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It’s pretty rare that a new product truly surprises us. But today Amazon did just that, introducing Echo, a talking, listening piece of electronic furniture. It’s like having the internet on your kitchen table, cracking jokes and settling bets, and it’s the most innovative device Amazon’s made in years.
Echo, ostensibly a speaker, is a deceptively boring-looking little tube, as though Amazon’s designers took an old Kindle and rolled it into a cylinder, plugging its unremarkable guts with intelligent software that talks to you. You pick a name and Echo learns it, beginning what Amazon hopes will be a life-long (or at least, model life-long) friendship. Want to know the news? Echo streams it. Need someone to settle a bet? Echo calls up whatever information you need. Need something added to your shopping list? Echo—and Amazon—would be happy to oblige.
It is the conversational internet. A tangible, touchable piece of pseudo-furniture that filters data through a very smart-looking piece of voice recognition. The web strung across your living room—or better yet, kitchen. There’s more potential in this little lightsaber handle than we know quite what to do with.
The easiest way to describe Echo is by comparing it (her?) to its peers. It’s like Siri, but furniture. It’s like Cortana, except in your living room. It’s like the voice recognition speaker Aether, or any number of other voice-controlled devices you can put in your home, except it does more. And it’s made by Amazon.
Echo has plenty of peers, but all of them are bundled with other devices. Siri lives in your phone. Cortana on your computer. Google’s voice recognition is on both. The genius of Echo is that it’s a more nimble, leaner version of a technology that’s been caged up inside of other devices for years. As Apple and Microsoft have struggled to engage consumers in the idea of voice recognition for your phone or your computer or your game console, Amazon snuck a device that puts essentially the same software front and centre for no other purpose than to chat with you. Oh, and play you some tunes while it’s at it.
Amazon has another advantage: It’s an alternative path, a kind of dark horse compared to three products that are so similar, and similarly bound to compete with each other for market share. And importantly, it’ll be cheap as hell for Amazon Prime members: Only$100 (£63) in the US, compared to a few hundred pounds (at least) for a phone or computer that grants you Siri or Cortana access. In that sense, there’s no other product on the market that can do what Echo does: Put dedicated, seemingly reliable, truly hands-free voice recognition in your home for (presumably) less than a hundred pounds.
Of course, none of this means that Echo will necessarily be a blockbuster success. As Tim Carmody pointed out on Twitter, the open question is still the quality of the artificial intelligence that forms that connective tissue of any of these systems. In fact, Echo may be a kind of litmus test for Amazon. A $100 device that rolls out slowly (you have to request an invite) will let the company cull data from across a broad range of users in a huge range of environments. And down the line—say, when Amazon decides to put Echo on the next Fire phone—its software will be battle-tested.
So Amazon has reversed the product pipeline of its competitors. Apple and Microsoft and Google put their AI on your phones or computers and have let it sit, improving it incrementally but never changing where and how we interact with it. Amazon is putting that software on your kitchen table—and in an app—and maybe someday, if it’s good enough, it will be absorbed into an operating system.
For Amazon’s hardware team, this is an important moment. Kindle’s new Voyage e-reader was awesome, but crazily expensive, and its other dependable e-reader options haven’t broken any moulds. Meanwhile, all its other successes and failures have involved following in the footsteps of other companies: Fire phone was a flop. Fire TV was well-received but limited by its price, and Fire TV Stick has a powerful direct competitor in the form of Chromecast. With Echo, the hardware team has hit on a design paradigm that’s pretty much terra incognita, and they’ve made it inexpensive and accessible for just about everyone.
If it sucks, Echo could easily become yet another product on a long, decades-old list of failed AI. If it works, it will be world wide web floating through your house, the internet made tangible and speakable and liveable. Either way, Amazon’s trying something brand new. And that’s an exciting change of pace.
When you’re stuck down a ditch with your leg hanging off, the last thing you want is the ambulance crew you’ve just yelled down the phone to looking for your crumpled body in the wrong spot, several miles away. A new system developed by HTC, EE and BT should help alleviate that fear — it allows emergency services to pinpoint a 999 caller to within 30 metres, compared to the several kilometres of the present method.
Dialling 999 will automatically send a text message to a BT operator, who verifies it and forwards your location to the required emergency service. Handy, considering you may not be in a position to describe your location if you’ve come into a spot of bother.
For now, the technology is limited to only HTC’s handsets, and those calling from HTC phones on an EE network signal. But considering the life-saving potential of the innovation, you’d hope that other networks and handset manufacturers would follow suit. [BT]
Here’s the truth: Carrots are rich in beta carotene (Vitamin A), and thus, eating lots of carrots helps promote good eye health. That’s a different thing entirely from vision; pumping yourself full of Vitamin A doesn’t bring you any closer to 20/20 than doing push-ups all day would.
So why do we think carrots help us see better? Smithsonian Magazine reports the theory of John Stolarczyk, curator of the World Carrot Museum (Yes! It exists). According to Stolarczyk, the myth began during World War II, when the Nazis were bombing the bejeezus out of London at night. Then, seemingly out of no where, the British Royal Air Force started shooting down more Nazi planes. How did they do it? With the help of a new radar that the RAF, of course, did not want anybody to know about.Smithsonian explains:
The Royal Air Force were able to repel the German fighters in part because of the development of a new, secret radar technology. The on-board Airborne Interception Radar (AI), first used by the RAF in 1939, had the ability to pinpoint enemy bombers before they reached the English Channel. But to keep that under wraps, according to Stolarczyk’s research pulled from the files of the Imperial War Museum, the Mass Observation Archive, and the UK National Archives, the Ministry provided another reason for their success: carrots.
When the papers asked how pilots where shooting down planes in the dark, the RAF simply responded that pilots had been hitting their root veggies hard. A bold-faced lie! But one that helped save London — and the world — from Nazi tyranny. [Smithsonian]
Swedish designer Love Hultén is freaking obsessed with classic arcade games. You’d have to be, to hand carve a beautiful wooden console to house a massive collection of them. Awesome.
At first, Hultén’s R Kaid-42 (“arcade for two”, get it?) looks like an old, hand-crafted box. It’s made of dark walnut with brass fittings, and measures about 18 x 18 x 35 centimetres, which is considerably smaller than even the tiniest mini-fridge.
But the box, which is held together by magnets, magically breaks apart from this compact package into a console with two controllers. Some basic assembly is required.
The controllers are wireless with rechargeable batteries. They’re big and beefy, just like you want them to be.
Beneath the wooden exterior, the R Kaid-42′s console box is a small 1.8 GHz PC that instantly boots to a homegrown interface that lets you pick between some 2000 classic titles. The console has VGA connectivity so you can connect a display of your own—none is included with the R Kaid-42.
You, too, can have a beautiful arcade like this one. Pricing starts at about £650, but Hultén doesn’t specify a final price for the package, saying each unit is a custom job that will be tailored to each customer’s needs. No matter what, it’ll cost you more than a quarter.