• November 10, 2017
  • By Leonard Klie Editor, Speech Technology and CRM magazines
  • FYI

Overheard Underheard

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Despite its popularity, Amazon’s Echo line of products aren’t very attractive. The Echo—the main platform for Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant—looks pretty much like a high-tech piece of pipe, while the Echo Dot resembles a hockey puck.

But a start-up based in Austin, Texas, has found a way to make Alexa—and other virtual assistants like it—a bit more appealing, for kids and adults alike. The company, Wetwire Robotics, launched a Kickstarter campaign in October to raise money for a talking teddy bear, called Lexa Bear, that can connect with Alexa-enabled devices, other digital assistants, or even smartphones and tablets, via Bluetooth or wire. Lexa Bear’s mouth moves in sync with whatever is being broadcast through the devices to which it is connected. It has its own speaking voice and can even sing and tell jokes and stories. As skills and apps are added to Alexa and the other assistants every day from developers around the world, Lexa Bear’s capabilities can expand as well.

The concept of a talking teddy bear is certainly not new. There was the 1980s kid’s favorite Teddy Ruxpin. At the other end of the spectrum is the movie Ted, in which 8-year-old John Bennett’s teddy bear came to life and grew with him to become a foul-mouthed, pot-smoking buddy as an adult.

But Lexa Bear is a breed apart: Wetwire designed it with the goal of humanizing digital assistants and artificial intelligence technology so that people would be more inclined to embrace it in their daily lives. And since Lexa Bear doesn’t come with preprogrammed sounds and dialogues but rather is able to respond in real time to audio from other sources, its abilities can continue to grow over time. (Maybe it’s not so unlike Hollywood’s Ted after all.)

“It was really exciting when we showed the first talking bears speaking for Alexa to kids and even adults,” said Victor Wong, creator and CEO of Wetwire Robotics, in a statement. “We saw how much more engaged and alive the technology can be.”

But if cute and cuddly isn’t your thing, there’s another device that might help. Taechyon Robotics, based in Sacramento, Calif., is set to release Septaer, an eye-catching voice-enabled speaker that offers all of the current smart speaker AI capabilities of Alexa, Google Home, or Microsoft’s Cortana, as well as Septaer-to-Septaer videoconferencing, entertainment, and sharing of user-created interactive content.

Septaer can be placed anywhere in the room. When not in use, it can become a fish tank, a fireplace, a lava lamp, a beach scene, a rainforest, or starry nights. When awakened with a simple voice command, Septaer delivers all of the typical voice-based interactions possible with Alexa, Google Home, and Cortana.

These virtual assistants “have done an excellent job of providing a wide variety of voice-based user interactions and functionality for the early devices which will be available with Septaer,” said Deepak Srivastava, CEO of Taechyon, in a statement. “The next generation obviously is to audio-visually interact with entertainment, news, maps, stock tickers, charts, and spreadsheets, etc., from any side of the device. Interaction can happen from anywhere in the room with the right ambiance and mood, irrespective of if we are at home with family or in the office with coworkers.”

The first shipments of Septaer are expected in the summer of 2018.

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