Had you asked us a month ago whether we thought voice or video was the future of artificial intelligence in the house, I’m pretty sure we’d have answered “voice”.
Using your voice to control things, and those things using voice to provide feedback, has after all been the whole basis of the smart speakers that have defined household AI to this point.
But it turns out that a month is a long time in the fast-moving world of domestic AI and, if you asked the staff here at the Digital Life Labs the same question now, we probably wouldn’t answer you. We’d be too busy watching video on one of the video-enabled smart-home devices we’ve been reviewing these past few weeks.
If we did answer, it would be to say that we’re starting to realise that a video interface is a fairly essential adjunct to the voice interfaces we’ve come to know … I won’t say “and love” … over these past few years of smart speakers.
Voice, it turns out, still has a lot of problems when used as the sole interface to your home’s “ambient computer” (as these AI-based smart-home devices are called when they’re banded together).
The chief problem is bringing new and existing functionality to the user’s attention. Your Echo can hardly pipe up every morning to tell you what new features Amazon or its third-party developers have added in the past 24 hours. It would take all morning.
Adding screens to the mix neatly solves that. Every time I glance at the Amazon Echo Show right here on my desk, I see a little prompt about something it can do.
“Try, ‘Alexa take a picture’ ” it’s telling me as a write this. Who knew the Echo Show, which by the way is the subject of this week’s review, could be used as a camera?
Another problem that the addition of video helps to solve is one that happened just a few moments ago, as I was cooking my lunch.
Me: Alexa, tell me about my timers.
Echo Dot in kitchen: You have two timers: a five-minute timer with about four minutes and 20 seconds left; and a 30-minute timer with about 12 minutes left.
Me: Alexa, cancel my 30-minute timer.
Alexa-enabled Sonos speaker, piping up from neighbouring room: There are no timers set.
Interacting with a smart device using your voice alone can be troublesome when you have more than one in earshot. They often don’t know who you’re talking to. When you’re using your fingers on a touch screen, there’s no doubt which device you’re interacting with.
Of course the 10-inch, moderately high-definition (1280 x 800 pixel) screen on the Echo Show isn’t just about solving problems inherent in voice-based operations. It brings a whole new, visual dimension to the voice commands we have come to know and kind of love, as well as bringing new functions that are meaningless on voice-only smart speakers.
Simple questions such as “Alexa, what’s the weather?” are much richer on the Echo Show than on screen-less Echo devices. You don’t just get the forecast for the day read out to you, as on the other Echos, the forecast for the entire week also pops up on the screen.
Flash briefings, the Amazon news service, is similarly better with a screen. You get the news from your chosen radio service, as with other Echo devices, but you can add video-enhanced new feeds, too, from the likes of CommSec, Reuters, Sky News and ABC News. They all play for you, on the Show’s screen, whenever you say, “Alexa, what’s the news?”
And then there are voice commands like, “Alexa, show me videos of Ronnie O’Sullivan,” which didn’t make sense until the Echo Show came out to play them for you, right on its 10-inch screen.
It must be said, though, that watching videos on the Echo Show isn’t nearly as good as it could or should be. Amazon and Google aren’t exactly seeing eye to eye at the moment, so there’s no YouTube app on the Show, which is a great pity.
YouTube has a seemingly infinite supply of videos of history’s greatest snooker player, but the YouTube alternative that Amazon has been forced to dish up on the Echo Show, a little-known service known as “Dailymotion” powered by a little-loved search engine known as “Bing”, has only 11 such videos.
Eleven! I can get through 11 Ronnie O’Sullivan videos just tripping down the YouTube rabbit hole.
Indeed, all voice-base video searches on the Echo Show seem be limited to 11 initial results, which is nowhere near enough for proper addicts. Amazon needs to make up with Google and get YouTube on this device quick smart.
In the meantime, there is a way around the impasse. You can say “Alexa, open YouTube”, and the Echo Show will bring up the rabbit hole in a browser, allowing you to engage in your favourite pastime ad infinitum.
I’ve been watching Ronnie O’Sullivan videos all day on the Echo Spot, using exactly that method. As I write this, he’s about to score another maximum break. Like I said, video screens are fast becoming an essential part of the smart-home experience. How can you tell the black from the brown if all you have are your ears to go by?
AMAZON ECHO SHOW
- Likes Big sound. Video adds a lot of value to existing Alexa commands and makes new ones possible.
- Dislikes No voice-controlled YouTube. Video doorbells don’t display automatically.
- Price $349.