upgrades that the world expected to see — a smart speaker built for premium sound and a competitor for Apple’s Airpods were both forecast well in advance of the event and made their expected appearance in the lineup.  And then there were those advances that no one was expecting — an Alexa-powered convection oven,  a new version of smart spectacles and Samuel L. Jackson all spring to mind.

Some of it will be on sale soon, some of it will be in limited release by invite only — but all of it is coming soon in one form or other.

Analysts and experts agreed that there wasn’t much of a unifying theme that tied together yesterday’s presentations — and that Amazon’s strategy appears to be something akin to “throw a lot of things at the wall and see what sticks with consumers.” It may not be the most technical methodology out there — but considering Alexa and Echo are the world’s most popular voice AI and smart speaker pairing, clearly there is something to be said for the method if it means Alexa is finding ever more ways to become part of a customer’s life.

And, as Amazon demonstrated yesterday, it is still avidly looking for new entry points, large and small.

The New Echoes 

The Echo smart speaker got a double make-over this year, with new versions appearing on the high end and the low end of the pricing spectrum. The most noted new speaker rolling out is the $199 Echo Studio, which advertises high-quality speakers that enable 3D sound with help from Dolby Atmos.  Viewed as Amazon’s answer to Apple’s HomePod, Amazon says the Studio is the most advanced speaker the firm has ever created with built-in Alexa microphones designed to  automatically calibrate based on the room it’s placed in.

On the other side of the product scale, a new version of the Echo Dot (which curiously looks far less dot shaped than it did before) will start at around $60 and will include an LED clock underneath the device’s fabric casing.  Amazon also released a new $99 version of the “classic” Echo that comes with updated speakers and in a range of new colors, as well as the Echo Show 8, now with a bigger 8-inch screen and more powerful audio.

But the most popular and buzzed-about of the new Alexa devices was almost certainly the Alexa Glow. Designed as a nightlight for kids, the $30 device comes in the from of a small bulbous lamp that kids can tap to change color and use as their staging ground for chatting with Alexa — or partying with her.  Among the features the Alexa Glow comes built with are Dance Party mode, which tells the device to play music and flash its lights — and Campfire Mode, which, as the name indicates, flickers like a campfire — and sleep timer mode, which will gradually start dimming the lights at bedtime.

It was quickly ruled the most fun of the Echo Speakers released yesterday, with more than one adult commentator noting they were going to get their own edition of this kids’ product.

But the most eye-catching stuff wasn’t in the realm of Alexa speakers, where updates were anticipated.  It was in the world of Alexa wearables, which most people did not see coming — with perhaps one exception.

The Rise Of The Wearable 

The most anticipated wearable release out of Amazon yesterday was its maiden voyage into the world of high-end earphones with bluetooth-powered Echo Buds.  Amazon’s answer to the Airpod, they reportedly feature five hours of continuous battery life, with up to 20 hours with the included case. They also reportedly incorporate Bose’s smart noise isolation to make it easier to hear what you’re listening to. And, while Amazon would prefer one talks only to Alexa with them, the Echo Buds will also work with Google Assistant or Siri.  And they will clock in at of $129 —a lower price point than Airpods — when orders open.

The wildest wearable Amazon introduced yesterday — not to mention the last item offered up in the 15-item run the firm went on yesterday — was the Echo Loop, a smart ring. Built from titanium, the largish-looking ring comes with a haptic engine and two microphones and reportedly is designed to nudge wearer behavior through a series of vibrations.  The ring, however, will not be available for wide purchase — at least at first.  Consumers will be given a chance to purchase it on an invite-only basis for $129, after which the price will go up to $179.

Also not quite coming out for public consumption, but available for invite only customers, will be the Echo Frames — special Alexa-embedded eye glasses.  Unlike versions that have come before, Echo Frames do not have a display or a camera, but instead microphones so users can chat with Alexa without getting out a phone. The Frames, however, are very much a work in progress.  Amazon is calling the version featured at yesterday’s event “Day One editions,” meaning they are still aimed at enthusiasts, but aren’t quite ready for mass, widespread release.

But, as became clear yesterday, Amazon’s goal for the Echo is something for everyone — even if that involves some out-of-the-box thinking about what everyone might enjoy.

The Really Out-Of-The-Box Ideas

Last year coming out of the device event, with all the devices that made their debut, the one that caught everyone’s attention was, of all things, a microwave. That microwave was special because it had Alexa built into it and because it was relatively inexpensive.  The reviews of the item were mixed, but no one failed to notice it.

And so perhaps unsurprisingly, Amazon has a new microwave this year.  A more advanced one that it is calling a convection oven.  Which, in fairness, it also is — as well as an air fryer. Like the Alexa microwave, the Alexa Smart Oven doesn’t offer Echo hardware on board — there’s no microphone or speaker built in, but it is controlled through a separate Alexa device, as was the case with last year’s version of the microwave.

This year’s version is also notably more expensive. While the simple Alexa microwave rang up for around $50, the new convention oven version will cost around $250.

But our favorite out-of-the-box update has got to be the new way Alexa can talk to its users.

Most people have probably wondered what it would be like if Alexa: (1) sounded exactly like Samuel L. Jackson, and (2) could be counted on to curse at users from time to time.

Goods news: people will no longer have to wonder about that. Amazon will be rolling out new voices for Alexa, including Samuel L. Jackson.  The Samuel L. Jackson version of Alexa comes with an explicit version that curses at and with its user. Jackson is reportedly the first celebrity to have his voice used in Amazon’s “neural text-to-speech,” so no matter what you ask your smart speaker, it should sound just like the celebrity.

Amazon says other celebrities will be adding in the coming year — no word yet on whether or not they plan to swear at uses as well.

All in all, it is a big lineup of new devices. Some will likely wash out — anyone remember the Alexa clock from last year? — but many will catch on.  Which means the interesting question in the coming weeks will be how the other players in the smart speaker game will move to catch up.