Amazon unveils new smart-home products, but are consumers ready?

The Internet of Things is rapidly expanding, but the idea of a fully-connected 'smart home' seems to loom further in the distance for many consumers.

Jeff Chiu/AP
David Limp, Amazon Senior Vice President of Devices, speaks about Alexa family devices in San Francisco, Wednesday. is introducing two devices, the Amazon Tap and Echo Dot, that are designed to amplify the role that its voice-controlled assistant Alexa plays in people's homes and lives.

On Thursday, Amazon introduced two devices in a bid to show the range of roles Alexa, its voice-controlled assistant, could play in users’ homes and lives.

The new devices, the Amazon Tap and the Echo Dot, are more affordable varieties of Amazon’s Echo, which was the online marketplace’s first stab at making a connected home product when it launched in 2014.

The three gadgets share similarities – setting them up lets them respond to a user’s command, like reading the day’s headlines, changing your home's temperature, or turning off the lights.

The concept of connecting a variety of appliances, from coffeemakers to TVs,  to create a unified “smart home” is gradually gaining in popularity. Some 36 percent of consumers in a recent poll by the Nielsen affiliated group The Demand Institute said they were “excited” to incorporate more of the technology in their homes, while 34 percent were neutral.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering the fictional touchstone for this technology is the billionaire entrepreneur Tony Stark, those numbers varied considerably by age and income. The idea of smart-home technology remained most popular among people age 18-34 (53 percent) and people making over $75,000 a year (47 percent).

That’s a trend that mirrors the real-life announcement that Facebook head Mark Zuckerberg pledged earlier this year to create a robot assistant that rivaled Stark’s Jarvis, from the “Iron Man” comics and films, which he said he would begin by using existing Internet of Things technology.

More broadly, a recent online survey of more than 4,600 people by the research firm Forrester found 57 percent had either had used or were interested in owning a smart-home device.

But the market is growing increasingly crowded. Alexa has a variety of rivals among voice-controlled personal assistants including Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, and Google’s search engine.

Those assistants originally connected to products that had a broader variety of features, leading to questions about whether Amazon’s Alexa – with its ability to answer trivia questions, play music, or order things from Amazon’s website – was more a party trick than a full-featured virtual assistant.

A celebrity-packed Superbowl ad aired last month that featured the virtual assistant at a party answering questions seemed to somewhat confirm this impression.

But Alexa can now perform more than 300 tasks, such as hailing a car ride, turning on lights, and controlling a thermostat. Those features mirror the range of connected home devices available from other companies, like the Google-owned Nest, which originally began as an easy-to-use thermostat and has since expanded to a range of products.

Amazon says the Echo now ranks among the company’s top-selling items in consumer electronics, though it hasn’t said exactly how many of the device it has sold. The new Amazon Tap is a more slimmed down version of the Echo at 6.25-inches, which sells for $135, and doesn’t need to be plugged in, unlike the Echo.

The new Tap differs in that it requires people to touch a button to prompt Alexa to listen for a question or command, instead of the Echo’s more energy-intensive “always-on” listening features, which can hear commands from up to 25 feet away.

The Echo Dot, which is currently only available to Amazon Prime subscribers who have already bought an Echo or the company’s Fire TV streaming device, lacks a speaker but has an input for another sound system. The hockey-puck shaped device, priced at $90 also works with voice commands.

It’s difficult to tell whether the new products could get consumers interested in the idea of fully connecting their home.

The research firm Gartner predicted last year that 5.5 million new Internet of Things devices could be connected every day in 2016, However, a survey by Internet of Things company iControl Networks shows many consumers are most interested in automation primarily for security reasons.

Devices like home monitoring cameras, self-adjusting thermostats, remote door locks, and adjustable outdoor lighting remain most popular.

Surprisingly, while about a quarter of participants in the company’s survey said they would favor a “vacation” or away mode when they were away form home, only 16 percent in the US said they would most like to see voice-controlled features, a main selling point for Amazon’s Echo products.

The new Tap and Echo Dot begin shipping by the end of March.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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