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Behind the scenes at Alexa's laboratory

The Alexa Voice Service team at Amazon's Lab126 is busy getting the next generation of Alexa gadgets ready for the real world. The wide majority of them won't be made by Amazon.

Ry Crist Senior Editor / Reviews - Labs
Originally hailing from Troy, Ohio, Ry Crist is a writer, a text-based adventure connoisseur, a lover of terrible movies and an enthusiastic yet mediocre cook. A CNET editor since 2013, Ry's beats include smart home tech, lighting, appliances, broadband and home networking.
Expertise Smart home technology | Wireless connectivity Credentials
  • 10 years product testing experience with the CNET Home team
Ry Crist
6 min read
James Martin/CNET

"JR" has a big, dumb grin on his face as he meanders around the room. A Bluetooth speaker strapped to his back blasts out the first few lines of the Pharrell Williams song "Happy" before a British woman's voice interrupts to ask Alexa to add a tub of margarine to her shopping list.

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"JR" navigates a test chamber during an automated smart speaker test.

James Martin/CNET

"Sure," Alexa says, "adding margarine to your shopping list." JR makes a note of it. Later, the same speaker mishears the voice of an American man asking what time it is in Hartford. JR makes a note of that, too.

JR is short for "junior rover," and he's a custom-built robot (no, not that robot) designed to automate Amazon's quality assurance tests for Alexa-enabled devices. As his preplotted path brings him to a stop right in front of me, steel pistons slowly hoist the third-party Alexa speaker he's testing to a new height, and the platter it's sitting on rotates to a slightly different angle. Ever dutiful, JR begins another lap around the test chamber.

"It takes 7 hours per pass," says Ryan Fallini, a senior manager for Amazon (and "senior rover," as one of his colleagues jokingly puts it). "We normally do a few -- they don't typically pass on the first try."

This is Lab126, located about an hour southeast of San Francisco in Sunnyvale, California. Neighbor to a NASA testing facility just across the street, this is where Amazon puts its own moonshots to the test -- namely, the Echo lineup of Alexa-enabled smart speakers, but also the growing number of third-party Alexa devices that aren't made by Amazon.

These days, there are so many of those devices that the Lab126 staff saw need to custom-build a test bot just to keep up with the workload. Call it the good kind of problem, perhaps -- or call it a signal that Amazon's efforts to spread Alexa far and wide are working as planned.

"Our one and only mission is to be very focused with developers," says Pete Thompson, VP of the Alexa Voice Service (AVS) team that calls Lab126 home. "It really goes to the vision that we have here at Amazon which is 'Alexa everywhere.'"

It's a lofty goal, but Amazon has every intention of hitting it, and it sees that sort of robust developer outreach as a pivotal part of the strategy.

Forging partnerships

"We've reached an important point where other companies and developers are accelerating adoption of Alexa," Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos noted in a February earnings call. The AVS mission: grease the skids, and make that sort of outside adoption as appealing as possible.

"Partnering beyond smart speakers is going to be paramount to establishing market share," says Blake Kozak, a market analyst for IHS Markit. He also notes that Amazon's lead by that metric is slimmer than you might expect. In 2017, he says, there were roughly 25 million devices sold that either work with Alexa or feature built-in Alexa controls of their own. With Google Assistant, that number is 20 million -- and Kozak notes the wide array of products already on the market that run on some form of Android, which might give Google a potential means of catching up.

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Chris Hagler, director of engineering for Echo products.

James Martin/CNET

Kozak also notes that as gadgets continue to trend towards working with everything, devices with a specific virtual assistant built in could ultimately serve as the sort of "exclusives" needed to give one platform an edge over the other.

That push for partnerships is where people like Chris Hagler, director of engineering for Amazon's Echo products, come in. Hagler was a part of the team that built the original Echo -- today, he's working at Lab126 to provide outside developers with the tools needed to build Echoes of their own.

"Everything my team designs, builds and tests is available to the AVS community," he says, listing the numerous hardware and software advancements that make Alexa tick on a whiteboard. "While I'm developing products for the marketplace, I'm also seeding AVS with new technology."

Amazon packages that technology into a series of hardware kits -- plug-and-play systems that pack Amazon's far-field voice recognition technology into compact designs that can be incorporated into a variety of different devices and form factors. Developers and outside manufacturers can license one of those kits to add Alexa into their product with relative ease.

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This AVS hardware kit contains a flexible dual-microphone array, a Raspberry Pi for evaluation, and an NXP dual-core processor. Outside manufacturers can use it to build their own Alexa device.

James Martin/CNET

"We offer them this portfolio with different costs and performance points," explains Priya Abani, director of the Alexa Voice Service. "These kits are pretested, prequalified, and preoptimized by us. It's a time-to-market advantage at a fixed price for people who don't know how to add voice to their products on their own."

Thompson holds up the puck-shaped Eufy Genie from Anker -- basically a store-brand Echo Dot -- as an example.

"From the first meeting we had to their first shipment was seven months," he says. "You don't have to be an expert in voice, or AI, or machine learning. You can focus on your great product."

Anker, which now offers a number of Alexa-compatible smart home gadgets under the Eufy brand, just seems happy to be on the bandwagon. 

"Alexa isn't just a service we can leverage into our products, it's a shared vision and a path forward to help make the smart home and smart life more accessible to more consumers," an Anker spokesperson tells me.

That strategy of ginning up developer enthusiasm and saturating the market with third-party Alexa gadgets has helped diversify Alexa's appeal. Shop around, and you'll find manufacturers packing her into everything from lamps and light switches to cars, computers and even large appliances like refrigerators. Thompson points out that there were 10 Alexa-enabled devices consumers could buy at the end of 2016. Now, that number is up over a hundred.

There's a dizzying number of Alexa devices not made by Amazon

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Google's been working to gain ground here, too. Most notable among its upcoming partner gadgets: a slew of new third-party touchscreen Google Assistant devices that debuted earlier this year at CES.

"Google is an ecosystem company," says Chris Turkstra, who oversees Google's development of third-party relationships for the Google Assistant. "We know what it takes to make software that runs on billions of devices."

In an earnings call Monday, Google CEO Sundar Pichai claimed that the company had added 200 device partners for Google Assistant in the past four months, and noted that Google now partners with all major manufacturers of connected home devices.

For now, the search giant still lags far behind Amazon in terms of quantity and variety of third-party devices, but Turkstra points to the same ocean of Android-based gadgets on the market that Kozak noted, and also points out Google's larger-than-usual presence at CES this year, and at other trade shows like Mobile World Congress.

The message? Google is "in it to win," Turkstra says. Game on, Alexa.

Alexa, what's next?

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Alexa Voice Service Director Priya Abani (seated left) and VP Pete Thompson (seated right) see the developers of third-party Alexa gadgets as key to Alexa's continued growth.

James Martin/CNET

The AVS team tells us that there are plenty of new Alexa devices in the pipeline, though it wouldn't make any specific comments about the product roadmap. Some are likely rough ideas and prototypes that will never see the light of day. But Alexa is always getting smarter, Thompson says -- a common refrain from Amazon, and an important part of its pitch to outside developers.

In other words, expect the steady stream of new Alexa features to continue.

The latest innovation: Alexa Skills Blueprints, which are essentially just fill-in-the-blank templates designed to let anyone cobble together a custom Alexa skill of their own. More than 20 templates are already available, ranging from customizable interactive voice adventures to houseguest-friendly FAQ skills that'll let Alexa tell folks where you keep the towels.

All of them are private, closed skills that will only work on the Echo devices associated with your Amazon account. Anyone can create one within minutes, Amazon says, no coding experience necessary.

"It's a fun way to let our customers customize Alexa," Amazon spokeswoman Natalie Hereth tells me. After my visit to Lab126, I wonder if it might be more than that. With users now able to personalize Alexa's know-how for themselves and for their families, anyone can take ownership of the Alexa experience and mold it as they see fit -- developers and customers alike.

In the end, that's an awful lot of people taking Amazon's plucky voice assistant to an awful lot of new places -- "Alexa everywhere," if you will.