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Main article: Echo

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The robot homecoming is upon us

17:45 | 14 January

Robots were everywhere at CES, as has been the case for at least a decade. But there’s a different tenor to the robots shown off at the recent annual consumer tech event: they’re designed for home use, and they’re shipping products, not just concepts intended strictly for trade show glam.

Home robots have already had a few false starts, including some high-profile flare-outs like Anki and previous CES darling Kuri (despite the backing of global technology giant Bosch) . But other robots, including autonomous vacuums, have already carved out niches for themselves within the domestic milieu. Between slow-burn but now mature categories and the sheer volume of newer products jumping in to establish new beachheads, it now seems certain we’re on a path at the end of which lie hybrid companion and functional robots that will become common household items.

Industrial to residential

One of the biggest signs that home robotics is gaining credibility as a market is the fact that companies which have found success in industrial technology are branching out. At CES, I spoke to Elephant Robotics founder and CEO Joey Song, who was at the show demonstrating MarsCat, a fully developed robotic cat designed to be a companion pet with full autonomous interactivity, similar to Sony’s Aibo.

 


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‘Alexa, pay for gas’ command to work at over 11,500 Exxon and Mobil stations this year

19:18 | 6 January

Pumping gas is not that difficult, but Amazon thinks the process could be even easier by way of a voice command, spoken aloud when you arrive at the pump: “Alexa, pay for gas.” Today, Amazon, alongside ExxonMobil and Fiserv, announced a new voice experience for pumping gas that will roll out to over 11,500 Exxon and Mobile gas stations across the U.S. later this year.

The ability to pay for gas via Alexa will initially be made available to customers with Alexa-enabled vehicles, Echo Auto, and other Alexa-enabled mobility devices, Amazon says.

When the customer arrives at the pump, they’ll just have to say, “Alexa pay for gas” to get started. Alexa will then confirm the station location and pump number.

The transactions themselves will be processed using Amazon Pay. That uses the same payment information stored in the customer’s Amazon account. Fiserv’s digital commerce technology will help to power the transactions by activating the pump and facilitating the token generation to ensure a secure payment experience.

It’s not clear that the Alexa-enabled experience is significantly faster or easier than inserting your payment card at the pump directly. If anything, it seems a little more involved. But the technology could be useful for some because it allows you to remain in the car until the pump is authorized and ready to go, instead of requiring you to stand outside while the activation process takes place.

That’s a nice perk for cold, winter days — but it could also be appreciated by women and others who are wary of being alone at the pump — like when pumping gas at night or in unfamiliar surroundings, for example, or anywhere they don’t feel comfortable.

“We’re excited to bring new technology and better experiences to the gas station,” said Eric Carmichael, Americas fuels marketing manager at ExxonMobil, in a statement. “We build and seek out technology that will wow our consumers, providing both ease of use and security.”

CES 2020 coverage - TechCrunch

 


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Amazon-backed Rivian will integrate Alexa into its electric pickup and SUV

17:00 | 6 January

Rivian will integrate Amazon’s voice assistant Alexa into the R1T pickup and R1S SUV, the company’s first electric vehicles that are set to debut at the end of the year.

Rivian said Monday it plans to also extend the Alexa integration to 100,000 electric delivery trucks that Amazon has ordered from the automaker. The electric vans are expected to start delivering packages to customers in 2021.

The integration into the R1T and R1S will give owners access to standard Alexa features such as playing music, placing calls and navigations as well as the ability to control the climate, open and closing the trunk and other vehicle features using their voice.

Rivian said it plans to give Alexa other capabilities designed for its vehicles. For instance, owners will be able to remotely tap into the camera embedded in Rivian pickup truck from Amazon screen-based services like Echo Show and Fire TV to check on whatever gear is stashed there.  The integration will also allow access to certain Alexa features when the vehicle is offline, a decision meant to match up with how these vehicles might be used.

Rivian’s vision is to enable exploration without compromises and provide our owners the best digital experience, no matter where their adventure takes them,” said Rivian founder and CEO RJ Scaringe. “We want this to be the most comprehensive, most seamless Alexa integration in the market.”

The Rivian announcement made ahead of CES 2020 is the latest to illustrate Amazon’s continued push into the automotive world. Lamborghini also announced Monday plans to bring Alexa to its Huracán EVO sports car.

Amazon has been moving into the car for a few years now through the integration of Alexa and car-focused delivery services, as well as its direct investment  Rivian. The e-commerce company also launched its Amazon Key service to let customers give delivery drivers access to their house with the help of a compatible keypad on their door and a smart security camera. But in 2018, that service expanded to the car with its Key by Amazon In-Car delivery service.

GM and Volvo were the first participants in the Key by Amazon In-Car delivery service. Ford joined the in-car delivery service in April 2019.

 


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Here’s a Mickey Mouse version of Amazon’s Echo Wall Clock

18:59 | 18 December

Amazon’s original Echo Wall Clock was mostly fine. Some consumers ran into connectivity issues with the device, but it was mostly okay. It’s one of the most passive members of the Echo family of devices, mostly doing its wall clock thing, until you need a time set.

The latest addition to the line has something its predecessor lacked, however: a giant Mickey Mouse. From the looks of it, things are mostly exactly the same here, with the important addition of a large, smiling rodent whose little mouse arms point out the hours and minutes.

There’s the standard 60 LED ring that serves both to designate minute and lights up for timer count downs. The clock pairs with Echo devices, responding to voice commands and automatically adjusting for daylight savings time. Also these handy features,

  • Echo Wall Clock – Disney Mickey Mouse Edition helps you stay organized and on time.

  • Easy-to-read analog clock with iconic design cover shows the time of day.

Which is to say, it’s a clock. Which is also to say that, even when it’s broken, it’s right twice a day. How many gadgets can say that? The Echo Wall Clock – Disney Mickey Mouse Edition is available now for those who still somehow have more room in their life for Disney and should get to you before Christmas if you order now. It runs $50 — $10 more than the standard edition.

 


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Apple and Spotify’s podcasts come to Echo devices in the U.S.

00:44 | 14 December

Amazon Alexa can now play podcasts from Apple, making Amazon’s line of Echo devices the first third-party clients to support the Apple Podcasts service, without using AirPlay. Before, this level of support was limited to Apple’s HomePod. According to Amazon, the addition brings Apple’s library of over 800,000 podcasts to Alexa devices. It also allows customers to set Apple Podcasts as their preferred podcast service.

The move is the latest in a series of partnerships between the two rivals, which also included the launch of the Apple TV app on Amazon’s Fire TV platform, as well as the launch of Apple Music on Echo devices and Fire TV. Amazon, in response, has expanded its assortment of Apple inventory to include Apple TV, iPad, iPhone, Apple Watch, and more.

To get started, Apple users who want to stream from Apple Podcasts will first need to link their Apple ID in the Alexa app. Customers can then ask Alexa to play or resume the podcasts they want to hear. Other player commands, like “next” or “fast forward,” work, too. And as you move between devices, your progress within each episode will also sync, which means you can start listening on Alexa then pick where you left off on your iPhone.

In the Alexa app’s Settings, users will also be able to specify Apple Podcasts as their default player which means any time they ask Alexa for a podcast without indicating a source, it will stream from the Apple Podcasts service.

Not to be outdone, Spotify also today announced its support for streaming podcasts on Alexa in the U.S.

Spotify says that now, both Free and Premium U.S. customers will be able to ask Alexa for podcasts as well as set Spotify as their default player.

However, Alexa’s support for Spotify podcasts was actually announced in September alongside other news at Amazon’s annual Alexa event in Seattle, so it’s less of a surprise than the Apple addition.

At the time, Amazon said it was adding support for Spotify’s podcast library in the U.S., which would bring “hundreds of thousands” of podcasts to Alexa devices. That also includes Spotify’s numerous exclusive podcasts — something that will give Echo users a reason to set Spotify as their default, perhaps.

Shortly after that announcement, Spotify said its free service would also now stream to Alexa devices, instead of only its paid service for Premium subscribers.

 

 


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Healthcare-focused venture firms are forming a best practices group for securing health data

15:05 | 10 December

Some of the nation’s top healthcare-focused venture capital firms are banding together to form an advisory council with the technology security certification provider, Hitrust, to create best practices for data security for startups developing digital health technologies.

The conversations, spearheaded by the Nashville-based, healthcare-focused investment fund, Frist-Cressey, were designed to accelerate the adoption of digital technologies throughout the healthcare industry by creating best-practices around data security that large healthcare organizations demand before adopting a new service.

“Our service or our software want to be taken nationwide and everybody gets excited and thats’ when you get in front of the Chief security officer’s office and they ask if you’re HiTrust certified,” says Frist-Cressey partner Chris Booker. 

“It makes [startups] more marketable or more viable,” says Daniel Nutkis, the chief executive of Hitrust. “Organizations tend to be reluctant to work with startups… [Our certification] gave venture capital firms a level of comfort and we saw it as an opportunity.. Chris approached us to better develop a program more targeted at early stage companies… so that this becomes an easier program and can make it more wide-scale.”

So far investors including Ascension Ventures, Bain Capital . Ventures, Echo Health Ventures, Frist Cressey Ventures, Andreessen Horowitz, Blue Cross Blue Shield Ventures, Heritage Group, New Enterprise Associates and 7wire Ventures have all signed on to the venture capital advisory council.

For the firms, it’s simply a matter of protecting what is an increasing percentage of capital commitments. Investors have poured $50 billion into healthcare startups, according to data pulled from CB Insights, and nearly $16 billion of those investments were in digital health companies. Meanwhile, early stage startups are increasingly vulnerable to data breaches and lax security practices — failures of oversight that can mean the difference between life and death for early stage startups.

“Data breaches and privacy violations… these things can destroy a company,” says Booker.

 


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Alexa is about to be very disappointed

19:14 | 27 November

A general lack of judgement has always been one of the strongest appeals of smart assistants. Whatever bad pop song or terrible online video you play for the 10,000th time — they don’t care. They’re simply there to help, judgement free.

Amazon, however, has been working on some features behind the scenes to help make Alexa more lifelike. Those involve bringing more emotional resonance to the smart assistant — namely the ability to make it voice sound varying levels of excited and disappointed.

“Alexa emotions” feature three levels of intensity. For the full effect, here’s “I just listened to the Smiths and then Googled what Morrissey has been up to lately” mode:

We all get down around the holidays, Alexa. Are you sure there’s nothing you want to talk about here? Amazon says users are feeling the newly empathetic assistant. “ Early customer feedback indicates that overall satisfaction with the voice experience increased by 30% when Alexa responded with emotions,” it writes in a post.

The feature is available to developers starting today, primarily focused on gaming skills. That means they’ll probably start rolling out to applications in the near future. No word on whether it’s possible to set those flash news briefings to perpetual disappointment.

The company is also rolling out a content-tailored delivery, design to give Alexa a style more akin to a news anchor or radio host.

 


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A browser bug was enough to hack an Amazon Echo

20:24 | 9 November

Two security researchers have been crowned the top hackers in this year’s Pwn2Own hacking contest after developing and testing several high profile exploits, including an attack against an Amazon Echo.

Amat Cama and Richard Zhu, who make up Team Fluoroacetate, scored $60,000 in bug bounties for their integer overflow exploit against the latest Amazon Echo Show 5, an Alexa-powered smart display.

The researchers found that the device uses an older version of Chromium, Google’s open-source browser projects, which had been forked some time during its development. The bug allowed them to take “full control” of the device if connected to a malicious Wi-Fi hotspot, said Brian Gorenc, director of Trend Micro’s Zero Day Initiative, which put on the Pwn2Own contest.

The researchers tested their exploits in a radio-frequency shielding enclosure to prevent any outside interference.

“This patch gap was a common factor in many of the IoT devices compromised during the contest,” Gorenc told TechCrunch.

Amat Cama (left) and Richard Zhu (right), who make up Team Fluoroacetate. (Image: ZDI)

An integer overflow bug happens when a mathematical operation tries to create a number but has no space for it in its memory, causing the number to overflow outside of its allotted memory. That can have security implications for the device.

When reached, Amazon said it was “investigating this research and will be taking appropriate steps to protect our devices based on our investigation,” but did not say what measures it would take to fix the vulnerabilities — or when.

The Echo wasn’t the only internet-connected device at the show. Earlier this year the contest said hackers would have an opportunity to hack into a Facebook Portal, the social media giant’s video calling-enabled smart display. The hackers, however, could not exploit the Portal.

 


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Echo Studio is Amazon’s lower-cost answer to the HomePod

17:00 | 6 November

Amazon’s kickstarted the smart speaker market with the original Echo, way back in late-2014. Like many of the company’s hardware offerings, it was very much a utilitarian device. The first Echo was smart first and speaker a distant second.

Echo’s how slowly gotten better in the sound department over time, but the arrival Apple’s HomePod and Google’s Home Max have highlighted the lack of real quality speaker in the Echo lineup. Amazon eventually added the Link, Amp, Sub  and Input to integrate Alexa into an existing home stereo system, but until this most recent round of announcements, the company never had a real answer to the HomePod.

The Echo Studio is every bit Amazon’s take on the HomePod, with all the good, the bad and the everything else that entails. While it’s certainly the most premium Echo speaker Amazon has offered to date, the Studio isn’t exactly what one would deem a premium speaker. The build quality and materials don’t feel on-par with that of Apple’s. But that’s to be expected for a product that starts at $100 less.

Amazon’s almost certainly made the right move by undercutting the HomePod. A $300 speaker would be an extremely difficult sell from Amazon. Hovering at just under $200 feels like a good spot for the Echo Studio to live, especially when one factors in Amazon’s frequent hardware discounts.

At first glance, the Studio looks a bit like the HomePod, with roughly the same dimensions. It’s significantly larger than a standard Echo, but not so larger that it wouldn’t fit comfortably on most desks or shelves. There’s a signature large light ring around the top, along with a quartet of physical buttons: Mic on/off (turning the light ring red), volume up and down and the “Action” button for trigger Alexa manually.

I will say, using Google’s devices recent does really drive home how much I like the touch based input for playing and pausing songs. That’s missing here, as with other Echo devices.

About two thirds of the way down is a large cut out that goes all the way through the speaker. This is the bass aperture, designed to max output of the downward firing woofer. And it does. There’s no lack of bass on the thing — too much for my taste, in fact. It tends to muddy rock songs.

Like the Echo Buds, the Amazon app offers control over levels, so you can adjust to your heart’s content. The Studio also nsing built-in calibration similar to competing systems to get a read on the acoustics of its surroundings. For the best sound, Amazon recommends keeping the system at least six inches from a wall. I tried a few different spots in my living room and found the sound to be good, but not quite up to other premium smart speakers.

The Studio does well with simpler playback, like Bill Evans’s jazz piano. When playing rock like the Hold Steady or hip-hop like Run the Jewels, the music costs some clarity. It does, however, get plenty loud and should more than do the job in an apartment or door room. The addition of the home theater option makes it a nice addition for users of the Fire TV, as well.

The Studio is, without question, the best and richest sound Echo to date. From a pure sound standpoint, I certainly can’t recommend it over an Apple HomePod, Sonos Move or Google Home Max, but the $199 price point fits comfortable in Amazon’s more budget-minded approach to the smart home.

 


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Where VCs are looking for voice startup investments

00:30 | 5 November

Led by Amazon’s Alexa, smart speakers’ install base is expected to reach 200 million units worldwide by 2020. A quarter of Americans over the age of 12 own a smart speaker, and the majority of those users have more than one device in their home. Moreover, Apple could sell 50 million of its Airpods this year (generating $8 billion in sales) as Bluetooth earpieces explode in popularity.

For the market penetration of this hardware, the app ecosystem remains limited in terms of mainstream adoption. Podcast production and consumption has exploded, but they don’t take advantage of smart speakers and headphones as interactive devices. Even though there were 57,000 Alexa skills available at the end of last year, most people are using smart speakers mainly to check the weather, check the news, ask simple questions and play music.

If voice is a new operating system, where are the opportunities to build giant companies on top of it?

To get a better sense of how the smart money views this market, I asked five VCs who have spent the most time in this space to share which types of startups have captured their attention:

  • Matt Hartman, Partner at Betaworks Ventures
  • Nicole Quinn, Partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners
  • Paul Bernard, Director of the Alexa Fund at Amazon
  • Ann Miura-Ko, Partner at Floodgate
  • Jordan Cooper, Partner at Pace Capital

Here are their responses:

Matt Hartman, Partner at Betaworks Ventures

The most recent wave of audio was about constant connectivity and streaming, and we invested in Anchor, Gimlet, and other audio-first businesses that would thrive in the podcast renaissance. For the next wave of audio, we’re focused [on] three broad categories: personalization, new behaviors/new interfaces, and monetization. Personalization means both utilizing location, Apple Watch, and other data to create magical audio experiences and customized audio content, but also advances in generative content like Resemble.ai and Descript that can create custom audio. 

In terms of new behaviors/new interfaces, people are leaving their Airpods in longer, which means there may be an opportunity for “Airpod-first” product design. Finally, as audio becomes an industry, monetization will be improved and also re-thought: subscription products such as Shine and Headspace are interesting in the context that if they don’t really work as ad-supported podcasts, and they are packaged in such a way that people are willing to pay a monthly or annual subscription.

Nicole Quinn, Partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners

We are in between platforms and it’s not clear what the next platform will be. VR and AR are options, but I believe voice will be the next major platform with mass adoption. The biggest hurdle right now is discoverability which in turn leads to engagement and retention issues. This was the same for mobile before the App Store allowed us to discover new apps. We need the same for voice.

We will then see voice move from a music and list creation tool to one which quickly becomes part of popular culture around shopping, games, travel, meditation, etc. Leading audio apps such as Calm, the meditation and sleep app, are already set up to take advantage of the move to voice.

Paul Bernard, Director of the Alexa Fund at Amazon

Alexa got its start in the home, but we knew early on that bringing this experience to customers outside the home would become important. Our investments in companies like North (smart glasses), Vesper (power-efficient microphones) and Syntiant (power-efficient AI chip) were inspired by this vision, and reflect the idea that ambient computing is becoming part of daily life.

These companies are also helping create the surface area for interactive entertainment and information services, such as Drivetime’s trivia games (we are an investor there too), and social ones like TTYL, which enables friends wearing earbuds to maintain “audio-presence” with each other throughout their day while they multi-task. We also expect to see innovation in how voice can help seniors aging in place — our recent investment in Labrador Systems, which builds assistive robots, is a good example of this trend.

 


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