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Amazon Echo

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m generally quite cynical about new technology launches.

As someone with years of being in roles where it’s my job to get people excited about the future – I’ve always had to temper people’s excitement about new technology, and get them thinking about what it means for people and our lives, rather than the hardware itself – but with the most recent product launch from the commerce giant, I’m genuinely excited. I want an Amazon Echo – the sleek cylindrical love child of Siri (Apple’s voice controlled assistant) and Sonos (the wireless music player).

At it’s heart, Amazon Echo is a device which sits on your shelf in the corner of your living room, office or kitchen, and then listens and reacts. You shout ‘Hey Alexa, play some classical music’, and the device fetches from music and fires up some tunes. You call ‘Hey Alexa, buy more Ambrosia Custard’, and it adds previously purchased items back into your shopping basket. You holler ‘Hey Alexa, what time is the next Eurostar to Paris’ and it’ll tell you how long you’ve got to dash to the station. You whisper ‘Hey Alexa, turn the lights on please’, and your house illuminates. Or at least, that’s the picture being painted by Amazon and its consumers in the US, as the device isn’t yet available to us in the UK. I’ve had a brief play with one of the few units over here at a recent demonstration by the Amazon team, and I’ve been reading through some of the toolkits which Amazon are releasing to help developers and businesses add support for voice interfaces, and I’m still excited.

As I’ve written before, Amazon realised a long time ago that ecommerce is an incredibly hard design challenge – you’ll never be able to mimick or match real-world retail environments, so they’ve stopped trying, and instead are adding layers of shoppability to the real-world. Amazon Firefly, their object recognition app, allows you to shoot a photo of anything, have it recognised, and add it to your basket. Amazon Dash Buttons are branded physical buttons which sit on your washing machine or fridge to reorder goods at the touch of a button. And Amazon Echo builds on that thought, to make purchase frictionless, effortless, nothing more than a passing comment.

It heightens the importance of brand recall and preference – as you’ll shout out the name of a brand you remember, rather than having a shelf of products competing for your attention with discounts and POS techniques which they can rely upon. This potentially also cements the role of Amazon Echo in partnership with other media, especially TV – the ability to prompt purchase even if the audience isn’t second screening.

Retailers will need to actively think the role that this more passive interaction with services that voice and in-home IOT interfaces offer them. Amazon celebrated their 20th anniversary this month – and as an organisation they’re sitting on decades of insight and knowledge about shopping habits and behaviours. What additional insights they’ll gather through having a new foothold in the front-room with the ability to capture more passing comments from consumers, rather active ‘sit and search’ type behaviours, will be of great interest to advertisers and brands.

But whilst yes, it’s a direct opportunity to add products to baskets, thinking of voice as just another way of clicking ‘buy now’ is short-sighted. In the same way Google search data shows the interests and questions that audiences have around certain key words, and perhaps the content which could be developed to answer that search – voice opens a new space in which to offer true value to consumers in their home. Will Vanish offer the answer of how to remove a stain within seconds of spilling a glass of red wine on the carpet? Can British Airways keep a wishlist of places that the family are mulling over for their next holiday? Can Lurpak make a suggestion of a meal for tonight based upon the contents of the fridge? – and that’s just playing with the idea of voice based search, the most obvious first step using the platform.

I’m also excited because we’re starting to pass into the next generation of interface and internet of things, where devices become more hidden and flow into a more natural way of interacting, helping us lift our heads from our screens, and the integration of many more IOT devices together, Amazon Echo, for instance, already connects to Philips and Belkin home automation technology, like lighting systems.

This constant overwatch from our technology doesn’t come without its concerns. Whilst Echo doesn’t listen to what you say until you prompt with her wake-word ‘Alexa’, your voice is still being transmitted to third parties, and as we saw in a recent advertising innovation, voice is potentially easy to abuse – with Toyota running a radio ad prompting in-car iPhones to switch to Airplane mode via Siri. Also, the type of data being collected would be far more passive than ever before, every little search, every little thought, every comment you make through the Echo system would and could be aggregated to build a very rich picture of what a person is doing and ‘offline’, rather than when actively engaging with a device. Each small interaction, the specific time when someone adds an item to their basket, or asks for the time, or switches music on, or turns off their lights, builds up a unique view of someone in a more offline state at home, which isn’t yet captured accurately – a huge potential wealth of data for advertisers and brands. In addition, what impact does this ‘on-demand’ capability have on our planet? Being able to order a single item with a passing mention, and have it shipped to you within an hour by connecting Amazon Echo and Amazon Prime Now (the recent immediate shipping functionality launched in London) doesn’t help reduction of packaging waste or carbon emissions, and points towards a worrying culture of impatience.

But for every concern, there are bright stars of positivity too. Nest’s connected smoke alarm alerting you at work that there’s a problem. Microsoft Research Lab’s work on mood tracking to help children with Autism and Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder prompting ways of calming the wearer down. Amazon’s Echo could even be used to alert family or friends at the calls for help from an elderly relative.

This is the first outing for Amazon Echo – it may well be that we see a number of variations on its form, its use and its best place in our lives. Early comments from the beta release in the US have already started shifting how it is designed and thought about, and now it has gone on mainstream release, we’ll start to see many more uses of its technology that haven’t yet been thought about.

A modified version of this article was first published in The Grocer.

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