Amazon's smart home is becoming more "ambient." Here's how that will look.
Amazon's annual hardware event has come and gone, with a slew of product announcements, from a brand new Echo speaker and Echo Show display, to a cloud-based gaming platform. But the star of Amazon's smart home is, as always, Alexa. Amazon's voice assistant continues to expand its reach, connecting with over 140,000 smart home devices, and boasting more than 100 million Alexa-compatible devices installed across its user base. But Alexa's power isn't just in its rapidly growing scale and ever-expanding reach.
When I spoke to Daniel Rausch, Amazon's vice president of smart home and Alexa mobile, before the hardware event, he said Alexa is becoming more independent too. Alexa will soon be able to act on Hunches without asking, to listen for and react to sounds other than a wake word, and to protect your home more actively with an upgrade to Alexa Guard.
All this will lead to what Rausch called "the ambient home," in which Alexa is "ready to respond [to voice commands], but is more predictive and proactive."
Here are the biggest upgrades coming to Alexa.
Amazon has rolled out and expanded Alexa Guard over the past couple of years to allow you to monitor your home while you're away. While it's activated, Guard will listen for glass breaking, smoke and carbon monoxide alarms, and footsteps and other signs of a break-in, and will send you a mobile alert.
The company is now offering something called Alexa Guard Plus, a subscription service that runs $4.99 per month, and it adds a few features on top of the standard offerings. First, Guard Plus will add a more robust "sounds of activity" detector, which will listen for doors opening or closing and other sounds associated with unwanted visitors. Second, Guard Plus will bring deterrence features, for instance triggering Alexa to play a recording of dogs barking if a security camera catches someone sneaking around the back of the house while you're away. Finally, the Guard Plus will add a new hands-free emergency help line, run by a third-party company, to connect users to emergency services like police, the fire department or emergency contacts.
Amazon also announced support for Alexa Guard Plus from a variety of hardware partners, including Abode, Wyze, Amazon's own Ring, A3 Smart Home, Scout and Resideo. You can read more about Guard Plus in our follow-up story.
For over a year now, Amazon has been ramping up the use of Hunches -- those instances when Alexa suggests an action, like locking your front door as you're turning off lights for the night. In fact, of the smart home actions that occur via Alexa, Rausch says one in five are initiated by Alexa itself, rather than via a user's voice command.
With Amazon's new upgrades to Hunches, Alexa will be able to perform certain actions without asking. That means, if you're traveling, Alexa might automatically turn off your basement lights. That could lead to some problems, as you might expect. But Rausch seemed confident when we spoke that the Alexa app will help users maintain control over what Alexa is capable of deciding on its own, and will "close the loop" by checking with users to make sure the automatic actions were the right ones to take. In addition, certain devices -- such as smart door locks -- are not included in the Hunches upgrade, so as to avoid issues like being locked out of your house during a midnight snack run.
In addition to responding to Amazon's traditional wake words for Alexa, such as "Hey, Alexa," or "Hey, computer," or even "Hey, Samuel," for you Samuel L. Jackson fans, soon you'll be able to trigger routines with different sounds, such as a dog barking, a baby crying or someone snoring. Rausch said these sounds will work similarly to the wake word, allowing you to trigger various smart home actions, for instance turning on your bedside lamp when your newborn cries or turning off the TV when you begin to snore.
According to Rausch, some of these sounds, such as a baby crying, won't be sent to the cloud, to maintain privacy. But this new feature will certainly raise questions about privacy, especially around how broadly Alexa interprets various sounds as a specific kind of trigger.
As we continue to adjust to life during a pandemic, one major concern is elder care in isolation. Rausch seemed particularly excited about this feature, as he's been testing it with his aging mother in recent days. Essentially, the Care Hub allows two Amazon Alexa accounts to link, and gives one account broad access to activity on the other.
Rausch said that the person in need of care would first have to extend an invite to another Alexa user, such as a family member or caretaker. The Care Hub, without providing the specifics of each individual Alexa interaction, could send a notification indicating general activity -- essentially to reassure the family member or caretaker that the individual being monitored is up and going about his or her day.
Such a system, said Rausch, can help the elderly "age in place [and] maintain dignity" during these particularly difficult times.
Alexa will soon be adding a conversational mode, which'll let users speak back and forth with Alexa -- even with multiple human participants in the conversation. To activate the feature, you just have to say, "Alexa, join our conversation."
Alexa will now be able to delete all voice recordings on your account with a single command: "Delete everything I've said." For more of Amazon's new voice assistant privacy features, read our piece on the announcements.
Besides these major updates, Alexa is going to get a few smaller scale, quality-of-life upgrades, too. Here's the running list:
For more: Read about everything else Amazon announced at its devices and services event.