So, thanks to the wonderful food at Fabulous Freddies in Chicago we find ourselves at the airport with slightly more cash left than we expected.
During our trip we formed a habit of getting takeout from Freddies rather than going out for a meal. (If you ever get a chance, try the grilled chicken sandwich. Awesome.)
Anyhoo, Turns out that I've got just enough dollars left in my pocket to buy an Amazon Echo from Sharper Image at the airport. So I do. But before I part with any notes I check on the interwebs, in particular the very useful Amazon Echo in the UK site, to see if it would work. The answer is, pretty much mostly, and so the purchase was made.
Turns out it works really well. No pressing of buttons, just say what you want and the Amazon Cloud will try to get it for you. You can ask it questions and it will answer by referring to Wikipaedia among other places. You can even ask it to tell you a joke, but the results are even worse than mine, and that's saying something...
In the 'states you can make it play music from your Amazon Prime account, but that doesn't work in the UK just yet. However, it is said you can upload some of your music collection and have those played on demand (although I've not tried it yet). Pandora and Spotify are also integrated into the device.
You can use a trigger word to get the attention of the echo or press a button. The default trigger is "Alexa.". When you speak the trigger the top ring lights up and points at the direction the sound came from. It reminds me a bit of the eye in the Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. However it's much more friendly than that. The voice recognition is spot on for me, I don't even have to put on a fake american accent to make it work.
If you want to listen to the radio you can just say "Alexa. Play BBC Radio Four" and the device (hard not to refer to it as she) will connect to TuneIn radio and do the business. The same goes for Bluetooth music playback from your phone, which just works.
There are also a bunch of services that the Echo can drive. They are packaged as "skills" and you can add them to your echo via a web interface or via speech. There is a connection to If This Then That (or IFTT) which means you can use the Echo as a gateway for voice control of devices around the house. Quite a few other home devices are also integrated as skills.
Amazon are even running a competition at the moment, asking you to use their libraries and the Raspberry Pi to make novel embedded, Echo controlled applications. Find out more here.
Getting the Echo to work in the UK was a doddle. You can manage the device from an iPhone or Android phone app but these are only available in the US. However, there is also a web based interface that worked fine for configuring the device WiFi and getting it working. You have to have an Amazon.com username, or have a US username linked to your UK one. It just worked for me.
It's only a matter of time before the Echo goes on sale in the UK I reckon. It is a real glimpse into the future. The sound quality is well up to that of Bluetooth speakers of an equivalent price and the voice activated services are genuinely useful. They will get even better after a UK launch when we can set our timezones and locations to this part of the world. Worth a look if you like your gadgets talkative.