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07.17.17 | 3:54 pm

Mozilla is crowdsourcing a massive speech-recognition system

From Amazon's Alexa to Apple's Siri, speech recognition and response are becoming mainstays of how we interact with computers, apps, and internet services. But the technology is owned by giant corporations. Now the Mozilla Foundation, maker of the free Firefox browser, is recruiting volunteers to train an open-source speech recognition system.

Project Common Voice recruits web surfers to spend a couple minutes reading sentences aloud and/or listening to other people's recordings to check their accuracy. It's a very minimal contribution for volunteers: Just read three sentences to help the system understand what everyday speech sounds like. No need to go to a soundproof room or get a high-quality microphone. "We want the audio quality to reflect the audio quality a speech-to-text engine will see in the wild," reads the projects FAQ. "This teaches the speech-to-text engine to handle various situations—background talking, car noise, fan noise—without errors.

Mozilla is out to collect at least 10,000 hours to train a database that anyone can use for free. "Developers can build amazing things—from real-time translators to voice-enabled administrative assistants," says Mozilla, adding that speech-to-text will also be included in future versions of its Firefox browser.

07.14.17 | 1:00 pm

The head of Alexa and Echo is leaving Amazon after two decades

Although it's a busy time for Amazon's Alexa business—with new Echo devices and ever-expanding features for the voice assistant—the person in charge of it all is stepping down. GeekWire reports that Michael George, a nearly 20-year Amazon veteran, has "retired," according to his LinkedIn Page. Tom Taylor, Amazon's head of payments and fulfillment, will take over the role. Amazon hasn't commented on the switch-up, but George hinted in a LinkedIn post, written in binary, that he's moving on to other things. "Not checking out," he wrote, "just changing the game." Check out more details from GeekWire.

07.13.17 | 2:57 pm

Buying stuff with Amazon Echo? You have company but also lots of doubters

Amazon's plan for turning Alexa into a ubiquitous driver of voice-activated impulse buys seems to be working out quite nicely. Almost 20% of consumers said they have made a purchase through Echo or another voice-controlled device over the past year, according to a new survey from Walker Sands. Another 14% say they are "very likely" to make a voce-controlled purchase in the next 12 months and 19% more say they're "somewhat likely" to do so. The poll of 1,622 U.S. consumers—part of the agency's "Future of Retail" report—speaks to the rapid adoption of smart home devices since the introduction of Amazon's first Echo in 2014.

There are still a considerable number of naysayers, however. Almost half (48%) of consumers polled said they are "not likely at all" to use a voice-controlled device to make a purchase in the next year. Moreover, only 24% of consumers said they even owned a voice-controlled home assistant, compared to 55% who said they own a tablet and 78% who said they own a smartphone. Check out more from Walker Sands here.

[Images: Walker Sands]

06.21.17 | 11:00 am

Bored kids and their desperate parents are the biggest fans of smart speakers: study

If you're wondering who is getting the most out of smart speakers like Amazon Echo and Google Home, turns out it's the future tech CEOs of America, aka our net-native children. A new study from NPR and Edison Research reveals that nearly 90% of children who have one say they enjoy smart speakers, and eight in 10 parents say these devices have made it easier to entertain their children. Some 57% of smart speaker owners with kids at home said that one of the reasons they bought a smart speaker was to entertain children. (Library cards are free, kids!) 

The Smart Audio Report was based upon a national online survey of 1,620 Americans ages 18 and over, 800 of whom owned at least one Smart Speaker. Other interesting findings were that use of the speaker grows over time—nearly half say they are using the speaker more now than in the first month they owned it. Proving that you should not give up on the Alexa your uncle bought your for Christmas yet. In fact, people liked smart speakers so much that 44% of owners expect to purchase another one and that goes up to over half (56%) among parents. The majority (65%) said that that "they would not want to go back to their lives before getting one of these devices," and 42% calling their devices "essential" to their everyday lives. 

The researchers will present their findings in a webinar on June 28. More on that here.  

[Photo: Google]

06.07.17 | 1:10 pm

Watch Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home gang up on Apple’s HomePod in this all-too-real Colbert skit 

Apple recently announced its new HomePod, which will rival Amazon's Alexa and Google Home in the smart speaker market. The tech companies are not pleased about Apple's foray into their product space. The only solution? Murder. At least that's according to a sketch from The Late Show, which pits the helpful home assistants against each other in a fight to the death—or a dance-off—whichever comes first. In the bit, the two internet-enabled speakers chat about the new Apple product. "It's $350," said Google Home. "Who will buy it?" 

"Apple fans will," replied Alexa. "Those zombies will line up to buy anything." To borrow a line from Homer Simpson, it's funny 'cause it's true.

03.20.17 | 11:35 am

Samsung’s Bixby is coming to take on Siri and Alexa

Samsung will diverge from Apple, Amazon, and Google with its upcoming Bixby virtual assistant. Instead of having a distinct set of voice skills, Samsung wants Bixby to have deep ties into the apps you already use, letting you control them entirely by voice. The hope is to let users switch between touch and voice on the fly, without having to remember whether a given task supports voice commands.

To help prod Bixby adoption, Samsung will include an activation button on the side of its next flagship phone, the Galaxy S8, and pre-install some Bixby-enabled apps. But the company will ultimately need to convince other app makers that its assistant is worth supporting. In the meantime, Samsung is cautioning that the initial release is a "first step."

Also of note: Bixby doesn't yet integrate with Viv, the AI firm Samsung acquired last year after an impressive public demo.

03.16.17 | 11:48 am

No Echo required: Alexa is coming to Amazon’s iPhone app

Amazon is about to let anyone with an iPhone talk to its Alexa virtual assistant. By pressing the microphone button in Amazon's shopping app, users will be able to purchase items, play music, check the weather, ask trivia questions, and control smart home devices by voice. (Some of those skills will require setup in the separate Alexa app or website.) The update should roll out over the next week.

While we've seen some third-party apps try to offer Alexa in the past, they've had limited capabilities and slower response times than the Amazon Echo speaker. Amazon's own app promises the full Alexa experience—except that you'll have to unlock your phone, open an app, and press a button before barking out a command. Smartphones with slicker Alexa integration are on the way, but it's safe to assume the iPhone won't be among them.

Photo: Flickr user Kārlis Dambrāns

12.14.16 | 3:32 pm

These voice-controlled headphones are Alexa’s first integration with the human head

The first-ever Alexa-enabled headphones are here. OV, made by Boston-based ONVOCAL, have Alexa voice control built right into them, allowing you to control services like Amazon Music, TuneIn, iHeartRadio, and Audible. But the functionality goes well beyond that: OV supports any of the 5,000 features (or "skills" in Amazon's parlance) that Alexa boasts, so you can control other audio services, ask it all kinds of questions, and even control your smart home devices without an Echo speaker in sight. 

Unlike the Echo itself, OV's headphones don't require you to say "Alexa" to activate the voice control—you just tap a button on the headphones. The device also has an external and a smartly designed button that allows you to tune into the outside world without removing the somewhat cyborgesque-looking headset. 

OV headphones also let you tap into your own phone's native voice assistant, so if Alexa doesn't have what you need, you can always see what Siri or Google Now has to say about it.