Amazon’s latest refresh of its surveillance product line includes features to make you forget the corporation’s cameras and microphones are there.
Dave Limp, senior vice president in charge of Amazon’s devices and services business, said this kind of an “ambient user interface” is exemplified by a wall clock.
“It’s just there when you need it, but it fades into the background when you don’t,” Limp said Thursday in an online presentation of the company’s forthcoming products centered on the Alexa voice assistant. “And we think we’ve done that with Alexa.”
In one example, the company’s updated $250 Echo Show countertop display comes with a 13-megapixel camera that can silently pivot, pan and zoom to keep the screen facing the user and the user centered in the camera during a video call. The idea was to build a device “that could actually follow you around the room as a person would when you’re in a conversation,” Limp said.
People can tell the device to stop watching them and slide closed a physical lens cover to be extra sure.
Another new device, from Amazon’s Ring home-security subsidiary, is an indoor drone-mounted camera that can automatically patrol a home’s interior. Due out next year, pending Federal Communications Commission authorization, the $250 flying camera is not designed to be so quiet, and reaction to it wasn’t either.
“In a country with no laws regulating digital privacy, anyone who buys this from a company with a history of privacy problems is insane,” Walt Mossberg, a longtime technology journalist and product reviewer, said on Twitter.
Ring products have been hacked, including an instance last year in which a man was able to see and speak to an 8-year-old girl through a Ring security camera in her bedroom.
Ring also announced a new line of products for cars, including monitoring systems and alarms. One feature called Traffic Stop allows a user to utter, “Alexa, I’m being pulled over,” after which cameras and microphones begin recording what’s happening in the vehicle and automatically save the information to the cloud, and send it to designated contacts.
Ring has partnerships with more than 1,500 law-enforcement agencies across the United States. A Ring spokesperson said customers can choose whether to share videos captured using Traffic Stop with law enforcement, as is the case with its other video products.
There are more than 140,000 products that work with Alexa, and people have purchased and installed more than 100 million units, Amazon said.
Alexa, as the operating system at the center of this ambient computing ecosystem, is increasingly initiating more actions on its own. The system itself now begins about 20% of interactions with Amazon’s customers.
Many of those are carried out through the Alexa Guard home-monitoring system, to which some 2 million customers subscribe. The system constantly monitors its surroundings and then takes prescribed actions, such as sending an alert when it detects the sound of breaking glass. An enhanced version, which costs $4.99 a month, will be able to turn on a light if it hears the sound of a baby crying or trigger a recording of a dog barking in response to a person approaching a home.
Asked whether customers fully understand the privacy implications of the proliferation of Amazon-connected cameras and microphones that enable these services, Toni Reid, vice president of Alexa experiences and devices, said the company has put a lot of effort into teaching customers about privacy and making it easier to manage privacy settings.
In one new measure, users can tell the system to “delete everything I’ve ever said,” though doing so may cause certain personalization features to degrade.
“It’s important for customers to understand the benefits of technology and also … their responsibility as well,” Reid said. “If done right, these technologies can be life-changing in many ways.”
The Alexa voice-assistant system is steadily improving its understanding and emulation of human conversation. It can be instructed to listen and respond to multiple voices speaking to it at once, without each person having to utter the “wake word” — for which the system is constantly listening — to begin interacting. The idea is to have the system carry out a more free-flowing conversation and thereby fade further into the background, said Rohit Prasad, vice president and head scientist for Alexa Artificial Intelligence.
“This required real invention in multisensory artificial intelligence that goes far beyond natural language understanding,” Prasad said. “Alexa uses acoustic, linguistic and even visual cues to determine whether the request is directed towards her.”
The system can also engage in a “clarification dialogue,” in which the system asks questions to gather more information from Amazon customers to automatically set up things like room lighting and home heating, he said.
Amazon also announced a new feature allowing Alexa to capture profiles of children’s voices, to interact with them more consistently as they move from one device to another. Reid said that Amazon is in full compliance with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, and that parents must enable the creation of the voice profiles for children.
The company also introduced a video-game service that makes use of customized Amazon Web Services computers, allowing people to play on a range of devices, including its own Fire TVs, Apple iPads and iPhones, computers and other devices. The service, called Luna and costing $5.99 a month during an introductory period, could undercut video game consoles from Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo.
In the future, Limp said, the ambient home will become one “that often requires you to speak less. That’s not to say you won’t speak to your home, but it’s going to understand you more, to anticipate your needs and be more contextual. That’s our long-term vision.”