During Amazon’s annual hardware event, held on September 24th, 2020, several new smart speakers, Ring security devices and AI enhancements were unveiled. Unique to this year’s event compared to 2019 is that all the announcements are immediately relevant. In 2019, Amazon introduced several innovations, such as Smart Oven, Echo Frames and Echo Loop, but these products were niche at best and the smart oven was not actually very smart on its own.
New Echo speakers
The new Echo speaker lineup brings a fresh design that is spherical, rather than the cylindrical shape that has been replicated since 2014. Despite the change in façade, the internal speakers haven’t changed much since the 3rd generation products. The Echo 4th Gen still features the same 3.0” woofer and 0.8” tweeters while the Echo Dot 4th Gen products have kept the 1.6” speaker.
For the Echo, one of the biggest differences is that it includes a smart hub, meaning it can control devices in the home that run Zigbee, Bluetooth Low Energy and Amazon Sidewalk. The previous Echo didn’t have this functionality, instead, consumers had to opt for the Echo Plus. Also, this speaker features the first-generation AZ1 Neural Edge processor. Like the Echo Studio, this Echo 4th Gen speaker can automatically sense the acoustics in the room and fine-tune audio playback.
The Echo Show 10 boasts many enhancements which includes a 13 MP camera, a larger subwoofer and a screen that can swivel (brushless motor). Compared to previous Echo Shows, the second generation that was released in October 2018 had similar speaker specs but had only a 5MP camera. Compared to other brands, the Echo Show 10 is on par with the Facebook Portal that has a 13 MP camera but for a comparable speaker, consumers would need to go for the Portal +, but the swiveling screen remains unique to the Echo Show 10. The Echo Show 10 can also act as an indoor security camera by using computer vision to start recording and pan the room if a person is detected when Alexa Guard is set to away mode.
Other enhancements include the ability to watch Netflix and make group calls through Zoom or Amazon Chime. AI advancements that are coming to Alexa include contextual responses – meaning Alexa will be able to adjust tone, stress certain words and pause during a conversation. Another feature coming in 2021 is natural turn taking. Amazon described this as the ability to speak to Alexa without using a wake word over the course of a conversation. In another demonstration, Alexa was taught about the desired brightness level for a lighting mode, so on the fly, Alexa was able to ask a question and learn the desired setting for future uses. Alexa is also bringing more features for children. One feature, reading sidekick, will have Alexa take turns reading a book with a child and offer up encouragement while the child is reading. Alexa profile for kids is also evolving to allow automatic switching to a kid’s profile when Alexa identifies that voice, prompting kid-friendly responses. These child-oriented features are popular in Asia and the cylindrical design should also resonate well in the Asia region – where Amazon has been challenged more by local players and Google, compared to North America.
Ring introduced a drone for inside the home, called Ring Always Home Cam. The small drone autonomously navigates a home based on personalized paths. This allows consumers to check on security concerns, confirm a window was closed or the stove turned off. As a security precaution, the drone cannot be controlled manually and can only fly on pre-determined paths.
Taking Amazon outside of the home was first available to consumers in January 2019 in the form of Echo Auto and later in 2019 with the Echo Loop and Echo Frames. Ring is taking a similar path with its new portfolio of car security products including Ring Car Alarm, Ring Car Cam and Ring Car Connect API. Ring Car Alarm is like the Vivint Car Guard product but without the car diagnostics. For Ring Cam, this camera can start recording during a traffic stop and provide first responder support in the case of an accident. It is unclear if the camera can record continuously while driving or if recording is predicated on certain events happening.
Ring is also taking privacy to the next level by announcing end-to-end encryption for security cameras and video doorbells. When the feature is enabled, users can only view camera feeds from the mobile app, which will utilize a special key that must be decrypted on that assigned mobile device.
Amazon also announced Care Hub, which is a free feature for monitoring seniors. It works by allowing a caregiver to monitor the activity feeds of the senior. It will not show the caregiver songs or questions that the senior asked Alexa, instead it will only show that there was activity. Through the Care Hub, seniors can also ask Alexa for help, which will immediately alert care givers.
Guard Plus is a feature that takes Alexa Guard to the next level by including professional support services. When Guard is activated, emergency helpline staff will respond to the incident and will notify emergency services if needed. Limited to Guard Plus is a sound feature that identifies footsteps, door closing and other sounds in the home that could be an intruder. So, this ‘activity sound’ detection feature along with the deterrents of dog barking sounds (from the Echo speaker) or siren (from Echo speaker) is available with the premium service.
eero 6 brings Wi-Fi 6 to the Amazon family. This comes as Amazon announces a cloud gaming service and other devices that will benefit from the latest Wi-Fi technology. Since the latest smart speakers from Amazon now include a smart hub, the benefit of having Zigbee integrated into these routers is less important for expanding the smart home, unless the directly connected devices can benefit from advanced cyber protection. Nonetheless, by unveiling a Wi-Fi 6 router, Amazon expands its grip on the home – from television and music to smart speakers and now gaming – and a strong Wi-Fi network will only enhance the experience.
Amazon has long had a reputation for eccentric product announcements during its fall hardware event, but this year was an exception. In terms of smart speaker and smart home (security), all the announcements are immediately relevant and boost Amazon and Ring in their respective markets. For the smart speaker and voice assistant, the AI enhancements will make Alexa even more natural sounding and are impressive but especially exciting is the ‘natural turn taking’ announcement. Although privacy concerns will be inevitable, the ability for Alexa to jump into the middle of a conversation when summoned and interject only when being spoken to (without a wake word) is an important evolution of the voice assistant.
This event also demonstrates the innovation capabilities of Amazon. Even when smart speaker penetration is nearing 50% of broadband households in the United States, Amazon gives consumers a reason to upgrade, with the AZ1 Neural Edge processor and smart home functions of Zigbee, BLE and Amazon Sidewalk controls. The benefit of AZ1 is not just faster response times from Alexa but the ability to do more audio processing at the edge, meaning all audio does not need to be sent to the cloud for processing and then back to the speaker. Although Amazon did not suggest that queries can be done when the Echo speaker is offline, it is likely the path Amazon is embarking.
A common thread in today’s announcements is security. From Guard Plus and Care Hub to Ring cameras and end-to-end encryption, Amazon is tackling home security from multiple points.
One of the most interesting security features announced was the Ring Always Home Cam. This drone designed for inside homes removes the limitations of a fixed camera. While a fixed camera offers peace of mind in terms of identifying false alarms, it cannot identify if a window was left open, a door unlocked, stove or oven left on, among other concerns homeowners often face when leaving home. This product could also be valuable for owners of rental properties or vacation homes that want to check on the status of a home remotely.
Meanwhile, professional security service providers will likely be more concerned with Guard Plus, compared to the other announcements, which offers emergency helpline services for only $4.99 a month. Although this doesn’t replace a central monitoring station, it will be an enticing offer for consumers that don’t want a traditional alarm system but do want peace of mind that someone will be notified in an emergency.
Care Hub is an interesting first step for Amazon in the smart home/ senior care market, but the concept is predicated on the senior interacting regularly with Alexa. If Care Hub can also monitor Zigbee devices like motion sensors or door/window contacts for activity, then the utility of this offering is immediately enhanced.
Over the past 12 months, Ring has been criticized for the lack of security for its cameras. Since then, the brand has introduced two-factor authentication (2FA), a control center for monitoring activity on the account and now end-to-end encryption. Although some consumers will continue to be skeptical due to Rings police partnerships, this latest feature for Ring devices should significantly increase the security of the ecosystem and provide peace of mind for its users.
Overall, Amazon continues to be a trailblazer and todays announcements will further entrench Amazon and Ring as market leaders in their respective categories. Over the next 12 months, Amazon will likely be closely watching Ring’s success with the indoor drone in order to see its reception in the market – as Amazon looks toward drones and robots to deliver packages. For its car alarm, Amazon will be able to collect loads of data on where and how to improve Sidewalk. Privacy concerns will not be resolved though with the introduction of AZ1 and end-to-end encryption. If Alexa will soon be able to communicate without a wake word and there will be a drone flying around the house, consumers will be rightfully concerned how data is being used, so while Amazon and Ring are closing the door on some privacy concerns, the latest announcements will likely usher in a plethora of new issues for consumer privacy.