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Published: 12 Nov 2014

Amazon’s Voice-Controlled Speaker

E-commerce giant Amazon surprised the tech world last week by announcing a new voice-controlled smart speaker. The 20cm-tall cylindrical device, called Echo, can search the internet, play music and perform simple tasks such as compiling shopping lists on command.

Users activate the device by using a "wake" word – "Alexa" is used in the promotional video – before describing their request. Using far-field technology and seven built-in microphones, Echo can hear requests from anywhere in a room, and Amazon claims the device will even recognise a user's voice over music.

While Amazon initially suggests Echo could be used simply to play music and perform simple tasks, the technology opens up the potential for Amazon to become a constant ambient presence in the home. For example, Echo could allow users to order products directly through the speaker – transforming online shopping into an effortless experience that takes seconds. In a nod to its e-commerce potential, Amazon Prime members will be able to purchase Echo for just $99 – half the $199 price for general retail.

From hackable light speakers to intuitive music players, the audio industry is rife with innovation. Designers and technologists are imbuing audio systems with ever more sophisticated technology to exploit the power of sound. Meanwhile, as voice recognition improves and artificial intelligence edges ever closer, our digital devices will become more like personal companions than tech tools. For more on this, read Beyond Wearables.

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