Virtual personal assistants help manage busy lives

It’s the stuff busy people have dreamt of for years; an on-demand assistant available 24/7 to make home life run smoother and to-do lists easier to tackle.

Amazon Echo may be labeled as a hands-free speaker, but it goes far beyond the realm of playing music and news to make your home run smarter from the minute you wake up until you give the voice command to “turn off the lights” and go to bed.

“Alexa” — the brain that powers the Echo — is programmed to respond to a wide variety of voice commands. The 360-degree speaker with seven microphones allows you to communicate with it from anywhere in the room. 

In the same way that Apple did with Siri, Amazon built Alexa into the cloud, so that the virtual assistant’s knowledge and abilities are continuously updated. And while Alexa may not be able to run to the store for that gallon of milk you forgot, she can add it to your running grocery list and remind you to get it next time you leave the house. This virtual personal assistant blends seamlessly into your daily routine.

Beyond Echo’s immediate connection to the Internet, there’s also a short list of products it can integrate with directly, and that list is growing at a rapid pace. Examples include: Philips Hue lights, Nest thermostats and Haiku ceiling fans, just to name a few. As other heavy-hitters such as Google, Apple and IBM launch their own technologies in the near future, that list is sure to expand even more.

Alexa’s capabilities are also supplemented by something Amazon calls “skills” and third-party integration applications.

“Less than a year ago we released the Alexa Skills Kit, making it possible for any developer to create voice experiences for Alexa,” Rob Pulciani, director of Amazon Alexa, said in a press release back in June. “Today, we have a vibrant community of tens of thousands of developers who are learning about the service, bringing useful and innovative skills to every aspect of Alexa customers’ lives and introducing their own users to the magic and simplicity of hands-free, voice-driven interactions.”

Here are five ways the Echo is already changing lives:

Music and audio entertainment

It’s easy to forget that at its most basic level, the Echo is a Bluetooth speaker. Alexa can stream music from Amazon Music, Prime Music, Spotify Premium, Pandora, TuneIn, iHeartRadio and Audible. You can also upload your personal music collections and playlists. Hear a song you like? Ask for the name of the song or the album and who wrote it. You can also listen to a variety of podcasts and audiobooks.

News updates

Set your preferences for news sources and have the day’s breaking stories from your favorite newspapers read to you while you pack lunches or get dressed. Or request a “flash briefing” for pre-recorded updates from popular broadcasters like CNN and NPR.

Daily planning

Just say the word for weather reports, traffic updates, train or flight schedules — and plan accordingly. You also can dictate a daily to-do list, grocery list or just about any other type of list that can be saved and accessed at a later time.

Calendar management

Integrate your Google calendar(s) with the Echo and Alexa can give you a list of the day’s meetings or can even check your calendar on a specific day to help with future planning.

Dining and other services

Order a pizza from Domino’s, request a ride from Uber, check movie listings or learn more about happenings in your community by tapping into Alexa’s immense knowledge base. Staying in for the night? Think of Alexa as a virtual sous chef who can look up recipes, convert pints to liters or set a timer for your cookies. She can even look up TV schedules and provide summaries on the evening’s programming.

In a January 2016 blog post for NXP Semiconductors, Asit Goel, a senior vice president with the company, predicted that our homes and appliances will continue to get smarter in the coming year.

“We’ve seen the emergence of voice-enabled devices and this trend will continue to pick up speed in 2016,” Goel says in the post.  “I believe voice enablement, voice activation and context sensing with voice are all essential to the smart home and will greatly speed consumer adoption.”