echo

The robot homecoming is upon us

Posted by | ABB, Anki, Bosch, echo, elephant, Gadgets, hardware, home appliances, iRobot, Kuri, robotics, Roomba, Samsung, smart speaker, Sony, t10, TC | No Comments

Robots were everywhere at CES, as has been the case for at least a decade. But there’s a different tenor to the robots shown off at the recent annual consumer tech event: they’re designed for home use, and they’re shipping products, not just concepts intended strictly for trade show glam.

Home robots have already had a few false starts, including some high-profile flare-outs like Anki and previous CES darling Kuri (despite the backing of global technology giant Bosch) . But other robots, including autonomous vacuums, have already carved out niches for themselves within the domestic milieu. Between slow-burn but now mature categories and the sheer volume of newer products jumping in to establish new beachheads, it now seems certain we’re on a path at the end of which lie hybrid companion and functional robots that will become common household items.

Industrial to residential

One of the biggest signs that home robotics is gaining credibility as a market is the fact that companies which have found success in industrial technology are branching out. At CES, I spoke to Elephant Robotics founder and CEO Joey Song, who was at the show demonstrating MarsCat, a fully developed robotic cat designed to be a companion pet with full autonomous interactivity, similar to Sony’s Aibo.

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The time is right for Apple to buy Sonos

Posted by | AirPlay, Amazon, amazon alexa, Apple, apple inc, apple music, controller, echo, Gadgets, Google, hardware, HomePod, ios devices, iPhone, siri, smart speakers, Sonos, Spotify, TC, video streaming services, virtual assistant | No Comments

It’s been a busy couple of months for smart speakers — Amazon released a bunch just this week, including updated versions of its existing Echo hardware and a new Echo Studio with premium sound. Sonos also introduced its first portable speaker with Bluetooth support, the Sonos Move, and in August launched its collaboration collection with Ikea. Meanwhile, Apple didn’t say anything about the HomePod at its latest big product event — an omission that makes it all the more obvious the smart move would be for Apple to acquire a company that knows what they’re doing in this category: Sonos.

Highly aligned

From an outsider perspective, it’s hard to find two companies that seem more philosophically aligned than Sonos and Apple when it comes to product design and business model. Both are clearly focused on delivering premium hardware (at a price point that’s generally at the higher end of the mass market) and both use services to augment and complement the appeal of their hardware, even if Apple’s been shifting that mix a bit with a fast-growing services business.

Sonos, like Apple, clearly has a strong focus and deep investment in industrial design, and puts a lot of effort into truly distinctive product look and feel that stands out from the crowd — and is instantly identifiable once you know what to look for. Even the company’s preference for a mostly black and white palette feels distinctly Apple — at least Apple leading up to the prior renaissance of multi-color palettes for some of its more popular devices, including the iPhone.

airplay2 headerFrom a technical perspective, Apple and Sonos seem keen to work together — and the results of their collaboration has been great for consumers who use both ecosystems. AirPlay 2 support is effectively standard on all modern Sonos hardware, and really Sonos is essentially the default choice already for anyone looking to do AirPlay 2-based multiform audio, thanks to the wide range of options available in different form factors and at different price points. Sonos and Apple also offer an Apple Music integration for Sonos’ controller app, and now you can use voice control via Alexa to play Apple Music, too.

Competitive moves

The main issue that an Apple-owned Sonos hasn’t made much sense before now, at least from Sonos’ perspective, is that the speaker maker has reaped the benefits of being a platform that plays nice with all the major streaming service providers and virtual assistants. Recent Sonos speakers offer both Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant support, for instance, and Sonos’ software has connections with virtually every major music and audio streaming service available.

What’s changed, especially in light of Amazon’s slew of announcements this week, is that competitors like Amazon are looking more like they want to own more of the business that currently falls within Sonos’ domain. Amazon’s Echo Studio is a new premium speaker that directly competes with Sonos in a way that previous Echos really haven’t, and the company has consistently been releasing better-sounding versions of its other, more affordable Echos. It’s also been rolling out more feature-rich multi-room audio features, including wireless surround support for home theater use — all things squarely in the Sonos wheelhouse.

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For now, Sonos and Amazon seem to be comfortably in “frenemy” territory, but increasingly, it doesn’t seem like Amazon is content to leave them their higher-end market segment when it comes to the speaker hardware category. Amazon still probably will do whatever it can to maximize use of Alexa, on both its own and third-party devices, but it also seems to be intent on strengthening and expanding its own first-party device lineup, with speakers as low-hanging fruit.

Other competitors, including Google and Apple, don’t seem to have had as much success with their products that line up as direct competitors to Sonos, but the speaker-maker also faces perennial challenges from hi-fi and audio industry stalwarts, and also seems likely to go up against newer device makers with audio ambitions and clear cost advantages, like Anker.

Missing ingredients/work to be done

Of course, there are some big challenges and potential red flags that stand in the way of Apple ever buying Sonos, or of that resulting union working out well for consumers. Sonos works so well because it’s service-agnostic, for instance, and the key to its success with recent products seems to also be integration with the smart home assistants that people seem to actually want to use most — namely Alexa and Google Assistant.

Under Apple ownership, it’s highly possible that Apple Music would at least get preferential treatment, if not become the lone streaming service on offer. It’s probable that Siri would replace Alexa and Assistant as the only virtual voice service available, and almost unthinkable that Apple would continue to support competing services if it did make this buy.

That said, there’s probably significant overlap between Apple and Sonos customers already, and as long as there was some service flexibility (in the same way there is for streaming competitors on iOS devices, including Spotify), then being locked into Siri probably wouldn’t sting as much. And it would serve to give Siri the foothold at home that the HomePod hasn’t managed to provide. Apple would also be better incentivized to work on improving Siri’s performance as a general home-based assistant, which would ultimately be good for Apple ecosystem customers.

Another smart adjacency

Apple’s bigger acquisitions are few and far between, but the ones it does make are typically obviously adjacent to its core business. A Sonos acquisition has a pretty strong precedent in the Beats purchase Apple made in 2014, albeit without the strong motivator of providing the underlying product and relationship basis for launching a streaming service.

What Sonos is, however, is an inversion of the historical Apple model of using great services to sell hardware. The Sonos ecosystem is a great, easy to use, premium-feel means of making the most of Apple’s music and video streaming services (and brand new games subscription offering), all of which are more important than ever to the company as it diversifies from its monolithic iPhone business.

I’m hardly the first to suggest an Apple-Sonos deal makes sense: J.P. Morgan analyst Samik Chatterjee suggested it earlier this year, in fact. From my perspective, however, the timing has never been better for this acquisition to take place, and the motivations never stronger for either party involved.

Disclosure: I worked briefly for Apple in its communications department in 2015-2016, but the above analysis is based entirely on publicly available information, and I hold no stock in either company.

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Is Amazon’s Alexa ready to leave home and become a wearable voice assistant?

Posted by | Amazon, Amazon Hardware Event 2019, Android, Assistant, car accessory, computing, digital assistant, echo, Fire OS, fire phone, Gadgets, Google, hardware, operating systems, Seattle, smart speakers, smartphone, Speaker, TC, virtual assistant | No Comments

Amazon’s device event today played host to a dizzying number of product announcements, of all stripes — but notably, there are three brand new ways to wear Alexa on your body. Amazon clearly wants to give you plenty of options to take Alexa with you when you leave the house, the only place it’s really held sway so far — but can Amazon actually convince people that it’s the voice interface for everywhere, and not just for home?

Among the products Amazon announced at its Seattle event, Echo Frames, Echo Loop and Echo Buds all provide ways to take Alexa with you wherever you go. What’s super interesting — and telling — about this is that Amazon went with three different vectors to try to convince people to wear Alexa, instead of focusing its efforts on just one. That indicates a stronger than ever desire to break Alexa out of its home environment.

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The company has tried to get this done in different ways before. Alexa has appeared in Bluetooth speakers and headphones, in some cars (including now GM, as of today) and via Amazon’s own car accessory — and though the timing didn’t line up, it would’ve been a lock for Amazon’s failed Fire Phone.

Notice that none of these existing examples have helped Amazon gain any apparent significant market share when it comes to Alexa use on the go. While we don’t have great stats on how well-adopted Alexa is in-car, for instance, it stands to reason that we’d be hearing a lot more about its success if it was indeed massively successful — in the same way we hear often about Alexa’s prevalence in the home.

Amazon lacks a key vector that other voice assistants got for free: Being the default option on a smartphone. Google Assistant manages this through both Google’s own, and third-party Android, phones. Apple’s Siri isn’t often celebrated for its skill and performance, but there’s no question that it benefits from being the only really viable option on iOS when it comes to voice assistant software.

Amazon had to effectively invent a product category to get Alexa any traction at all — the Echo basically created the smart speaker category, at least in terms of significant mass market uptake. Its success with its existing Echo devices proves that this category served a market need, and Amazon has reaped significant reward as a result.

But for Amazon, a virtual assistant that only operates in the confines of the home covers only a tiny part of the picture when it comes to building more intelligent and nuanced customer profiles, which is the whole point of the endeavor to begin with. While Americans seem to be spending more time at home than ever before, a big percentage of peoples’ days is still spent outside, and this is largely invisible to Alexa.

The thing is, the only reliable and proven way to ensure you’re with someone throughout their entire day is to be on their smartphone. Alexa is, via Amazon’s own app, but that’s a far cry from being a native feature of the device, and just a single tap or voice command away. Amazon’s own smartphone ambitions deflated pretty quickly, so now it’s casting around for alternatives — and Loop, Frames and Buds all represent its most aggressive attempts yet.

alexa echo amazon 9250074

A smart spread of bets, each with their own smaller pool of penetration among users versus a general staple like a smartphone, might be Amazon’s best way to actually drive adoption — especially if they’re not concerned with the overall economics of the individual hardware businesses attached to each.

The big question will be whether A) these products can either offer enough value on their own to justify their continued use while Alexa catches up to out-of-home use cases from a software perspective, or B) Amazon’s Alexa team can iterate the assistant’s feature set quickly enough to make it as useful on the go as it is at home, which hasn’t seemed like something it’s been able to do to date (not having direct access to smartphone functions like texting and calling is probably a big part of that).

Specifically for these new products, I’d put the Buds at the top of the list as the most likely to make Alexa a boon companion for a much greater number of people. The buds themselves offer a very compelling price point for their feature set, and Alexa coming along for the ride is likely just a bonus for a large percentage of their addressable market. Both the Frames and the Loop seem a lot more experimental, but Amazon’s limited release go-to-market strategy suggest it has planned for that as well.

In the end, these products are interesting and highly indicative of Amazon’s direction and ambition with Alexa overall, but I don’t think this is the watershed moment for the digital assistant beyond the home. Still, it’s probably among the most interesting spaces in tech to watch, because of how much is at stake for both winners and losers.

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Amazon’s Echo Show can now identify household pantry items held in front of its camera

Posted by | accessibility, Alexa, Amazon, echo, Echo Show, Gadgets, Show and tell | No Comments

Amazon is introducing a new feature to its Alexa Show device designed to help blind and other low-vision customers identify common household pantry items by holding them in front of Alexa’s camera and asking what it is. The feature uses a combination of computer vision and machine learning techniques in order to recognize the objects the Echo Show sees.

The Echo Show is the version of the Alexa-powered smart speaker that tends to sit in customers’ kitchens because it helps them with other kitchen tasks, like setting timers, watching recipe videos or enjoying a little music or TV while they cook.

But for blind users, the Show will now have a new duty: helping them better identify those household pantry items that are hard to distinguish by touch — like cans, boxed foods, or spices, for example. 

To use the feature, customers can just say things like “Alexa, what am I holding?” or “Alexa, what’s in my hand?” Alexa will also give verbal and audio cues to help the customers place the item in front of the device’s camera.

Amazon says the feature was developed in collaboration with blind Amazon employees, including its principal accessibility engineer, Josh Miele, who gathered feedback from both blind and low-vision customers as part of the development process. The company also worked with the Vista Center for the Blind in Santa Cruz on early research, product development and testing.

“We heard that product identification can be a challenge and something customers wanted Alexa’s help with,” explained Sarah Caplener, head of Amazon’s Alexa for Everyone team. “Whether a customer is sorting through a bag of groceries, or trying to determine what item was left out on the counter, we want to make those moments simpler by helping identify these items and giving customers the information they need in that moment,” she said.

Smart home devices and intelligent voice assistants like Alexa have made life easier for disabled individuals, as it allows them to do things like adjust the thermostats and lights, lock the doors, raise the blinds and more. With “Show and Tell,” Amazon hopes to reach the wide market of blind and low-vision customers, as well. According to the World Health Organization, there are an estimated 1.3 billion with some sort of vision impairment, Amazon says.

That being said, Echo devices aren’t globally available — and even when they are offered in a particular country, the device may not support the local language. Plus, the feature itself is U.S.-only at launch.

Amazon isn’t alone in making accessibility a selling point for its smart speakers and screens. At Google’s I/O developer conference this year, it introduced a range of accessibility projects, including Live Caption, which transcribes real-time audio; Live Relay, for helping the deaf make phone calls; Project Diva, for helping those who don’t speak use smart assistants; and Project Euphonia, which helps make voice recognition work for those with speech impairments.

Show and Tell is available now to Alexa users in the U.S. on first and second-generation Echo Show devices.

 

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Google falls to third place in worldwide smart speaker market

Posted by | alibaba, Amazon, Amazon Echo, Assistant, Baidu, China, echo, Gadgets, Google, google home, hardware, smart speakers, Speaker, United States, voice assistants, voice computing, Xiaomi | No Comments

The global smart speaker market grew 55.4% in the second quarter to reach 26.1 million shipments, according to a new report from Canalys. Amazon continued to lead the race, accounting for 6.6 million units shipped in the quarter. Google, however, fell to the third spot as China’s Baidu surged ahead. Baidu in Q2 grew a sizable 3,700% to reach 4.5 million units, overtaking Google’s 4.3 million units shipped.

China’s market overall doubled its quarterly shipments to 12.6 million units, or more than twice the U.S.’s 6.1 million total. The latter represents a slight (2.4%) decline since the prior quarter.

Baidu’s growth in the quarter was attributed to aggressive marketing and go-to-market campaigns. It was particularly successful in terms of smart displays, which accounted for 45% of the products it shipped.

“Local network operators’ interests on the [smart display] device category soared recently. This bodes well for Baidu as it faces little competition in the smart display category, allowing the company to dominate in the operator channel,” noted Canalys Research Analyst Cynthia Chen.

Meanwhile, Google was challenged by the Nest rebranding in Q2, the analyst firm said.

The report also suggested that Google should introduce a revamped smart speaker portfolio to rekindle consumer interest. The Google Home device hasn’t been updated since launch — still sporting the air freshener-style looks it had back in 2016. And the Google Home mini hasn’t received much more than a color change.

Instead, Google’s attention as of late has been on making it easier for device manufacturers to integrate with Google Assistant technology, in addition to its increased focus on smart displays.

Amazon, by comparison, has updated its Echo line of speakers several times while expanding Alexa to devices with screens like the Echo Spot and Show, and to those without like the Echo Plus, Echo Dot, Echo Auto and others — even clocks and microwaves — as sort of public experiments in voice computing.

That said, both Amazon and Google turned their attention to non-U.S. markets in Q2, the report found. Indeed, 50% of Amazon’s smart speaker shipments were outside the U.S. in Q2, up from 32% in Q2 last year. And 55% of Google’s shipments were outside the U.S., up from 42% in Q2 2018.

table ifnal final

Beyond the top 3 — Amazon, Baidu and now No. 3 Google — the remaining top five included Alibaba and Xiaomi, with 4.1 million and 2.8 million units shipped in Q2, respectively.

The rest of the market, which would also include Apple’s HomePod, totaled 3.7 million units.

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You can now ask your car how your stock is trading

Posted by | Amazon, Android, Apple, automotive, CarPlay, echo, mobile app, TD Ameritrade, Transportation | No Comments

TD Ameritrade has integrated with in-vehicle software platforms Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and Amazon’s Echo Auto to give customers the ability to check their stock portfolio or get the latest financial news while sitting behind the wheel.

TD Ameritrade launched the suite of in-vehicle experiences this week, the latest move by the company to place investors just a voice command or click away from a stock price or other financial information.

TD Ameritrade Chief Information Officer Vijay Sankaran called this a “natural next step” and another way the company is “using complex technology to weave investing seamlessly into our daily lives.”

For now, customers won’t be able to make trades within the vehicle. Although that might be another “natural next step,” considering the trajectory of TD Ameritrade. Customers already can trade over the phone, via a desktop computer or mobile app and, more recently, through Amazon Alexa-enabled devices.

Instead, the features will depend on which in-vehicle software platform a customer is using. For those with Apple CarPlay, customers can keep track of real-time market news with a new TDAN Radio app from the TD Ameritrade Network. The network will broadcast news live via audio streaming optimized for CarPlay.

Drivers using the Android Auto and Echo Auto platforms have the option to use voice commands to unlock market performance summaries and sector updates, hear real-time quotes and check account balances and portfolio performance.

“In a connected world like ours, we have to meet investors where they are, whether at home, in the office, or on the go,” Sunayna Tuteja, head of strategic partnerships and emerging technologies at TD Ameritrade said in a statement. “In-vehicle technology offers a new type of connectivity that further breaks down barriers to accessing financial education and markets.”

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Alexa, does the Echo Dot Kids protect children’s privacy?

Posted by | Advertising Tech, Amazon, Amazon Echo, Amazon.com, artificial intelligence, center for digital democracy, coppa, Disney, echo, echo dot kids, eCommerce, Federal Trade Commission, Gadgets, nickelodeon, privacy, privacy policy, smart assistant, smart speaker, Speech Recognition, terms of service, United States, voice assistant | No Comments

A coalition of child protection and privacy groups has filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) urging it to investigate a kid-focused edition of Amazon’s Echo smart speaker.

The complaint against Amazon Echo Dot Kids, which has been lodged with the FTC by groups including the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, the Center for Digital Democracy and the Consumer Federation of America, argues that the e-commerce giant is violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) — including by failing to obtain proper consents for the use of kids’ data.

As with its other smart speaker Echo devices, the Echo Dot Kids continually listens for a wake word and then responds to voice commands by recording and processing users’ speech. The difference with this Echo is it’s intended for children to use — which makes it subject to U.S. privacy regulation intended to protect kids from commercial exploitation online.

The complaint, which can be read in full via the group’s complaint website, argues that Amazon fails to provide adequate information to parents about what personal data will be collected from their children when they use the Echo Dot Kids; how their information will be used; and which third parties it will be shared with — meaning parents do not have enough information to make an informed decision about whether to give consent for their child’s data to be processed.

They also accuse Amazon of providing at best “unclear and confusing” information per its obligation under COPPA to also provide notice to parents to obtain consent for children’s information to be collected by third parties via the online service — such as those providing Alexa “skills” (aka apps the AI can interact with to expand its utility).

A number of other concerns about Amazon’s device are also being raised with the FTC.

Amazon released the Echo Dot Kids a year ago — and, as we noted at the time, it’s essentially a brightly bumpered iteration of the company’s standard Echo Dot hardware.

There are differences in the software, though. In parallel, Amazon updated its Alexa smart assistant — adding parental controls, aka its FreeTime software, to the child-focused smart speaker.

Amazon said the free version of FreeTime that comes bundled with the Echo Dot Kids provides parents with controls to manage their kids’ use of the product, including device time limits; parental controls over skills and services; and the ability to view kids’ activity via a parental dashboard in the app. The software also removes the ability for Alexa to be used to make phone calls outside the home (while keeping an intercom functionality).

A paid premium tier of FreeTime (called FreeTime Unlimited) also bundles additional kid-friendly content, including Audible books, ad-free radio stations from iHeartRadio Family and premium skills and stories from the likes of Disney, National Geographic and Nickelodeon .

At the time it announced the Echo Dot Kids, Amazon said it had tweaked its voice assistant to support kid-focused interactions — saying it had trained the AI to understand children’s questions and speech patterns, and incorporated new answers targeted specifically at kids (such as jokes).

But while the company was ploughing resource into adding a parental control layer to Echo and making Alexa’s speech recognition kid-friendly, the COPPA complaint argues it failed to pay enough attention to the data protection and privacy obligations that apply to products targeted at children — as the Echo Dot Kids clearly is.

Or, to put it another way, Amazon offers parents some controls over how their children can interact with the product — but not enough controls over how Amazon (and others) can interact with their children’s data via the same always-on microphone.

More specifically, the group argues that Amazon is failing to meet its obligation as the operator of a child-directed service to provide notice and obtain consent for third parties operating on the Alexa platform to use children’s data — noting that its Children’s Privacy Disclosure policy states it does not apply to third-party services and skills.

Instead, the complaint says Amazon tells parents they should review the skill’s policies concerning data collection and use. “Our investigation found that only about 15% of kid skills provide a link to a privacy policy. Thus, Amazon’s notice to parents regarding data collection by third parties appears designed to discourage parental engagement and avoid Amazon’s responsibilities under Coppa,” the group writes in a summary of their complaint.

They are also objecting to how Amazon is obtaining parental consent — arguing its system for doing so is inadequate because it’s merely asking that a credit or debit/debit gift card number be inputted.

“It does not verify that the person ‘consenting’ is the child’s parent as required by Coppa,” they argue. “Nor does Amazon verify that the person consenting is even an adult because it allows the use of debit gift cards and does not require a financial transaction for verification.”

Another objection is that Amazon is retaining audio recordings of children’s voices far longer than necessary — keeping them indefinitely unless a parent actively goes in and deletes the recordings, despite COPPA requiring that children’s data be held for no longer than is reasonably necessary.

They found that additional data (such as transcripts of audio recordings) was also still retained even after audio recordings had been deleted. A parent must contact Amazon customer service to explicitly request deletion of their child’s entire profile to remove that data residue — meaning that to delete all recorded kids’ data a parent has to nix their access to parental controls and their kids’ access to content provided via FreeTime — so the complaint argues that Amazon’s process for parents to delete children’s information is “unduly burdensome” too.

Their investigation also found the company’s process for letting parents review children’s information to be similarly arduous, with no ability for parents to search the collected data — meaning they have to listen/read every recording of their child to understand what has been stored.

They further highlight that children’s Echo Dot Kids’ audio recordings can of course include sensitive personal details — such as if a child uses Alexa’s “remember” feature to ask the AI to remember personal data such as their address and contact details or personal health information like a food allergy.

The group’s complaint also flags the risk of other children having their data collected and processed by Amazon without their parents’ consent — such as when a child has a friend or family member visiting on a play date and they end up playing with the Echo together.

Responding to the complaint, Amazon has denied it is in breach of COPPA. In a statement, a company spokesperson said: “FreeTime on Alexa and Echo Dot Kids Edition are compliant with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). Customers can find more information on Alexa and overall privacy practices here: https://www.amazon.com/alexa/voice [amazon.com].”

An Amazon spokesperson also told us it only allows kid skills to collect personal information from children outside of FreeTime Unlimited (i.e. the paid tier) — and then only if the skill has a privacy policy and the developer separately obtains verified consent from the parent, adding that most kid skills do not have a privacy policy because they do not collect any personal information.

At the time of writing, the FTC had not responded to a request for comment on the complaint.

In Europe, there has been growing concern over the use of children’s data by online services. A report by England’s children’s commissioner late last year warned kids are being “datafied,” and suggested profiling at such an early age could lead to a data-disadvantaged generation.

Responding to rising concerns the U.K. privacy regulator launched a consultation on a draft Code of Practice for age appropriate design last month, asking for feedback on 16 proposed standards online services must meet to protect children’s privacy — including requiring that product makers put the best interests of the child at the fore, deliver transparent T&Cs, minimize data use and set high privacy defaults.

The U.K. government has also recently published a whitepaper setting out a policy plan to regulate internet content that has a heavy focus on child safety.

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Review: The $199 Echo Link turns the fidelity up to 11

Posted by | Amazon, Amazon Echo, amazon music unlimited, computing, echo, Echo Link, Gadgets, Google, google home, hardware, microsoft windows, operating systems, Pandora, smart speakers, Sonos, Spotify, streaming services | No Comments

The Echo Link takes streaming music and makes it sound better. Just wirelessly connect it to an Echo device and plug it into a set of nice speakers. It’s the missing link.

The Link bridges the gap between streaming music and a nice audio system. Instead of settling for the analog connection of an Echo Dot, the Echo Link serves audio over a digital connection and it makes just enough of a difference to justify the $200 price.

I plugged the Eco Link into the audio system in my office and was pleased with the results. This is the Echo device I’ve been waiting for.

In my case, the Echo Link took Spotfiy’s 320 kbps stream and opened it up. The Link creates a wider soundstage and makes the music a bit more full and expansive. The bass hits a touch harder and the highs now have a newfound crispness. Lyrics are clearer and easier to pick apart. The differences are subtle. Everything is just slightly improved over the sound quality found when using an Echo Dot’s 3.5mm output.

Don’t have a set of nice speakers? That’s okay; Amazon also just released the Echo Link Amp, which features a built-in amplifier capable of powering a set of small speakers.

Here’s the thing: I’m surprised Amazon is making the Echo Link. The device caters to what must be a small demographic of Echo owners looking to improve the quality of Pandora or Spotify when using an audio system. And yet, without support for local or streaming high-resolution audio, it’s not good enough for audiophiles. This is for wannabe audiophiles. Hey, that’s me.

Review

There are Echo’s scattered throughout my house. The devices provide a fantastic way to access music and NPR. The tiny Echo Link is perfect for the system in my office where I have a pair of Definitive Technology bookshelf speakers powered by an Onkyo receiver and amp. I have a turntable and SACD player connected to the receiver, but those are a hassle when I’m at my desk. The majority of the time I listen to Spotify through the Amazon Echo Input.

I added the Onkyo amplifier to the system last year and it made a huge difference to the quality. The music suddenly had more power. The two-channel amp pushes harder than the receiver, and resulted in audio that was more expansive and clear. And at any volume, too. I didn’t know what I was missing. That’s the trick with audio. Most of the time the audio sounds great until it suddenly sounds better. The Echo Link provided me with the same feeling of discovery.

To be clear, the $200 Echo Link does not provide a night and day difference in my audio quality. It’s a slight upgrade over the audio outputted by a $20 Echo Input — and don’t forget, an Echo device (like the $20 Echo Input) is required to make the Echo Link work.

The Echo Link provides the extra juice lacking from the Echo Input or Dot. Those less-expensive options output audio to an audio system, but only through an analog connection. The Echo Link offers a digital connection through Toslink or Digital Coax. It has analog outputs that’s powered by a DAC with a superior dynamic range and total harmonic distortion found in the Input or Dot. It’s an easy way to improve the quality of music from streaming services.

The Echo Link, and Echo Link Amp, also feature a headphone amp. It’s an interesting detail. With this jack, someone could have the Echo Link on their desk and use it to power a set of headphones without any loss of quality.

I set up a simple A/B test to spot the differences between a Link and a Dot. First, I connected the Echo Link with a Toslink connection to my receiver and an Echo Input. I also connected an Echo Dot through its 3.5mm analog connection to the receiver. I created a group in the Alexa app of the devices. This allowed each of the devices to play the same source simultaneously. Then, as needed, I was able to switch between the Dot and Link with just a touch of a button, providing an easy and quick way to test the differences.

I’ll leave it up to you to justify the cost. To me, as someone who has invested money into a quality audio system, the extra cost of the Echo Link is worth it. But to others, an Echo Dot could be enough.

It’s important to note that the Echo Link works a bit differently than other Echo devices connected to an audio system. When, say, a Dot is connected to an audio system, the internal speakers are turned off and all of the audio is sent to the system. The Echo Link doesn’t have to override the companion Echo. When an Echo Link is connected to an Echo device, the Echo still responds through its internal speakers; only music is sent to the Echo Link. For example, when the Echo is asked about the weather, the forecast is played back through the speakers in the Echo and not the audio system connected to the Echo Link. In most cases, this allows the owner to turn off the high-power speakers and still have access to voice commands on the Echo.

The Echo Link takes streaming music and instantly improves the quality. In my case, the improvements were slight but noticeable. It works with all the streaming services supported by Echo devices, but it’s important to note it does not work with Tidal’s high-res Master Audio tracks. The best the Echo Link can do is 320 kbps from Spotify or Tidal. This is a limiting factor and it’s not surprising. If the Echo Link supported Tidal’s Master Tracks, I would likely sign up for that service, and that is not in the best interest of Amazon, which hopes I sign up for Amazon Music Unlimited.

I spoke to Amazon about the Echo Link’s lack of support for Tidal Master Tracks and they indicated they’re interested in hearing how customers will use the device before committing to adding support.

The Link is interesting. Google doesn’t have anything similar in its Google Home Line. The Sonos Amp is similar, but with a built-in amplifier, it’s a closer competitor to the Echo Link Amp. Several high-end audio companies sell components that can stream audio over digital connections, yet none are as easy to use or as inexpensive as the Echo Link. The Echo Link is the easiest way to improve the sound of streaming music services.

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You can now ask Alexa to control your Roku devices

Posted by | Alexa, Amazon, amazon alexa, Amazon Echo, artificial intelligence, echo, Gadgets, Media, roku, Streaming Media, virtual assistant, voice assistant, voice search | No Comments

Roku this morning announced its devices will now be compatible with Amazon’s Alexa. Through a new Roku skill for Alexa, Roku owners will be able to control their devices in order to do things like launch a channel, play or pause a show, search for entertainment options and more. Roku TV owners will additionally be able to control various functions related to their television, like adjusting the volume, turning on and off the TV, switching inputs and changing channels if there is an over-the-air antenna attached.

The added support for Amazon Alexa will be available to devices running Roku OS 8.1 or higher, and will require that customers enable the new Roku skill, which will link their account to Amazon.

Roku has developed its own voice assistant designed specifically for its platform, which is available with a touch of a button on its voice remote as well as through optional accessories like its voice-powered wireless speakers, tabletop Roku Touch remote or TCL’s Roku-branded Smart Soundbar. However, it hasn’t ignored the needs of those who have invested in other voice platforms.

Already, Roku devices work with Google Assistant-powered devices, like Google Home and Google Home Mini, through a similar voice app launched last fall.

Support for the dominant streaming media platform — Amazon Alexa — was bound to be next. EMarketer said Amazon took two-thirds of smart speaker sales last year, and CIRP said Echo has a 70 percent U.S. market share.

The Roku app will work with any Alexa-enabled device, including the Amazon Echo, Echo Show, Echo Dot, Echo Spot and Echo Plus, as well as those powered by Alexa from third parties, the company confirmed to TechCrunch.

Once enabled, you’ll be able to say things like “Alexa, pause Roku,” or “Alexa, open Hulu on Roku,” or “Alexa, find comedies on Roku,” and more. The key will be starting the command with “Alexa,” as usual, then specify “Roku” is where the action should take place (e.g. “on Roku”).

One change with the launch of voice support via Alexa is that the commands are a bit more natural, in some cases. Whereas Google Assistant required users to say “Hey Google, pause on Roku,” the company today says the same command for Alexa users is “Alexa, pause Roku.” That’s a lot easier to remember and say. However, most of the other commands are fairly consistent between the two platforms.

“Consumers often have multiple voice ecosystems in their homes,” said Ilya Asnis, senior vice president of Roku OS at Roku, in a statement about the launch. “By allowing our customers to choose Alexa, in addition to Roku voice search and controls, and other popular voice assistants, we are strengthening the value Roku offers as a neutral platform in home entertainment.”

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Hackers hijack thousands of Chromecasts to warn of latest security bug

Posted by | Amazon, chromecast, computing, echo, Gadgets, Google, Hack, hardware, iPad, media streamer, Security, smart devices, smart home devices, spokesperson, technology, wi-fi | No Comments

Hackers have hijacked thousands of exposed Chromecast streaming devices to warn users of the latest security flaw to affect the device. But other security researchers say that the bug — if left unfixed — could be used for more disruptive attacks.

The culprits, known as Hacker Giraffe and J3ws3r, have become the latest person to figure out how to trick Google’s media streamer into playing any YouTube video they want — including videos that are custom-made. This time around, the hackers hijacked forced the affected Chromecasts to display a pop-up notice that’s viewable on the connected TV, warning the user that their misconfigured router is exposing their Chromecast and smart TV to hackers like themselves.

Not one to waste an opportunity, the hackers also asks that you subscribe to PewDiePie, an awful internet person with a popular YouTube following. (He’s the same hacker who tricked thousands of exposed printers into printing support for PewDiePie.)

The bug, dubbed CastHack, exploits a weakness in both Chromecast and the router it connects to. Some home routers have enabled Universal Plug and Play (UPnP), a networking standard that can be exploited in many ways. UPnP forwards ports from the internal network to the internet, making Chromecasts and other devices viewable and accessible from anywhere on the internet.

As the two say, disabling UPnP should fix the problem.

“We have received reports from users who have had an unauthorized video played on their TVs via a Chromecast device,” a Google spokesperson told TechCrunch. “This is not an issue with Chromecast specifically, but is rather the result of router settings that make smart devices, including Chromecast, publicly reachable,” the spokesperson said.

That’s true on one hand, but it doesn’t address the underlying issue — that the Chromecast can be tricked into allowing an unauthenticated attacker the ability to hijack a media stream and display whatever they want.

Hacker Giraffe sent this YouTube video to thousands of exposed Chromecast devices, warning that their streams could be easily hijacked. (Screenshot: TechCrunch)

Bishop Fox, a security consultancy firm, first found a hijack bug in 2014, not long after the Chromecast debuted. The researchers found that they could conduct a “deauth” attack that disconnects the Chromecast from the Wi-Fi network it was connected to, causing it to revert back to its out-of-the-box state, waiting for a device to tell it where to connect and what to stream. That’s when it can be hijacked and forced to stream whatever the hijacker wants. All of this can be done in an instant — as they did — with a touch of a button on a custom-built handheld remote.

Two years later, U.K. cybersecurity firm Pen Test Partners discovered that the Chromecast was still vulnerable to “deauth” attacks, making it easy to play content on a neighbor’s Chromecasts in just a few minutes.

Ken Munro, who founded Pen Test Partners, says there’s “no surprise that somebody else stumbled on to it,” given both Bishop Fix found it in 2014 and his company tested it in 2016.

“In fairness, we never thought that the service would be exposed on the public internet, so that is a very valid finding of his, full credit to him for that,” Munro told TechCrunch. (Google said in a follow-up email that it’s working to fix the deauth bug.)

He said the way the attack is conducted is different, but the method of exploitation is the same. CastHack can be exploited over the internet, while Bishop Fox and his “deauth” attacks can be carried out within range of the Wi-Fi network — yet, both attacks let the hacker control what’s displayed on the TV from the Chromecast, he said.

Munro said Google should have fixed its bug in 2014 when it first had the chance.

“Allowing control over a local network without authentication is a really silly idea on [Google’s] part,” he said. “Because users do silly things, like expose their TVs on the internet, and hackers find bugs in services that can be exploited.”

But Munro said that these kinds of attacks — although obnoxious and intrusive on the face of it — could be exploited to have far more malicious consequences.

In a blog post Wednesday, Munro said it was easy to exploit other smart home devices — like an Amazon Echo — by hijacking a Chromecast and forcing it to play commands that are loud enough to be picked up by its microphone. That’s happened before, when smart assistants get confused when they overhear words on the television or radio, and suddenly and without warning purchase items from Amazon. (You can and should turn on a PIN for ordering through Amazon.)

To name a few, Munro said it’s possible to force a Chromecast into loading a YouTube video created by an attacker to trick an Echo to: “Alexa, order an iPad,” or, “Alexa, turn off the house alarm,” or, “Alexa, set an alarm every day at 3am.”

Amazon Echos and other smart devices are widely considered to be secure, even if they’re prone to overhearing things they shouldn’t. Often, the weakest link are humans. Second to that, it’s the other devices around smart home assistants that pose the biggest risk, said Munro in his blog post. That was demonstrated recently when Canadian security researcher Render Man showed how using a sound transducer against a window can trick a nearby Amazon Echo into unlocking a network-connected smart lock on the front door of a house.

“Google needs to properly fix the Chromecast deauth bug that allows casting of YouTube traffic,” said Munro.

Updated at 9pm ET: with a new, clearer headline to better reflect the flaws over the years, and added additional comment from Google.

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