Exploring the Amazon Echo

Image shows the Amazon Echo - a long black cylinder shaped gadget. A Connect magazine article: From Issue 14 published April 2017

Voice command technology – where items respond to your voice – is opening up a whole new world for blind and partially sighted people.

 
Two tech products which seem to be making waves in this space are the Amazon Echo and its smaller sibling, the Amazon Dot. But are they accessible, and are they useful? Sean Priest, RNIB Connect Radio’s technology correspondent, put them to the test. 
 

Vital stats

Amazon Echo

  • Ten inch tall cylinder – think an oversized can of Pringles!
  • Has a Bluetooth speaker with clear, loud sound
  • Top section contains seven ‘always listening’ microphones, a manual activate button (with tactile dot) and mute mics button
  • No headphone jack. 

Amazon Dot deviceAmazon Dot 

  • Has all the same voice command technology as the Echo
  • Much smaller, it’s essentially the top section of the Echo
  • No Bluetooth speaker, but it does have a headphone jack to connect to existing audio or Bluetooth speaker
  • Has small built-in speaker, similar to that on a smartphone or tablet. 
 

The idea of a voice assistant is that you can ask it questions or tell it what to do in a natural way and it will respond intelligently. 

Setting it up 
 
Setting up the Echo or Dot is really straightforward. You need to download the Alexa app from the App Store or the Google Play Store onto your tablet or other device. Plug the device into the mains and hold down the activate button on the top until you hear the Alexa voice say ‘now in set-up mode’.
 
Once setup, the Echo or Dot will always be listening for the ‘wake word’ which activates the device. You can choose between Amazon, Echo or by default it’s Alexa. 
 
From general knowledge, maths, weather, sports updates, setting alarms and timers, Alexa can answer all the general questions you’ve come to expect. There are plenty more interesting features. You can add different news sources to the ‘flash briefing’ to create a daily custom news presentation. You can also tell Alexa to play any radio station using TuneIn Radio. 
 

Skills 

This is perhaps the best feature. Skills are apps you can run that perform specific functions, and there are thousands to choose from. While they range from terrible to amazing, there are some great ones. 
 
The National Rail ‘skill’ app tells you the status of your journey and any delays, as well as many other useful rail travel features. I’ve also installed JustEat, for ordering takeaways, games like Movie Tagline Quiz and obviously some childish ones that make rude noises… well I did say there were some terrible ones. 
 

The good points 

I have my Echo under the TV at the other end of the room and I never have to raise my voice. The speaker on the Echo is also excellent. 
 
I think the Dot is good value for money. It can do everything the Echo can, and it’s great on a bedside table or added to an existing audio setup. 
 

The bad points 

There is a big one: The Alexa app. While it’s mostly accessible both on Android and iOS, it can be so frustrating to use. From the unlabelled menu button and focus issues in the skills section, to not being able to select an item, the app freezing and having to restart it. This is a shame because these are really simple accessibility issues that shouldn’t be there. 
 

The verdict 

The voice assistant service itself is really fast and responsive, and the ability to add new features with skills gives it great potential for the future. It’s really hard to explain but once you’ve had one in your house for a while, you just use it without even thinking about it. It just feels natural and that’s something that’s really hard to pull off. 
 

Where to buy 

The Amazon Echo is priced at £150 and the Amazon Dot is priced at £49. If you'd like more information or advice about whether to buy the Amazon Echo, contact the RNIB Technology For Life Team by emailing tfl@rnib.org.uk or call the RNIB Helpline on 0303 123 9999.
 

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