Amazon sends its Echo home assistant to the UK and Germany

September 14, 2016 01:49 PM

(Bloomberg)— Inc. is ready to find out how well its voice-controlled home assistant Echo understands a British accent.

The Seattle-based company today announced that its Echo product line will be available in the U.K. and Germany starting in the fall, the first time the gadget will be available outside the U.S. It will cost 150 pounds ($198) in the U.K. and 180 euros in Germany. Customers can pre-order the device immediately.

Since its 2014 debut, Amazon’s screenless speaker has been a surprise hit, making the company a leader in the emerging area of technology where home gadgets are controlled with speech rather than touch. Echo plays music, responds to basic questions and commands, and makes orders from Amazon, No. 1 in the Internet Retailer 2016 Top 500 Guide.

Customers interact with the cylinder by saying "Alexa," followed by a command. "Alexa, what’s the weather going to be like today?" "Alexa, play Van Morrison songs." "Alexa, add paper towels to my Amazon order." Different apps from Spotify, Uber and various news organizations extend functionality further. Amazon announced additional partnerships for the European launch that includes Spiegel Online, Sky Sports, Just Eat and Skyscanner.

The company has given the female-sounding digital voice a slight British and German accent for the new markets, and made adjustments for local preferences. When a person in the U.K. asks the system how to spell "color," for instance, she responds with the British spelling: "C-O-L-O-U-R."

"It’s really important for us as U.K. customers that we don’t have to change the way we talk," said David Hardcastle, a senior manager in the Alexa voice recognition group in Cambridge, England.

Amazon has a head start on companies including Apple Inc., No. 2 in the Top 500, and Google that have also been attempting to reach customers in their homes. Apple’s HomeKit, for instance, allows customers to control internet-enabled accessories such as thermostats, security systems and garage doors through an iPhone and iPad app.

Amazon has had to ensure its system can understand different speech fluctuations and accents before expanding Echo. Unlike a smartphone, where voice commands play a complementary role to finger taps and swipes, speaking is the only way to interact with the Echo. As people talk more to the device, Amazon is able to collect data that’s used to improve the system’s accuracy. Apple’s Siri is available in 37 countries and understands English, French, German, Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, Italian and Spanish, among other languages.

“About five years ago we set off on a big vision. We wanted to build a computer in the cloud that was completely controlled by your voice," said Dave Limp, Amazon’s senior vice president for devices, at an event in London Wednesday. "Our brains are very, very good at understanding context. Computers, not so much."

Amazon hasn’t disclosed how many Echo units it has sold, but Consumer Intelligence Research Partners LLC estimated in April that more than 3 million had been purchased. The device has received accolades from gadget reviewers and has a growing fan base of users. Websites list different tasks customers can ask the product to do, such as read recipes in the kitchen.

Echo’s development came out of Amazon’s failed debut of the Fire smartphone, a device the company discontinued after weak sales. The product included the Alexa voice recognition software, which the company then integrated into Echo.




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