Thursday, 18 January 2018 09:34

Amazon's Alexa and Echo devices coming to Australia Featured

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Amazon's Alexa voice assistant, plus Amazon's range of Echo devices, including an all-new Echo, are finally hitting Australian shores.

Alexa is Amazon's cloud-based voice service. It answers questions, plays music, integrates with home control devices like Philips Hue, Sensibo, Nest and more, reads ebooks, and has many other functions.

While Microsoft, Apple and Google also offer voice assistants in the form of Cortana, Siri and Google Assistant, at this time only Amazon is actively working to bring voice into boardrooms as well as homes, with Amazon's chief technology officer and vice-president Werner Vogel stating "Voice represents the next major disruption in computing."

Yet, Cortana, Siri and Google's unnamed Assistant have already launched in Australia. Amazon is now set to redress this hemispherical imbalance, announcing today that Alexa and three Alexa-enabled Echo devices are now heading this way.

Three devices can be pre-ordered right now, with shipping beginning in early February – the Amazon Echo, the smaller Echo Dot, and the brand new Echo Plus.

Ordinarily, the Amazon Echo is priced at $149, the Echo Dot at $79 and the Echo Plus at $229. However, Amazon is offering special limited-time pricing right now at $119, $49 and $199 respectively. Further discounts are available on multi-packs. The Plus includes a built-in smart home hub so one can easily connect compatible smart devices like lights. For a limited time, the Plus also includes a free Philips Hue globe.

Alexa is the brains behind the Echo devices — Internet-connected voice-controlled speakers — which keeps getting smarter. Amazon has included a brand new voice for the Alexa Australia and New Zealand edition, with local knowledge and skills built by Australian developers. Alexa detects the wake word "Alexa", and begins processing the voice request which follows. You can ask Alexa to read the news, to tell you the weather, to play games and music, to look things up on Wikipedia and many other useful commands.

Amazon also announced Amazon Music Unlimited, its on-demand streaming music service, is coming to Australia, and every Echo device owner can enjoy a free 90-day trial for a limited time. One can also stream music from a Bluetooth device, or connect to Spotify, iHeartRadio or TuneIn.

“Tens of millions of customers are already using Alexa, and today we’re excited to bring her to Australia with a localised experience designed for our Australian customers,” said Dave Limp, senior vice-president, Amazon Devices & Services. “The combination of Alexa and Echo provides customers with hands-free access to music, weather, news, information, and more – just ask.”

The Amazon Echo has seven microphones that use beam-forming technology and noise cancellation so one can be clearly heard across the room. Signals from individual microphones are used to suppress noise, reverberation, the music currently playing and even competing speech to make sure Alexa clearly hears a request, even in a noisy room.

The device also includes a 2.5" down-firing woofer, dedicated tweeter, Dolby processing and 360-degree omnidirectional audio so it can deliver crisp vocals and dynamic bass throughout the room.

The Echo Dot is a sleeker and more compact device, but still contains the same far-field voice recognition.

The Echo Plus is new, and with its built-in smart home hub aims to make home automation and device control a snap. Just say "Alexa, discover my devices" and the Echo Plus will automatically discover and set up compatible lights, smart plugs and switches without the need for additional hubs or apps. This includes support for Philips Hue, Telstra Smart Home, Harmony, and other well-known popular smart devices.

A new Routines feature also allows you to automate a series of customisable actions using a single voice command of your choosing. For example, "Alexa, good night" might be programmed to dim the lights and turn off the television. Routines don't need to be voice-activated; you can also create routines that act based on time of day – such as turning on the kitchen lights, powering on the coffee maker, and reading the weather forecast at 7:00 am each weekday, or 9:00 am each weekend. This compares favourably with competing voice assistants that do not offer non-voice schedules.

Echo also provides hands-free calling and messaging to anyone else with an Echo device or the Alexa app, without them needing to be on your Wi-Fi network.

There's almost no end to what you can do with Alexa, and being cloud-based, the range of features is always growing. In addition to the above, ask Alexa to set a timer or an alarm, ask Alexa to tell you a joke, ask Alexa to set reminders or place things on your shopping list, to read your calendar, and many, many more.

Developers can add to this range of features using the Alexa Skills Kit (ASK) to add smarts based on your company or interests or needs. Some skills already available include loyalty programme updates from Qantas and account balance updates from Westpac and NAB.

The devices will ship from Amazon in early February, and will also be available at JB Hi-Fi, Officeworks, Telstra and Myer.

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David M Williams

David has been computing since 1984 where he instantly gravitated to the family Commodore 64. He completed a Bachelor of Computer Science degree from 1990 to 1992, commencing full-time employment as a systems analyst at the end of that year. David subsequently worked as a UNIX Systems Manager, Asia-Pacific technical specialist for an international software company, Business Analyst, IT Manager, and other roles. David has been the Chief Information Officer for national public companies since 2007, delivering IT knowledge and business acumen, seeking to transform the industries within which he works. David is also involved in the user group community, the Australian Computer Society technical advisory boards, and education.

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