A couple of weeks ago Alexa moved in. And to be completely honest, I didn’t really have high expectations. I’ve always been a voice control skeptic, and the launch of Siri, Alexa and the slightly-more-boring-named Google Assistant didn’t change much for me.
Back in the 90’s I had a mobile phone with voice control. I can’t remember what brand and model it was, but I do remember that the voice control sucked. A decade ago or so I had a reasonably modern BMW, also with voice control (for dialing). Again the voice control sucked. Then Siri was made available on my iPhone. And this time I barely know if the voice control sucked. Because the implementation did. It required me to push and hold a button, before talking. So I had to have my phone close by and be able to push a button. WHAT’S THE POINT THEN?!
But bad implementations are one thing. My bigger issue has always been that I could never really figure out the killer app. Why would I want to use voice control? Where? When? When is a device with a screen really an issue? When driving a car, sure. But that’s kind of the only use case I could think of. Call me unimaginative, uninventive and short sighted. But I just couldn’t see it. And my bad experiences from the past didn’t exactly help.
Then I got myself an Amazon Echo. And Alexa changed my perception of voice control and voice assistants.
So what’s different?
Many things are different in my life now. I have recently found my self in new situations where a screen-based device simply doesn’t cut it. This year I’ve spent a lot of time on the floor with one baby kicking me in the belly and one scratching my eye at the same time. I’ve also spent a lot of time carrying, feeding, dressing, undressing and redressing the same human beings that just kicked and scratched me. Suddenly holding a device in my hand has become a challenge. Interacting with one to actually get things done or consume information even more so. Suddenly a screen-less experience became more than important, it became essential. You could say I finally found that killer app. It’s spelled B A B I E S. In my case in plural.
But Alexa also gives me a very different experience than voice control and assistants have in the past. There’s a small but important difference. It’s voice activated. A tiny tiny difference from a button-activated voice assistance. But one that really makes it so much more accessible. Capable of picking up my voice across the room, and capable of understanding my Swenglish accent means it is available no matter what I do. And the thousands of skills (apps) from third parties really makes it that much more capable.
Just to give you an idea of how much Alexa has changed me. Two days after I got my Amazon Echo, me and the family left for another house for the weekend. When we got there we immediately started preparing dinner. Minutes after I entered the house I had to stop my self from speaking out loud, asking for a timer. BECAUSE THERE WAS NO ONE TO TALK TO. It was a true aha-moment for me. In only two days I got so used to having the ability to just speak out loud when I needed something. Like a timer.
And what do I do with it?
I use Alexa for a couple of things, most of them simple and to be honest quite lame tasks. Number one is simply asking what time it is. I find my self multiple times every day not having a clock in view. Asking “Alexa, what time is it” is super-simple and useful. Number two is setting timers. When I boil my eggs or pasta, brew my tea or wait for the owen to bake whatever it’s baking setting and controlling timersby voice is so much easier than using a screen. I also ask Alexa for the local weather and I have a new morning routine where she tells me the latest news. She does this by combining my personal mix of global news, local news, tech news and the latest hunts from product hunt.
An area I really look forward to exploring more going forward is the smart home. Alexa supports a vast number of smart home brands and devices, and I can definitely see my self controlling light and outlets through Alexa. Asking for the car heater to start on a cold winter morning or the indoor lights to turn off at night without walking over to a wall switch or pulling out my phone are things I’m looking forward to doing
I also really look forward to to upcoming Sonos integration. To be honest this was one of the use case that triggered me to go buy an Amazon Echo. I listen to music hours and hours every day and changing the volume, skipping a track or starting a new playlist are all things I’ve been wanting to do do so many times by voice. Because my hands have been tied up. FOR HOURS AND HOURS.
Alexa isn’t perfect. There are definitely commands that I expect to work that don’t. Like “Alexa, got it” or similar when a timer rings. And the thousands of skills available for Alexa are great, but having to initiate them by name is so-so. I have to remember that my weather skill is called big sky rather than small sky, open sky, dark sky, bright sky or whatever my brain happens to think when I wake up in the morning.
But those are small annoyances and will definitely be polished away over time. The one thing I believe is missing to take voice assistants to the next level is personalization. With devices like Amazon Echo, Google Home and Apple Homepod sitting there in your house available for anyone to talk to getting a personalized experience is a challenge. This is needed for basic things like having Alexa read me my news feed rather than someone else’s, or walking me through my day using MY calendar rather than someone else’s. But it is also required where security is a challenge. Like ordering new diapers from Amazon, unlocking my front door or perhaps getting an update on my bank account balance.
So what’s the solution to this personalization issue? Something like Siri in MY phone? To me that doesn’t cut it. It still requires my phone to be next to me. Maybe Siri in my Apple Watch? My watch tends to be close most of the time. But it still doesn’t solve the security challenge. I believe we need some serious work on voice recognition to take voice assistance to the next level. A level that I think will make the experience a magnitude better.
The conclusion is that Alexa has moved in, and I have no plans to kick her out. Not today, not tomorrow. In two days I was hooked, trying to request a 10 minute pasta timer by talking out loud in a house that had never seen Alexa, Siri or any of their friends. In two days my reality had changed. In two days Alexa got in, parked her butt on the sofa and put her feet on the table. And she is not going anywhere.
She changed my perception of voice control and voice assistance, showing me how useful it can be for those small everyday tasks that you have to carry out while doing something else. Like feeding a baby. Or like having your hair pulled or your eye scratched.