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All the latest Amazon features for your home: Alexa Together, 'Hey, Disney' and more

New Amazon devices and features are changing the Alexa-powered smart home. Here's what's coming from the retailer.

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Amazon

Amazon held its annual product event in October and announced a handful of new Amazon devices and features. We saw a new smart thermostat, the wall-mountable Echo Show 15 and the Amazon Glow for kids. There were more Blink products, and the new Ring Alarm Pro service for live monitoring of your home while you're away. The Always Home Cam drone made an appearance and Astro the robot stole the show.

Behind those flashy new devices were several noteworthy updates to Alexa and the Echo platform itself. Let's round up everything new you'll soon be able to do with your voice assistant.  

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Talk to Disney characters with 'Hey, Disney'

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Amazon

What's new: Amazon partnered with Disney to bring a special voice assistant to Echo devices. Saying, "Hey, Disney" will soon unlock a whole new world (sorry) of related content. The feature makes use of Amazon's new Amazon Custom Assistant program for third parties. Verizon teased using the program with its upcoming smart display and corresponding "Hi, Verizon" command. (Here's every Amazon wake word other than "Alexa" you can use.)

How you'll use it: The new Disney feature is focused on the Disney Hotel experience, meaning that when you're staying in a Disney hotel room equipped with an Echo device (around 30,000 Echo Show 5s are coming to Disney properties) you can find out all sorts of information about your stay and surrounding amenities. According to Amazon, the assistant can handle guest room requests like asking for more towels and can assist with baggage and checkout. It can also answer questions about the resort, like when the next bus to Epcot departs, where to find an Italian restaurant or what time a park opens and closes. 

If you're using the Disney feature at home, it will offer interactive games, stories, jokes and sing-alongs all tied into special character voices from popular Disney films. The feature will be available next year for hotel guests and as a paid add-on feature for Echo devices in your home. 

Why it matters: Besides being a fun (but annoyingly not free) feature for Echo devices, it illustrates what's possible for brands when it comes to creating custom assistants. Places like hotels, restaurants and theme parks could soon offer their own assistants to attend to you while you're visiting. Disney's feature is the first to market, but surely won't be the last.

Get personalized experiences with Visual ID

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Amazon/Screenshot

What's new: Amazon announced Visual ID, a facial recognition feature designed to recognize you whenever you're in front of an Echo Show camera, so Alexa can deliver personalized content. It's available on the Echo Show 8 (2nd Gen), Echo Show 10 (3rd Gen), and Echo Show 15. The AZ2 chip on the Echo Show 15 can process computer vision (what the camera is seeing) and does that locally on the device without sending any data to the cloud. Visual ID is optional and turned off by default. You'll have to opt in and enroll your facial profile to use the feature. This profile won't be sent to any other devices, the company says.

How you'll use it: Visual ID won't require any special voice commands. Once you've opted in and enrolled your face, simply step into view of the Echo Show's camera. You'll then be able to view personalized items like to-do lists, sticky notes, calendar appointments and recipes based on your dietary preferences. 

What else to know: Amazon's use of facial recognition technology in its other smart home products has seen a lot of pushback from privacy advocates. In December 2019, thousands of Amazon Ring users' personal information was exposed. Ring has since updated its security policies, mandating two-factor authentication, adding end-to-end video encryption and introducing CAPTCHA and authenticator app support. For more, read this deep dive into Ring's current policies by CNET's David Priest.

Train Alexa to hear specific noises with Custom Sounds

Amazon Custom Sounds
Amazon/Screenshot by CNET

What's new: Alexa Guard can listen for sounds like glass breaking or smoke and CO2 alarms going off and randomize smart lights to make it appear as though someone is home. Amazon is adding Custom Sounds to Echo devices, independent of Alexa Guard or the paid Alexa Guard Plus. Alexa will learn a specific sound and what to do with it when it's detected. The feature will be available next year. 

How you'll use it: Details aren't available yet regarding how you'll train Alexa to listen for the sounds, but once you do, notifications and corresponding smart home responses can be triggered if the chosen sound occurs. For example, if Alexa hears the sound of your doorbell ringing, a smart bulb in your home could flash or you could receive a notification on your preferred device(s). 

More on Alexa Guard: Alexa Guard Plus is a paid subscription for Echo devices. It costs $5 per month or $49 annually and includes a 24-hour help line, alerts when your device hears footsteps, doors closing or glass breaking and automatic deterrents like the sound of dog barking playing from your smart speaker.

Customize your Echo Shows with widgets

Amazon Echo Show
Amazon

What's new: For Echo Show devices, Amazon announced Widgets. These handy onscreen information blocks can be customized and rearranged for your household, or for you specifically if you're using an Echo Show 15 with Visual ID. Widget options include a Calendar, What to Eat for recipe recommendations, Your Deliveries for tracking packages, Smart Home Favorites for controlling your most frequently used devices, Sticky Notes for quick reminders and others.

How you'll use it: Echo Show displays are getting a redesign to support widgets. A gallery of customizable widgets will be available for you to drag and drop onto the main screen. Once you've selected your widgets and customized your preferences, you'll be able to add them to the bottom two-thirds of your Show device. 

Stay tuned: Widgets won't just be for Alexa functionality created by Amazon. Developers can create their own widgets, so expect to see many more in the coming months from third-party developers and their Alexa skills. 

Care for loved ones with Alexa Together

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Amazon

What's new: Amazon's Care Hub isn't brand-new, as we saw the free custom alerts service for caregivers launch in 2020. The company is expanding the elder and dependent care proposition with Alexa Together, a pricey $20-per-month subscription service that enables emergency alerts and responses.

It includes hands-free access to an Urgent Response professional emergency helpline as well as compatibility with third-party fall detection devices from ATS and Vayyar. A Remote Assist feature allows caregivers to set reminders, help manage shopping lists, set up music services and more. Amazon is providing a free year for Alexa Care Hub users and will launch later this year. 

How you'll use it: You can ask Alexa to call for help to connect to emergency responders, and send an alert notifying a family member. Next year, additional family members will be able to connect their accounts and interact with these features for their loved one on their own devices.

Similar tech: Safety services like this one are slowly gaining momentum in the smart device market. It kicked off with wearables in 2018 when the Apple Watch Series 4 launched with Fall Detection. With cameras and displays saturating the market, there's likely to be more of the same as updates continue. 

Keep data out of the cloud with on-device processing

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Chris Monroe/CNET

What's new: The Amazon Echo and Echo Show 10 launched in 2020 are equipped with Amazon's AZ1 neural processing chip. This chip can process voice and sound data locally, keeping recordings off the cloud. Amazon is finally giving the option to choose local processing in your data settings. The option is also available on the upcoming Echo Show 15. 

How you'll use it: You can access this new setting in the Alexa app. With local processing selected, voice recordings will be processed and then automatically deleted. However, text transcripts will still be sent to the cloud and kept in the Alexa app until you decide to delete them manually. 

Why it matters: As we said before, Amazon's reputation with data privacy is murky, at best. Expanding users' control over their voice recording data is a step in the right direction for Echo devices that's long overdue. 

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Amazon

Say less with ultrasonic Alexa routines

What's new: Ultrasonic routines are coming to the latest Echo and Echo Dot speakers. Google uses this same tech in its smart devices, and Alexa had presence sensing before the event, but it was camera-based on the Echo Show devices. Amazon is adding ultrasonic sensing to kick off routines around your home when you enter or leave a room. 

How you'll use it: You'll be able to set up a motion-based routine in the Alexa app. Your device will emit an inaudible ultrasound wave through the speakers, bouncing off objects nearby to detect any movement. If movement is detected, the routine is triggered. Examples include turning on lights when you enter a room or turning off a device when you're no longer around. 

The possibilities: This feature ties into Amazon's emphasis on ambient computing, the idea that devices will do things more and more autonomously without you needing to say "Alexa" for every little thing. Ultrasonic presence sensing is a great example of this and could be the key to really automating the smart home sans voice commands.

You can read more about everything coming to Alexa in Amazon's blog post