With the tech world buzzing about Amazon’s Echo, the company is moving quickly to invest in its future. Amazon just launched the Alexa Fund, which will dish out up to $100 million to support manufacturers, developers and entrepreneurs that are working to innovate on products and services that tap into the power of the human voice.
Named for Alexa, the cloud-based voice service that powers Amazon Echo, the fund is open to anyone with an next-generation idea for how voice technology can improve our everyday lives. Amazon is specifically looking for novel voice technology applications that tap into the Alexa Skills Kit or the Alexa Voice Service, which also debuted on Thursday.
“Experiences designed around the human voice will fundamentally improve the way people use technology,” said Jeff Bezos, Amazon.com founder and CEO. “Since introducing Amazon Echo, we’ve heard from developers, manufacturers, and startups of all sizes who want to innovate with this new technology. We’re eager to see what they come up with.” Echo, Amazon's new voice interface platform, allows users to control software applications, play music, search the Web, and open their calendars using only their voices.
Amazon is trying to make it easier for developers with the Alexa Skills Kit (ASK), a collection of self-service APIs and tools that serve as a platform, to create new voice-driven skills and capabilities for Alexa. Developers can integrate existing Web services with Alexa with a few lines of code, or build new experiences designed around voice within hours, according to Amazon.
One example is an Internet-connected sprinkler system that could integrate its sprinklers with Alexa, so a customer could say, “Alexa, ask my sprinkler to water my lawn for 15 minutes.”
Amazon also rolled out the Alexa Voice Service (AVS), which powers Echo, for third-party hardware makers that want to integrate Alex into their devices. Amazon is offering this at no cost. Possible innovations include a Wi-Fi alarm clock that lets customers talk to Alexa as they wake up, asking “What’s the weather today?” or “What time is my first meeting?”
This Could Be Mindblowing
The Alexa Fund is launching with seven investments, including Orange Chef, a startup that has created a kitchen product called “Countertop,” a mobile app that connects to an ecosystem of cooking tools such as blenders and slow cookers to measure and track ingredients placed into those devices. Another called Scout Alarm is a do-it-yourself home security system provider and connected security device maker. Meanwhile, Garageio provides a system to control and monitor the status of a garage door from anywhere.
For its part, Toymail is creating connected toys that let children communicate with parents without having to use tablets or smartphones. MARA is an intelligent, voice-based running assistant that offers performance data and training information during exercise. And Mojio, a provider of connected solutions, has a device that connects to a vehicle’s on-board diagnostic system port and extracts driving performance, on-board systems status, and other diagnostic data from your vehicle. All of these companies are working to voice-enable their products.
Roger Entner, principal analyst at Recon Analytics, told us the most natural way to interface with a device is by speaking to it. He sees Echo as a beginning point for the industry. Since Amazon can’t do it all alone, the company is wooing entrepreneurs and manufacturers with incentives to leverage Amazon’s voice recognition engine, he said.
“Voice recognition is very complicated. There is a lot of room for improvement but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. It’s better than nothing,” Entner said. “And we’re making significant progress. What Microsoft is doing with Skype simultaneously translating conversations into six languages is mind blowing.”