Now, people can use their smart speaker to access:
> A daily flash briefing read by journalist Michael Barbaro
> Hear about the travels of Sebastian Modak with “52 places to go”
> Get a weekly music roundup from music editor Caryn Ganz
> Get book recommendations from Times book critics
> Play a weekly “New York Times Quiz” testing their knowledge of recent news
Why it’s hot:
It may not feel a massive innovation, but it’s a savvy move for the Times in a world where people are increasingly eschewing websites. No longer is it enough to build destinations, we have to think about how our brands can be present where people need them, when they need them.
The “modern home insurance” brand Hippo recently created “Away Mode”, an Alexa skill that activates one of seven “awkward” conversations when enabled, ostensibly to trick would-be burglars ala Kevin McAllister.
But while it is a real skill, it’s actually designed as advertising to generate awareness for the three-year-old brand.
According to Hippo, “Hippo was looking for a way to engage a broad audience in a conversation about home security and home insurance. We figured it was easier to drive awareness and education through humour“.
Why It’s Hot:
First, it’s another example of “innovation” as advertising. And while stunts are nothing new in advertising, this is the first time a brand has used Alexa as the chosen platform on which to execute one.
But more importantly, it’s a beautiful way to emphasize its point of differentiation. Hippo bills itself generally as an insurance company with a different outlook, as a “tech company” that “leverages Smart Home technology to prevent disasters instead of simply responding to them”, and its insurance “protects smart home appliances and electronics”.
Hotel service is getting a major upgrade. With Alexa for Hospitality, Amazon will help hotels manage and customize how their Echo speakers can work harder for their guests.
With an Echo speaker in each room, guests will feel right at home with the commands they use every day like turning the lights on and off, setting alarms, playing music and making phone calls. But even more importantly, Alexa will supplement hotel staff by taking on the functions of ordering room service, requesting room cleanings, providing information like pool hours, and helping guests check out. Amazon is also providing a digital platform to help hotels manage hundreds of Echo devices in one centralized view.
Along with the announcement, Amazon notes they are already working on enhancements. In the near future, guests will be able to temporarily connect their own Amazon account to the device in their hotel room, meaning preferences like favorite music and personalized details like contacts will be accessible. Upon checkout, the speaker will reset for the next guest.
Why It’s Hot:
Alexa for Hospitality can help hotels truly deliver the level of comfort and convenience their guests expect. As it continues to evolve, hotels should see significant operational efficiencies while guests enjoy all the benefits of a virtual concierge.
Researchers in the U.S. and China have discovered ways to send hidden commands to digital assistants—including Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, and Google’s Assistant—that could have massive security implications.
Over the last two years, researchers in China and the United States have begun demonstrating that they can send hidden commands that are undetectable to the human ear to Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant. Inside university labs, the researchers have been able to secretly activate the artificial intelligence systems on smartphones and smart speakers, making them dial phone numbers or open websites. In the wrong hands, the technology could be used to unlock doors, wire money or buy stuff online — simply with music playing over the radio.
This month, some of those Berkeley researchers published a research paper that went further, saying they could embed commands directly into recordings of music or spoken text. So while a human listener hears someone talking or an orchestra playing, Amazon’s Echo speaker might hear an instruction to add something to your shopping list.
“My assumption is that the malicious people already employ people to do what I do,” said Nicholas Carlini, a fifth-year Ph.D. student in computer security at U.C. Berkeley and one of the paper’s authors.
Last year, researchers at Princeton University and China’s Zhejiang University also found voice-activated devices could be issued orders using inaudible frequencies. Chinese researchers called the technique DolphinAttack.
Amazon told The New York Times it has taken steps to ensure its speaker is secure. Google said its platform has features that mitigate such commands. And Apple noted an iPhone or iPad must be unlocked before Siri will open an app.
And the number of devices in consumers’ homes is on the rise. Digital assistants have been among the hottest gifts of the past two holiday seasons. And Amazon, alone, is expected to sell $10 billion worth of the devices by 2020.
It seems like every week we are posting something else about Voice (Alexa, Google Home) and emerging capabilities or how brands are using them. As with any tech, there are concerns about how it will be used. I do wonder though if there’s something positive here, versus scary?
Amazon revealed its Alexa Super Bowl spot this week, and as you can see above, the premise is – imagine what it would be like if you were speaking to various celebrities instead of what at this point is a borderline monotone, virtually personality-less Alexa. There’s the anthemic 90-second version above, plus 30-second editions focused on specific personalities like you see below.
Why It’s Hot:
In a world where we’ll inevitably rely on speaking to digital assistants, why wouldn’t Amazon, Google, or any others give you the ability to choose your assistant’s voice and personality? And, why didn’t Amazon do it as part of this campaign? We’ve seen it in concept videos, but is this more than just an ad? Having GPS directions read to you by Arnold Schwarzenegger is one thing, but a true assistant you can interact with is a much different scenario. When can we expect this eminently possible future?
According to a report from CNBC, Amazon is in talks with brands and advertisers to include ads on the Echo through via Alexa. The report says that Amazon is discussing these opportunities with Procter & Gamble and Clorox.
Just as ads found their way to the newspaper, the radio, the television, the internet, and even to our inbox and inside our apps, it only makes sense for advertisers to follow us to the next frontier of voice-powered AI.
There are two obvious paths to potentially advertising on Alexa.
The first is to let brands pay for placement when users are shopping through Alexa. For example, Proctor & Gamble could pay for Bounty to be the first brand recommended when a user asks for Alexa to purchase paper towels. Of course, these ads could be ultra-smart given the data Amazon already has about each individual user’s buying history.
The second channel for advertising could come via Alexa Skills. For example, a skill that tells users movie showtimes could suggest buying tickets through Fandango.
Paid search ads via voice could be much more effective than the paid search ads you see on the web, as with Google. On the web, many have grown numb to ad search results and can easily scroll past them to real search results. On a voice platform, it takes far more work to ‘scroll past’ the first result presented. Plus, depending on how Amazon presents paid results, it may be more difficult to decipher paid results from actual results.
Amazon, however, responded to CNBC saying that “the company has no plans to add advertisements to Alexa.” Obviously, this is just a rumor at the moment but it would be far from shocking if ads hit the Alexa platform. An Amazon spokesperson responded to request for comment with the same quote they gave CNBC: “There are no plan to add advertising to Alexa.”
Regardless of whether this is real news now or not, it’s still interesting to consider and potentially inevitable. Brands are bound to want in on this expanding space — can the Amazons and Google’s of the world hold them back? Should they?
Amazon has partnered with “O, the Oprah Magazine,” on a holiday promotion that gives voice-assistant Alexa the voice of Oprah Winfrey when users shop among the iconic celebrity’s “Favorite Things.” Oprah’s voice will recommend a product and share background on why it made her list.
Yes, it’s gimmicky – but, It’s an interesting ex anploration and build off existing platform (O, The Oprah Magazine and Amazon have worked together over the past couple of years to co-promote Oprah’s Favorite Things online and on mobile through a dedicated Amazon storefront), and therefore – a great way to test and learn.
The UX is not there yet – this won’t be a very efficient way to shop. Not only does it force you to listen to items one-by-one, it’s also difficult to encourage people to shop based on product suggestions and descriptions alone. Most people want to see photos – and sometimes even videos – before making an online purchase.
ake Amazon wants its Prime subscribers ordering from its online store all the time, so it just cooked up a new device to help them do exactly that — and it’s essentially giving it away for free.
The company just launched a new instant-ordering gadget, the Dash Wand, that lets you fill up your Amazon shopping cart by using voice commands or scanning barcodes on the packages you have sitting in your kitchen cupboards.
The Dash Wand is essentially an updated version of the OG Amazon Dash wand that debuted in 2015, but this newer version crucially adds Amazon’s artificially intelligent assistant, Alexa, to help out. The digital assistant can sync your shopping list across Amazon devices, convert units of measurement, and search for recipes.
This is a huge upgrade for Amazon’s instant-ordering devices. The original Dash was significantly bigger, cost more than twice as much as this new one, and only worked with AmazonFresh orders.
Amazon’s really pushing the Wand, offering a similar deal to previous promotions for its instant ordering Dash buttons. If you buy a Dash Wand for $20, you’ll qualify immediately for $20 credit for your next purchase after registering the device. It literally pays for itself — and you can opt-in for a free 90-day AmazonFresh trial, which typically costs $15 per month. It’s actually a pretty great deal for anyone with a Prime subscription.
The Wand is also magnetic, so it can live on your fridge close to all of your most frequently ordered foods, and its Alexa access makes it more useful than the Dash buttons, which are restricted to one item instant ordering.
You don’t get the full Alexa experience here, though. The Wand can’t play music, and its press-button functionality means it won’t automatically respond to the genial “Hey, Alexa” wake command.
It might sound ridiculous that the company is essentially giving the Wands away with all the discounts and incentives, but it’s a savvy business move. Making the shopping experience easier and offering a new Alexa toy to play with will only drive up orders, as if Amazon needs any help to keep its business afloat.
Connected AI experiences make the virtual assistant craze more useful. Amazon is pushing forward on many different ways to connect Alexa with other platforms, and this is a great example of a type of utility that in a few years we will wonder how we lived without.
Some genius developer has boldly chosen to experiment with perhaps the world’s most forgotten voice assistant, Microsoft Cortana, and imagined what interacting with her could be like if you added another dimension to it.
In his words – “It’s basically what I imagined Microsoft’s version of Alexa or Google Home would be like if they were to use the holographic AI sidekick from the Halo franchise.”
As seen in the video above, in his prototype, it’s as if you’re speaking to an actual artificial person, making the experience feel more human.
Why it’s hot:
Amazon recently released the Echo Show, which allows skillmakers to add a “face” to their interactions, but this makes that look like a kids toy. This shows how what started not long ago as primitive voice technology on a phone, could quickly turn into actual virtual assistants that look and act like humans, powered by the underlying technology. Plus, apparently 145 million people may not ignore they have access to Cortana in the future.
From Amazon.com: Reorder meals for delivery or takeout in seconds from all your favorite Seamless restaurants.
This is a hands-free time saver for Seamless customers — and getting started is easy! Just enable the skill, link your Seamless account, and say “Alexa, open Seamless,” or “Alexa, tell Seamless I’m hungry.”
If you’re a first-time user, Alexa will ask for your preferred delivery address and payment type. Just select your preferences to complete setup. You’ll be able to enjoy the convenience of re-ordering your favorite dishes and meals with Alexa anytime.
The skill’s easiest to use — and the most beneficial for you — if you’ve ordered more than three meals with your Seamless.com account and have one or more current credit/debit cards linked to your account. As long as you have an order history, you can use the skill. Of course, it may be more fun for you if you have many past orders.
You’ll have to wait for this quality item, though, because it is not up on Indiegogo yet.
From Smalt’s About Us page:
Herb & Body is a California-based lifestyle company committed to using smart technology to enhance our lives….Our first innovation, “SMALT”, is the first of it’s kind to market and will transform an ordinary kitchen tools that people have been using for centuries into an experience for the senses.
A Canadian company called Lyrebird has created a way to replicate anyone’s voice using AI. After capturing 60 seconds of anyone talking, the machine can reproduce an individual’s way of speaking. They say they’ve already received thousands of ideas on how people could use this new capability:
Some companies, for example, are interested in letting their users choose to have audio books read in the voice of either famous people or family members. The same is true of medical companies, which could allow people with voice disabilities to train their synthetic voices to sound like themselves, if recorded samples of their speaking voices exist. Another interesting idea is for video game companies to offer the ability for in-game characters to speak with the voice of the human player.
But even bigger, they say their technology will allow people to create a unique voice of their own, with the ability to fully control even the emotion with which it speaks.
Why it’s hot
Besides the fact that it’s another example of life imitating art, we already live in a world where we have quite a bit of control over how we portray ourselves to the world. In the future, could we choose our own voice? Could we have different voices for every situation? How might we ever really be sure we know who we’re speaking to? Does the way someone has chosen to sound change the way we get to know them? And, what if the voices of our friends and family can now be preserved in perpetuity?
Starbucks announced that it has created a third-party skill for Amazon Alexa, which allows their customers to reorder their favorite drinks and food through the voice recognition technology when you state, “Alexa, order my Starbucks”.
This Alexa skill works through the Starbucks Mobile Order and Pay feature and give customers the benefits of placing an order on the go and pick it up at a nearby location without the hassle of waiting in line.
This summer, Ford will add Alexa to vehicles with its SYNC 3 in-car technology. Ultimately, this will allow drivers/passengers to press a button to ask for directions, sports scores, weather updates and everything else Alexa would normally do or answer. This also means that Ford drivers will be able to place Starbucks orders while they are in their car in a hands free way!
Brands are finding new ways for consumers to purchase products, making it more accessible for them. Considering Starbucks doesn’t deliver and customers must drive to their locations to purchase products, this partnership with Ford is such a great opportunity for the brand to capture more sales and mitigate time for costumers waiting in line to place an order.
Alexa voice technology is becoming increasingly popular so it is interesting to learn about how brands will create “skills” within their tool to connect themselves and the consumer through voice.
That’s what Merck & Co. is aiming for in its new partnership with Amazon Web Services to develop digital voice-enabled solutions for people living with chronic diseases.
Using the tech behind the Amazon Echo, Merck plans to initially work on diabetes. Its first initiative will be a call to entrepreneurs, techies and industry types for an innovation challenge expected to begin within the next month.
The yet-to-be-named challenge will be run by strategy and innovation consultancy Luminary Labs. While specifics haven’t been released, the call to action will “be open to solutions broadly enough that innovators of all stripes can come up with really novel ideas but being narrow enough to provide guidance and carefully evaluate submissions,” said Sara Holoubek, founder and CEO of Luminary Labs.
An independent jury will evaluate the submissions based on their use of voice-enabled technology that addresses Type 2 diabetes patient issues.
Merck’s long-term plan is to create tools for other chronic diseases using the same Amazon Lex platform and the voice-enabled Alexa home system.
Analysts estimate Amazon will sell more than 110 million Amazon Echo devices over the next four years, and many are already pointing to healthcare as an important item on Alexa’s eventual to-do list.
“Users will soon go far beyond turning on lights or calling an Uber, and will venture deeper into healthcare, helping people better manage treatments and communicate with caregivers,” Luminary notes on its website. “From reminding people of their nutrition plans to scheduling their insulin dosages, the Merck-sponsored Alexa challenge will call on developers to push the boundaries of voice technology for people with diabetes.”
Why It’s Hot
Through recent discussions about how we’ll use Alexa or any voice-enabled assistants, this is extremely smart. Leveraging technology to assist those that have a lot to manage with their health can potentially keep people more compliant, and therefore keeping themselves healthier. Taking annoying tasks to remember off people’s plates so they can enjoy more of their life is a great direction to take this technology. Expect to see more of this in the near future.