In the movie Her, Joaquin Phoenix falls in love. Big time. It’s the one-of-a-kind, all-consuming, breathless, no-one-but-that-person kind of love.
Except that it’s not a real person he falls in love with. It’s an operating system, the OS1. The system, a woman, talks to him, has discussions, sets up his schedule, his work, his appointments... but far more importantly, becomes his companion. She is the first person he talks to in the morning and the last voice he hears before he falls asleep.
Perfect love! It helps that OS1 is voiced by a breathy Scarlett Johansson, who pulled off one of her best roles without ever being on screen. I may not have got Ms Johansson, but I can also say I’m in love with an OS. Almost.
What it is
The Amazon Echo is shaped like a can of Pringles potato chips and can play music, give you directions, set up appointments, make shopping lists, get you weather information, dim the lights in your room and also tell you jokes (“I wondered why the baseball was getting bigger… and then it hit me”).
And it does all of this based on natural speech commands. You talk to it without staging the way you speak. It answers fairly naturally and gets you most of the information without trouble. Ask it to play a particular song or artist and it starts to stream it right away, ask how traffic is and it will tell you how long it will take for you to commute to a pre-set destination.
Connect it with Philips Hue bulbs (and some other brands too) and it will set up the lights in your room for a nice romantic dinner. It can bring you news from all over the world, spell a word for you, read Wikipedia notes and tell you the local time in Syria.
Connect it with IFTTT (Which stands for If This Then That and creates chains of simple conditional statements triggered by changes on Gmail, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and other Web services) and it will flash a bulb every time you get an email or a Twitter message. Ask it for dinner recommendations or to locate a Mexican restaurant nearby, add things to your shopping or to-do list. The possibilities are endless and the execution is near flawless.
We’ve all got used to voice assistants built in to mobile phone operating systems. Apple’s Siri, Google Now and Microsoft’s Cortana are breaking new ground in voice recognition. But the feature set isn’t compelling enough because they still live in a phone. People will eventually realise that it is faster and more accurate to just complete the task by opening a browser or going to an app.
Also, frustratingly, they don’t build a profile around you. It always feels like you’re meeting them for the first time every time you use them. That’s no way to build a relationship. Falling in love at first sight (or sound) is all very well, but not if I have to do it 10 times a day.
What it does
That’s where the Amazon Echo pulls off a minor miracle. With seven microphones embedded into the top, the Echo can respond to something you say even across the room. I tried speaking in a normal tone from about 15 feet away and it responded every single time.
Reading a book in bed, when I didn’t know the meaning of a word, all I did was ask and it immediately responded. Getting ready in the morning I went into the bathroom to shave, asked it to play a music station (it can play from Amazon Prime music, Pandora, iTunes, Spotify, iHeart) and got it right away. Playing scrabble with the family, I asked for a one minute timer (yes, we are very competitive and take Scrabble seriously) and the Echo counted it down. It all happens with one magic word: Alexa.
That’s the name of the “voice”. You can change it to Amazon (but that sounds strange), but as a default the Echo is built-in with the smooth talking, neutral sounding Alexa.
That’s the word that the Echo is waiting to hear. The minute you say it, circular LED lights converge for the magic to begin. Alexa listens, flashes her beautiful blue lights and responds to your commands. Eventually it all becomes part of your daily life. You’ll have great fun with a game in which you think of an animal and Alexa will try to guess it by asking you questions (it gets it right every time). Also kids can have hours of fun asking Alexa the most inane questions.
Alexa, can you be better?
It’s not perfect though. The speaker can’t handle very loud volumes. That the Echo isn’t connected with your contact list also restricts its functionality. Plus, this is a power-only device with no battery. And there is competition now, with many similar devices coming in like the Ubi, iVee, Cubic, Homey and the VoicePod. Still, the Echo can handle far-field voice communication, has excellent voice recognition and does build context around you and what you like.
This is an “I command, you obey relationship”. Which makes it the ultimate tech dream. And that’s why I’m almost in love. Why almost? Well, I asked Alexa “What do you think of Her?” Confused between the movie and a person, all Alexa could respond back was “Hmm... I can’t seem to find an answer to that question”. Until Alexa learns not to treat Scarlett Johansson with such disrespect, she cannot truly win my heart and soul.
Rajiv Makhni is managing editor, Technology, NDTV, and the anchor of Gadget Guru, Cell Guru and Newsnet 3
From HT Brunch, December 6
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