Hey Alexa, Ok Google and… Err, Siri?

Apple is launching a smart speaker in December 2017, a late entry to the voice-responsive speaker market after Amazon and Google. Are these speakers any good or of use in Sri Lanka?

Amazon’s Echo and Google’s Home smart speakers respond to voice commands to switch on the connected lights at home, play music or order a taxi. However, their full functionality is only accessible in countries where these devices have been officially launched. Apple’s new smart speaker, the HomePod, will only be available in the US, Australia and the UK when it’s launched in December. Advances in voice recognition technology; the technological capabilities of Amazon, Google and Apple; and the ability to access their services through these devices make them powerful tools. After all, everybody uses a smartphone running Google or Apple software, and sometimes Amazon’s services to consume media, stay in touch with people and buy stuff online.

However, are these devices – none available in Sri Lanka so far – of any use here? We take a look at their “skills”, quirks, weaknesses and usefulness in Sri Lanka.

AMAZON ECHO
“ALEXA , TELL ME A JOKE”

Amazon’s Echo is a black, cylindrical device that answers to the name Alexa. Basically – like the one from Google and Apple’s yet-to-be-launched device – it’s a speaker connected to the internet via the home wi-fi network and tethered to a smartphone through wireless Bluetooth technology. Its microphones pick up voices, and recent advances in voice computing technology delivered over the internet then take over. Alexa can call up internet radio stations, play music off Amazon’s Prime Music service (now available for subscription from Sri Lanka), tell jokes, answer trivia questions and control smart appliances.

Since its launch, devices that are compatible with Echo have been growing at a steady pace, from lightbulbs to cameras. These can be purchased on Amazon, but those that are made for the US market are incompatible with Sri Lanka’s voltage. Smart devices made for use in the UK, where Echo services are also available, are voltage compatible.

Because the device isn’t launched in Sri Lanka, the Echo app is unavailable in the App Store and Google’s Play Store, and it’s not possible to set the device’s location to Sri Lanka. That considerably limits its ability to check the local weather or to even book an Uber.

Despite its limitations, Echo can be an entertaining gadget at home. It struggles at times to decipher English accents, but becomes better over time. Its ability to understand dialects improves and is not limited bythe hardware because voice computing is delivered via the cloud.

Echo can be ordered on www.kapruka.com, and costs $179.99 on amazon.com

APPLE’S NEW HOME POD
“SIRI, PLAY MY FAVOAURITE MUSIC”

Apple diehards have had to compromise, settling for an Amazon or Google device. In June 2017, the company announced that HomePod will go on sale in the US, the UK and Australia in December. The Pod’s promotional video and pics indicate that the device looks good, and its claimed audio quality will make it a class leader for music. It will apparently be able to detect where in a room it’s placed, if it’s against a wall or at the center of an open room, and adjust acoustics to suit. Apple fanboys will be relieved that the seven-inch-high unit looks goods, and is available in black and white.

As simple as it seems, that smart speakers offer voice inputs to do stuff that was earlier done with a few keystrokes is a pivotal transformation. Industry watchers say voice will transform computing because it’s intuitive. The ability to talk to a computer abolishes the need for any interface, and makes it possible for computers to be used all the time, for instance even when driving a vehicle.

Apple HomePod will be priced at $349 at launch in December 2017

GOOGLE HOME
“OK GOOGLE, HOW LONG WILL IT TAKE ME TO D RIVE TO WORK TODAY?”

Google Home is the latest entrant to the smart speaker club. Since Google already knows a lot about its users from their web history, smartphone GPS and email metadata, it provides highly personalised answers to questions. With Home, Google will potentially now know the goings on in the living room, completing the digital picture of every user. That’s because voice-driven devices are always listening, waiting for phrases that activate them. For Home, that phrase is ‘Ok Google’. It’s unclear what the tech firms are doing with this information.

Adding to privacy concerns are security risks. Should any smart speakers  be hacked, they can paint a picture of a family’s living room. However, these haven’t prevented mass adoption of privacy-invading technology that puts enormous personal information in the hands of giant technology firms. Users are essentially trading privacy for convenience. Google claims Home’s built-in Google Assistant is easily integrated with maps, calendar and Chromecast, the company’s streaming service. One of Home’s most impressive features is its ability to recognise voices apart from your family, and providing personalised responses to queries. However, compared to Echo, which was launched in 2015, Home has some way to go to improve its services.

Google Home is available in the US, the UK and Canada for $129