t2 gets up close and personal with Amazon Echo

It was well past Cinderella hour when Alexa made it to my bedroom. Coffee cup on coaster (sorry, some say it’s a killer habit!), I was eager to chat her up but my wife walked in on us. One look at the sleek, smooth-talking Alexa, she jumped right in.

  • Published 9.11.17

It was well past Cinderella hour when Alexa made it to my bedroom. Coffee cup on coaster (sorry, some say it’s a killer habit!), I was eager to chat her up but my wife walked in on us. One look at the sleek, smooth-talking Alexa, she jumped right in.

C’mon, wipe that smirk off your face. Alexa is already in millions of bedrooms. Uh, wrong choice of words. Allow me to rephrase. Alexa is Amazon’s silky-voiced domestic bot and the heart of a device that has just started rolling out in India — Echo, a brand of smart speakers. How smart? Enough to entice a kid to switch off the television. Enough to make a music lover take a break from the hi-fi. Enough to make one listen to an audiobook before some shut-eye. Enough to make a Wikipedia dependent chill without his or her phone.

Echo is one of those cool devices that can excite children as much as grown-ups. Its voice Alexa is the roommate we all want, or think is necessary. Once you install the device, you will often be reminded of Samantha in Her, Kitt in Knight Rider and Jarvis in Iron Man… still Alexa has a long way to go.

Here’s how my five days with the Echo turned out to be.

Unboxing and installation

There are three versions of Echo available in India — Echo Dot, Amazon Echo and Echo Plus. Each has its benefits. The Plus model is in my Wi-Fi-equipped bedroom, close to a power point. The blue box it came in looks big but much of the space is taken up by the cylindrical device. The other component in the box is a power cable.

Once the Alexa app has downloaded on the phone (which is not required once the set-up is complete), Echo needs to be powered up. A lovely blue halo hits the eye. Key in your Amazon India details (don’t use your amazon.com details for the device) in the app and choose the Wi-Fi connection you want Echo to use. Within 90-odd seconds, Alexa comes alive. It can’t get simpler.

So, does it work?

Let’s divide the answer into three segments — a person who knows the commands that work best with Alexa, a Mr. Robot addict who only cares about chocolates and luchi, and a six-year-old who will soon get a pet cat (though she would be happier to have a dinosaur!).

Tech enthusiast: Seated next to the speaker, the first question gets shot: “Alexa, how’s the weather?” The answer was as perfect as the one, say, AccuWeather provides. “Alexa, how far are we from Seattle (Amazon is HQed there)?” As Fonzie would have said on Happy Days... “Correctamundo.” Next: “Alexa, play Eagles.” (Saavn is pre-enabled on the device and Amazon’s music service Prime Music is now in India.) Don Henley and company fills the room. All perfect!

Mr. Robot, Ms Luchi: Standing 10 feet away, Alexa hears: “Alexa, can you get me an Ola to Park Street?” The answer shuts Ms Luchi up: “Yes, do you want me to connect?” Next: “Alexa, can you tell me a joke?” Well… “Once Rajinikanth had hit a six. Now the ball is called Pluto.” Gulp! Strike three: “Alexa, can you whisper?” Here’s how that went: “Come closer. More close. A little bit more.” And lowering her voice, Alexa whispered: “Yes, I can.”

Little Miss Meow: Hours after Alexa arrived, my six-year-old daughter returned from school to spot the blue halo. After rattling off questions to her parents, she grilled the bot. “Alexa, do you know my teacher?” The reply: “Sorry, I don’t know that.” Next shot: “Alexa, when is India’s next cricket match?” This time, Alexa hit it out of the park by referring to a recent match against New Zealand. Once more: “Alexa, what is 100 plus 100 plus 100?” Hmm… “300.”
The next test. Living in an old house in north Calcutta, there are enough ways to confuse Alexa, or so we thought. Alexa lives on the third floor. We tried shouting instructions at her from the second floor, across the courtyard. Basic instructions work (like shuffling songs, asking it to stop the music and so on).

The next... next test. Turn on the television to confuse Alexa. She’s smart.

The next… next… next test. Trying different accents — Bengali babu speaking English, Queen’s English…. Then came sentences with lots of proper nouns. Throwing in S.P. Balasubrahmanyam, Lotta Mongeshkar (Lata Mangeshkar), Hemanta Mukhopadhyay.… Works.

Has Alexa become a family member?

Sort of. At least, the novelty factor is very much there. My daughter’s school friends now know of one ‘Calexa’ and I can well predict their Christmas list. But like with any family member, there are some downsides. A gap of five-six seconds between uttering “Alexa” and the question doesn’t work. Simple questions like “How to kill a rat?” or “What’s the best place for dosa?” are met with the no-nonsense “I’m not sure about that.” But… for the last few days, I have got all the headline news from Alexa and I have used the new gal in my life to answer some general knowledge questions. I have even made it control a smart bulb in the house.

Many of my friends living in the US have installed versions of Echo in different rooms (including the washroom) because it’s that addictive.

The aftermath

Agreed that Echo will get us addicted to technology and soon we would be asking Alexa and her ilk for answers instead of remembering important events. But Echo and Alexa cannot be ignored, like mobile phones.

According to a February 2017 article in Wired, there are already 10,000 skills available on Alexa. Give it a few years and who knows, it will have many of the skills that inspired the product — the Star Trek computer.

Mathures Paul
What would you ask Amazon’s Alexa? Tell t2@abp.in