Living with Technology: Echo, a computer that listens -- and talks back
The format of computers continues to change so that, in many situations, they don't act of look like a computer.
This is a good thing.
When computers are nearby, but don't have a keyboard or a monitor, it opens up accessibility to more people and more uses.
Amazon Echo (http://www.amazon.com/oc/echo/) is one of those devices.
Most people know Amazon as the online bookseller that now sells just about everything online; has said it's going to deliver products using flying drones, and provides the infrastructure for thousands of companies and more.
But they also make great consumer products. The one I've been using for about a month is Amazon Echo.
Amazon Echo looks like a big juice can. It's black, about 4 inches in diameter and about 12 inches tall. It sits on the kitchen counter and has a wall adapter for power.
It hooks into my home WiFi network, but with that, you're off and running.
What I like about it is that you simply talk to it. It's name is Alexa.
For example, I say, "Alexa, play NPR," and it finds how to play WNYC in New York.
I can then say, "Alexa, louder," and the volume goes up. Or I say, "Alexa, mute," and the sound goes off. There is a ring around the top I can also use to adjust volume.
I can ask some questions and receive an answer. I ask,"Alexa, what's the weather?" and Alexa tells me the day's weather forecast. I can ask Alexa about the weekend forecast and will receive it.
Alexa can also look up facts, such as how old Barack Obama is.
Alexa can do math. I asked, "Alexa, what is 3 times 5?" and I was given the correct answer.
Clearly, this little box isn't doing the work for me. The Amazon Echo is taking what I'm requesting and utilizing tools on the Internet to look them up.
There are quite a few features of Echo that I haven't yet had an opportunity to try, such as a shopping list and compatibility with some home-automation devices, but these are pretty interesting.
For people who are concerned that Echo (or perhaps Amazon) will listen to everything going on in your home, there is a microphone button on top that can turn off the Echo so it won't hear any commands. Or you can unplug it.
I purchased my Echo as a pre-sale for $99. The current price is $199. It's a sweet deal at $99. I have to see more value before I'll pay $199 for extra Echo units.
Interestingly, Echo has some voice training that one can do, but my wife, daughter, son and I have not seen a need to go through the voice training. It seems to understand us quite well.
While I hope Amazon keeps adding features to Echo, I haven't heard much from Amazon about the product since I received it.
Whether Echo is the way Amazon will go, I don't know, but I am liking what I'm seeing of it. Computers that we just speak to and they respond. Sweet.
Mark Mathias is a 35-plus-year information technology executive, a resident of Westport. His columns can be read on the Internet at http://blog.mathias.org. He can be contacted at email@example.com.