IT HAS THIS WEEK been announced that the long-awaited Google Home is coming to the UK. This is not great news for Amazon, who've been dominating the home virtual assistant/speaker-thingy market since releasing Amazon Echo here in October last year.
So how can Alexa keep her edge when the Google juggernaut rolls into town? Here are our suggestions.
1. Release a shower version
Alexa is great for soundtracking your life by voice. When do you need voice control most? When your hands are wet - like when you're in the shower.
A waterproof Alexa device would allow you to DJ your shower without dealing with those awful Bluetooth speakers, trying to put a sound system in your bathroom ceiling, or risking your phone.
All Amazon would need to do is waterproof the existing Echo Dot, whack on a better speaker (that tinny output isn't going to compete well with a power shower) and stick a sucker on the back. It'll also need a rechargeable battery, because a lot of people don't have any outlets in their bathroom, and plugging it into the shaving socket's going to be major effort.
2. Plug into our TVs
Amazon's already made a start on this with the new Fire TV Stick, which incorporates Alexa into its mic-equipped Chromecast rival. But it costs £40, and when most people already have a games console or streaming stick to fulfil all of its other features, it's not worth it just for Alexa.
Additionally, most of Alexa's functionality on the Fire TV stick is limited to Amazon content - you can say "Alexa, go back 30 seconds" if you're watching on Amazon Video, but not on Netflix.
What we want is this functionality across all of our TV's functions. Once you've got Alexa in your house, you automatically want to control everything by voice, and it gets confusing remembering what can and can't be. I can say "Alexa, play Jazz FM" but not "Alexa, turn to BBC2," and I want to do both. Being able to pause, rewind and skip to the next episode would be ridiculously handy hands-free, too. It's going to be tricky to make it work across the many different types of smart TV/console/streaming stick/PVR, but it'd put Alexa leaps and bounds ahead of Google Home.
3. Talk like a real Brit
There are localised versions of Alexa, yes, but just having a British accent isn't enough. Alexa often reminds me of one of those people who went to an international school - the accent sounds American, but the syntax is off. For instance, I just asked Alexa for the date, and she said in a perfectly clipped English accent: "Today is Tuesday February 28th." That is not how any Brit would say the date.
It's already a little bit unnatural speaking to a virtual assistant: you have to word your queries in certain ways to be understood. Forcing people to use more American syntax will have an impact on the ways we express ourselves with each other, and it also presents another barrier to feeling at home talking to Alexa. Training people to speak more like Silicon Valley bros is definitely not a good thing.
4. Remember what I said last
Another way that conversation with Alexa feels unnatural is that for the most part, each command is treated like a new conversation. She does occasionally ask for clarification - for instance when I ask her to set the temperature, she often asks which device I mean - but look how follow-up questions go:
"Alexa, what's ten times ten?"
"Ten multiplied by ten is one hundred"
"Alexa, add fifty"
"Got it. I've added fifty to your shopping list."
This would never happen with a human. Alexa lacks an awareness of context, and worryingly for Amazon, Google Assistant doesn't. I repeated the same conversation using "OK Google," and got the reply "The answer is one hundred and fifty."
Similarly, if you ask Alexa to "play that again," she says repeating songs isn't currently supported (through Spotify, at least). However, if I give her the whole command again ("Alexa, play Barcelona by Freddie Mercury"), she will. This makes no sense, and talking to Alexa won't feel natural until she remembers what you've said before. It's all recorded, so why not?
5. Let us have other voices
Many sat navs allow you to switch voices, often with novelty results like having your directions read out by Darth Vader. It's work-intensive, yes, but Amazon could outsource that to the content owners, allowing them to add their own Alexa voices the way Amazon added a supremely irritating alarm tone to promote The Grand Tour.
The current Alexa voice isn't recorded by a real person, it's a text-to-speech program (hence why it sounds so stilted sometimes), and you can already change its ‘name' from Alexa to ‘Computer' if you're a Star Trek fan. Imagine how much cooler it would be if Alexa took on the persona of Marvin the paranoid android, or Mr. Meeseeks, or - my personal dream - Holly from Red Dwarf.
People would pay for that, and it'd give Echo a big point of difference over Google Home. "OK Google" or "Alright dudes?" - no contest. µ
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