Amazon Alexa's next chapter is voice in your ears, around your finger and on your face

Amazon hardware chief David Limp showing off the new Echo Buds on Wednesday.


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Standing in a demo room that overlooked the Space Needle at Amazon’s Seattle headquarters, Alexa hardware executive Miriam Daniel smiled as she encouraged me to stick a pair of Echo Buds in my ears. The space was noisy and chaotic, punctuated repeatedly by Alexa chiming in with different responses. I tapped the side of the earbuds twice, then suddenly the noise fell mostly silent, with Alexa calmly telling me, “Noise reduction on.”

These earbuds were among a handful of new devices Amazon introduced just a few hours earlier on Wednesday during an annual product launch event. While there were the typical updates to the Echo speaker line, this year brought with it a new crop of on-the-go Alexa gear. These devices will allow Amazon’s voice assistant to stop being such a homebody and travel well past your front doors.

“Customers don’t want to be bound by the technology that we put in any particular box,” Amazon smart home Vice President Daniel Rausch told me earlier. “They want things like Alexa with them all the time. That is literally the feedback.”

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And so, that is exactly what Amazon did, revealing the $130 Echo Buds wireless earbuds, the $180 Echo Frames smart glasses and the $130 Echo Loop ring. Added to that, Amazon added General Motors as a new automotive partner — joining car makers including Ford and Toyota — allowing it to integrate Alexa into GMC, Cadillac and Chevrolet vehicles starting next year.

The Buds will start shipping in time for the holidays, while Loop and Frames will be available by invite only as Amazon tests them out under an experimental hardware program called Day 1 Edition, which was also introduced Wednesday.

The new devices represent the next big step in Alexa’s development, going from a voice assistant that manages your smart home to a voice assistant that manages your life. It will enable Amazon to bring Alexa into more places than ever before and allow customers to keep Alexa with them, if they wish, at all times in their ears, on their faces or around their fingers. Such devices may ultimately help Amazon make Alexa an even more critical part of people’s daily lives and help it hold its customer base ever closer — and away from rivals like Apple’s Siri and Google Assistant.

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The new Echo Loop ring.


James Martin/CNET

The announcements build on work Amazon has been doing for the past few years to break Alexa out of the home. Like Siri, Samsung’s Bixby and Google Assistant, Alexa is already available through the Alexa app on people’s phones. Amazon also started bringing Alexa into more businesses and hotels to give people an opportunity to talk to the voice assistant while away from home. It brought Alexa into cars using the Echo Auto device, as well as partnerships with carmakers. Amazon had previously sold the Amazon Tap, an Alexa-enabled mobile Bluetooth speaker, but it was discontinued.

Now, the next big leap for the voice assistant is Alexa on your body. We’ll have to wait to see whether customers will be excited by this idea or freaked out. Alexa and other voice assistants this year have been dogged by privacy concerns, so it’s possible customers will avoid these Alexa-everywhere devices.

“I take those three announcements as making the experience more personal but also more pervasive,” said Patrick Moorhead, an analyst at Moor Insights and Strategy who attended the press event.

There are several other products on sale right now that offer similar capabilities, such as Apple’s AirPod that connect to Siri and the Vuzix Blade Alexa-powered smart glasses.

Where to next?

Rausch led me around to another part of the demo room, where product manager Daniel Borrelli enthusiastically presented to me the Echo Loop, a black titanium-encased ring that’s fitted with a tiny speaker and two microphone.

“This is the smallest Echo device we’ve ever launched,” he said, beaming.

I put it on my index finger, pressed a tiny button on the bottom of the device and got a vibration in response. I spoke into the ring, asking it for the hours of a local Whole Foods and then cupped it to my ear to hear the answer.

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I then tried on the glasses, which have a chunky black frames and thick sides to hide the electronic components. I asked Alexa to play some music. To allay people’s concerns about smart glasses like Google Glass, the Echo Frames don’t include a camera or display.

Rausch told me that, like with Echo Auto, the Buds, Frames and Loop will all have real-time location-tracking capabilities utilizing a phone’s GPS. With this feature, people can ask Alexa to remind them to pick up the dry cleaning when they’re out of the house or to find a nearby coffee shop. These devices can even tell people the specific aisles to go to for different items at a local Whole Foods.

That location feature must be turned on by customers to work, and the data collected isn’t used for any marketing, advertising or personalization on Amazon’s website, and it isn’t sold to other companies, Rausch said.

While these on-the-go products should be able to help Alexa stretch outside the home, Rausch saw them also as a way of augmenting the smart-home experience too. For instance, you could wear the Buds around your house and use them to turn on connected lights and close the garage door.

“It’s a bit like having The Force,” he said.

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