Digging deeper into smart speakers reveals two clear paths

Digging deeper into smart speakers reveals two clear paths
In a truly fascinating exploration into two smart speakers – the Sonos One and the Amazon Echo – BoltVC’s Ben Einstein has found some interesting differences in the way a traditional speaker company and an infrastructure juggernaut look at their flagship devices.
The post is well worth a full read but the gist is this: Sonos, a very traditional speaker company, has produced a good speaker and modified its current hardware to support smart home features like Alexa and Google Assistant. The Sonos One, notes Einstein, is a speaker first and smart hardware second.
“Digging a bit deeper, we see traditional design and manufacturing processes for pretty much everything. As an example, the speaker grill is a flat sheet of steel that’s stamped, rolled into a rounded square, welded, seams ground smooth, and then powder coated black. While the part does look nice, there’s no innovation going on here,” he writes.
The Amazon Echo, on the other hand, looks like what would happen if an engineer was given an unlimited budget and told to build something that people could talk to. The design decisions are odd and intriguing and it is ultimately less a speaker than a home conversation machine. Plus it is very expensive to make.
Pulling off the sleek speaker grille, there’s a shocking secret here: this is an extruded plastic tube with a secondary rotational drilling operation. In my many years of tearing apart consumer electronics products, I’ve never seen a high-volume plastic part with this kind of process. After some quick math on the production timelines, my guess is there’s a multi-headed drill and a rotational axis to create all those holes. CNC drilling each hole individually would take an extremely long time. If anyone has more insight into how a part like this is made, I’d love to see it! Bottom line: this is another surprisingly expensive part.

Sonos, which has been making a form of smart speaker for 15 years, is a CE company with cachet. Amazon, on the other hand, sees its devices as a way into living rooms and a delivery system for sales and is fine with licensing its tech before making its own. Therefore to compare the two is a bit disingenuous. Einstein’s thesis that Sonos’ trajectory is troubled by the fact that it depends on linear and closed manufacturing techniques while Amazon spares no expense to make its products is true. But Sonos makes speakers that work together amazingly well. They’ve done this for a decade and a half. If you compare their products – and I have – with competing smart speakers an non-audiophile “dumb” speakers you will find their UI, UX, and sound quality surpass most comers.
Amazon makes things to communicate with Amazon. This is a big difference.
Where Einstein is correct, however, is in his belief that Sonos is at a definite disadvantage. Sonos chases smart technology while Amazon and Google (and Apple, if their HomePod is any indication) lead. That said, there is some value to having a fully-connected set of speakers with add-on smart features vs. having to build an entire ecosystem of speaker products that can take on every aspect of the home theatre.
On the flip side Amazon, Apple, and Google are chasing audio quality while Sonos leads. While we can say that in the future we’ll all be fine with tinny round speakers bleating out Spotify in various corners of our room, there is something to be said for a good set of woofers. Whether this nostalgic love of good sound survives this generation’s tendency to watch and listen to low resolution media is anyone’s bet, but that’s Amazon’s bet to lose.
Ultimately Sonos is strong and fascinating company. An upstart that survived the great CE destruction wrought by Kickstarter and Amazon, it produces some of the best mid-range speakers I’ve used. Amazon makes a nice – almost alien – product, but given that it can be easily copied and stuffed into a hockey puck that probably costs less than the entire bill of materials for the Amazon Echo it’s clear that Amazon’s goal isn’t to make speakers.
Whether the coming Sonos IPO will be successful depends partially on Amazon and Google playing ball with the speaker maker. The rest depends on the quality of product and the dedication of Sonos users. This good will isn’t as valuable as a signed contract with major infrastructure players but Sonos’ good will is far more than Amazon and Google have with their popular but potentially intrusive product lines. Sonos lives in the home while Google and Amazon want to invade it. That is where Sonos wins.

Source: Gadgets – techcrunch

This family’s Echo sent a private conversation to a random contact

This family’s 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.” (And provided a more detailed explanation, below.)
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.”

Can your smart home be used against you in court?

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 be 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.
Update: I asked Amazon for more details on what happened, and after this article was published it issued the following explanation, which more or less confirms how I suspected this went down:
Echo woke up due to a word in background conversation sounding like “Alexa.” Then, the subsequent conversation was heard as a “send message” request. At which point, Alexa said out loud “To whom?” At which point, the background conversation was interpreted as a name in the customers contact list. Alexa then asked out loud, “[contact name], right?” Alexa then interpreted background conversation as “right”. As unlikely as this string of events is, we are evaluating options to make this case even less likely.

Source: Gadgets – techcrunch

Amazon’s new ‘Alexa Blueprints’ let anyone create custom Alexa skills and responses

Amazon’s new ‘Alexa Blueprints’ let anyone create custom Alexa skills and responses
Amazon this morning is introducing “Alexa Blueprints,” a new way for any Alexa owner to create their own customized Alexa skills or responses, without needing to know how to code. The idea is to allow Alexa owners to create their own voice apps, like a trivia game or bedtime stories, or teach Alexa to respond to questions with answers they design – like “Who’s the best mom in the world?,” for example.
You could also create a skill that includes helpful information for the babysitter, which could be triggered by the command, “Alexa, open My Sitter,” Amazon suggests.
“Alexa Skill Blueprints is an entirely new way for you to teach Alexa personalized skills just for you and your family,” explained Steve Rabuchin, Vice President, Amazon Alexa, in a statement about the launch. “You don’t need experience building skills or coding to get started—my family created our own jokes skill in a matter of minutes, and it’s been a blast to interact with Alexa in a totally new and personal way.”

To build your own skill or custom Alexa response, users will visit the website blueprints.amazon.com and select a template.
At launch, there are over 20 templates across categories like Fun & Games, At Home, Storyteller, and Learning & Knowledge.
The templates are designed so you can just fill in the bits and pieces that make them personalized to your needs. You won’t need to go through a series of complicated steps, and no technical knowledge is required. The templates are even pre-filled and work as is, if you just want to try them out before making your own.

After you’ve filled in your own content, you name it and publish with a click. This makes the skill or response available to all Alexa-enabled devices associated with your own Amazon account. But it’s not available to the public or the Alexa Skills Store.
Families with Echo devices, in particular, seem to be a heavy focus for Alexa Blueprints. Kids have readily taken to Alexa, and today there are nearly 500 public Alexa skills built for kids alone. Families also often have private jokes and bedtime rituals where Alexa could come in – offering to “tell a Dad joke” or “start Anna’s story,” for instance. Plus, Alexa is designed as a home companion – controlling smart devices, playing music, setting timers, and offering information like news and weather, among other things.

But families aren’t the only ones would could take advantage of Alexa Blueprints. College students could use the flash cards custom skill when studying, while a group of friends or roommates could design their own trivia games. And Airbnb owners could set up a skill for their houseguests.
After you’ve created the custom skill, it will be available in the Skills You’ve Made webpage on the Blueprints site. You’ll also be able to enable, disable and delete your skills.
The feature could give Amazon an edge in selling its Echo speakers to consumers, as it’s now the only platform offering this level of customization – Apple’s HomePod is really designed for music lovers, and doesn’t support third-party apps. Google Home also doesn’t offer this type of customization.
All three are competing to be the voice assistant people use in their home, but Alexa so far is leading by a wide margin – it still has roughly 70 percent of the smart speaker market.
Alexa Blueprints are available today in the U.S. only.
The full list of Alexa Blueprints available at launch is below:
At Home

Custom Q&A: Customize responses to your questions
Houseguest: Make your guests feel at home with quick access to important info
Babysitter: Help your sitter find things, remember steps and get important info
Pet Sitter: Help your pet sitter care for your favorite animal

Fun & Games

Family Jokes: Create a list of your favorite jokes for when you need a laugh
Trivia: Create your own multiple choice trivia game on any topic
Inspirations: Curate a list of your favorite inspirational quotes
Family Trivia: Play together and brush up on family history
Bachelorette Party: Play to find out how well the bride’s friends know her
Birthday Trivia: Play to see who knows the birthday girl or boy best
Burns: Roast your friends and family with lighthearted burns
Compliments: Flatter your favorites with a list of custom compliments
Double Trouble: Find out which couple knows each other best with this customizable game
First Letter: Play a game of categories starting with a certain letter

Storyteller

Adventure: Write an adventure story where your child is the hero
Fairy Tale: Customize an interactive prince and princess-themed tale
Sci-Fi: Create an interactive story with a far-out theme
Fable: Create a short narrative with a moral of the story

Learning & Knowledge

Flash Cards: Study, test yourself, and master any subject by voice
Facts: Keep a list of facts on your favorite topic, all in one place
Quiz: Challenge yourself and others with a customizable quiz

Source: Gadgets – techcrunch