After an hour-long product drop by Amazon this morning I’m convinced that we are getting really close to the smart home of my dreams, and I’m increasingly unsure if I want it. Amazon launched a $999.99 home robot called Astro, its Always Home Cam that’s an indoor drone with a camera on it, and so many services I lost track. It also introduced a $59.99 smart home thermostat, a 15-inch wall-mounted giant Echo display, a kids video camera with a projection screen, and a new Halo fitness tracker with a display.
During the presentation, every speaker hammered home the idea of ambient intelligence, which for Amazon basically translates to “stop looking at your phone”.
From SVP of Devices and Services, David Limp’s opening lines where he preached how Amazon’s hardware is simply about delivering services and connecting you to the outside world and the people you love, to the end when Amazon showed off its $1,000 robot, the message is that the smart home may have tons of devices, but they are all designed to deliver smarts without forcing people to spend time looking at a screen.
Well, unless they want to. After all, Amazon did launch the 15-inch Echo Display 15 for $249.99 and announced it would offer Alexa Widgets so people could personalize that screen with a variety of options from news and weather info to to-do lists and smart home camera feeds.
There’s also the new Amazon Glow videoconferencing device for kids that features a camera, an 8-inch display, and a projector mounted on the front so kids can see games, puzzles, and other activities that they can then play with their grandparents or whoever is on the other side of the video conference. That device is $249.99 and while I think it would appeal to a limited number of people (those with kids in the 4-9 age range?) I like the adoption of projection for a smart home device. I’ve been waiting for that ever since I saw Bosch show off this device at CES in 2018.
Screens aside, Amazon also announced an inexpensive thermostat that it built with Resideo’s Honeywell Home brand. It costs less than the Wyze thermostat and probably is giving the Ecobee CEO heartburn, even after it took money from Amazon and made a dedicated Alexa-enabled device.
Amazon also announced a new Halo product for $79.99 which has a display and looks pretty much like a Fitbit. There’s also a new Blink doorbell and battery-powered outdoor camera for $49.99 and $139.99 respectively.
And yes, there’s the invite-only Astro, in-home robot that will cost $999.99. The robot zips along at one meter per second and navigates through the home at a low height. It does have a periscope cam that pops up out of its head for checking out things at higher levels. It’s designed to roll around your home checking on things when you’re gone or following you around for video calls. But while the personality on this robot is cute (it reminds me of the Anki Vector) I’m not sold on its skillset being with the price just yet. It does have a cupholder so you can ask it to bring you a drink.
The Ring brand launched a new cellular-powered and ruggedized set of gateways and cameras designed for securing construction job sites that would start at $399.99 and was built with Home Depot.
Ring’s founder and CEO Jamie Siminoff also showed off the drone-powered Always Home Cam, which was the star of last year’s event. Now it’s available on an invite-only basis for $249.99 and the list of questions Ring asks when you sign up for an invite is eye-opening.
Ring wanted to know if I had children under the age of 13 (probably for DCMA purposes) and free-ranging pets as well as how high my ceilings were, if there were walls of glass or mirrors and if there were strong streams of air from air purifiers, fans, etc.
Ring also launched two of many Amazon services tied to Amazon’s devices.
First, it launched the Ring Alarm Pro device, which integrated an Eero 6 Wi-Fi router into the Ring bridge. Through a subscription plan, customers with that device can pay for their Ring camera feeds as well as Eero’s network security service.
Siminoff crowed that this combo can protect your digital and your physical world. He also launched the Virtual Security Guard, which is probably the most progressive, and yet regressive, service launched today. With Virtual Security Guard a customer can pay $99.99 a month to have a person monitor your Ring camera feeds and interact with prowlers or whatever is on the feed.
This is progressive because I’ve long heard people in emergency response ask for the ability to see a home camera when called to a scene, and it seems like we’re finally getting tools that will get us there. And it’s regressive because it’s pretty much an admission that AI isn’t really good enough to respond to security threats just yet.
As you can imagine with the theme of ambient intelligence, Amazon is really investing in some compelling AI services. For example, Amazon has introduced the ability to teach Alexa your face and images that matter to you and the ability to recognize sounds that matter to you.
Once Alexa recognizes the sound, you can build routines around it. This is essential for giving the smart home context. Soon, when an Eco sees your face, it can turn off the security alarm and set that thermostat to a preferred temperature. Of course, for things like this to work, especially on your Ring devices, you’ll need a subscription.
You can also teach Alexa about your likes and dislikes. An Amazon representative gave the example of teaching Alexa that you are a vegetarian and only getting vegetarian recipes going forward. You have to opt into these features and can always opt back out. I’m not sure if you can delete the data if you do opt-out later. But Amazon has been proactively giving people tools to delete their recordings with Alexa, so I can only hope.
Amazon’s Halo device is getting a bunch of new services as part of the $3.99 per month subscription fee. Plus, if you buy the new Halo View tracker for $79.99 you get a year of these services for free.
The original Halo subscription packed in workouts and some basic insights, but Amazon has added entire fitness classes (Halo Fitness) and a nutrition and meal planning service (Halo Nutrition) that ties into health and wellness goals. You can add your preferences and get meal plans that are then combined with your Alexa shopping list. This sort of holistic view of my kitchen inventory and meal planning process is one of my biggest pain points and I thought I’d love this.
But I’m kind of terrified simply because this sort of service brings home exactly how much Amazon knows about me and it’s tied to something that feels so personal.
Also on the personal side, Amazon is killing its CareHub service and revamping it with more features. The new service is called Alexa Together and it will cost $19.99 a month.
Caregivers and the cared for will get the same notifications about how a person interacts with their Echo device but will also get the ability to make a hands-free energy [EMERGENCY?] call and bring in data from third-party devices. Caregivers can also remotely acess the cared-for person’s Echo devices to add contexts, help with support and let multiple caregivers collaborate. This is all really great, although I wish that the remote help feature included the ability to set up the device remotely because for many that’s a huge hurdle.
Alexa also announced another big service, but this one is for businesses. Amazon has worked with Disney to create Hey Disney, a voice UI for Disney hotels and parks built on top of the Alexa platform.
Disney will also roll out Echo devices inside its hotel rooms and sell Hey Disney as an add-on feature full of games and characters for consumers to buy for their Echos at home. This sort of branded experience built on Amazon hardware, software, and services could represent the next big services business for Amazon as voice becomes more and more essential for navigating the connected world. Think of it as AWS for voice interactions and entertainment.
What about privacy?
Given all of the intelligence and information gathering capable from these devices, privacy is crucial. Amazon may have some cool devices, but the entire premise of having a smart home is that the home is surveilling you, monitoring your wants and needs, before providing them.
And so far, people are not inclined to trust Amazon, either because of its misguided partnerships with law enforcement to sell Ring devices, its workplace surveillance plans that fire people by a robot, or its PR teams that outright lie about some of Amazon’s worst practices. People buy from Amazon, but as evidenced by the launch of Sidewalk, its IoT network, people do not trust it.
To counteract some of this, Amazon has focused on local device processing, noting that customers can now elect to have their voice locally processed on the latest generation Echo devices and the newly launched Echo devices. It also added local SD-card video storage for some Ring cameras, emphasized the camera controls on the Alexa Glow kids toy and the local audio and image processing on some of its other devices. With its Astro robot, Amazon allows users to set out-of-bounds areas so Astro doesn’t follow you to the bathroom or sneak into the bedroom at inopportune times.
But given all of the features and capabilities launched today, I think Amazon is betting that getting a smarter, more aware smart home will drive enough people to enlist in its surveillance apparatus in exchange for more convenience and security. Amazon also clearly sees the smart home as a source of monthly revenue streams that will change over time.