The 2015 Speech Industry Star Performers: Amazon

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Amazon Sets Aside $100 Million for Voice Developers

Just days after Amazon.com announced the commercial availability of its Amazon Echo, a wireless speaker with an integrated personal assistant that can respond to voice commands, the e-commerce giant in late June put aside $100 million for the Alexa Fund, an initiative to support developers looking to create innovative experiences influenced by voice.

Amazon at the same time launched the Alexa Voice Service (AVS) to developers, enabling them to integrate voice into their Internet-connected devices with only a few lines of code. The free Alexa Voice Service was made available as a developer preview in July.

Amazon also launched the Alexa Skills Kit, a collection of self-service application programming interfaces and developer tools.

"Experiences designed around the human voice will fundamentally improve the way people use technology," said Jeff Bezos, Amazon founder and CEO, in a statement. "Since introducing Amazon Echo, we've heard from developers, manufacturers, and start-ups of all sizes who want to innovate with this new technology. With the Alexa Fund, we want to empower people to explore the boundaries of voice technology. We're eager to see what they come up with."

Alexa is the brains behind Amazon Echo, which began shipping in July. Amazon Echo sells for $179.99.

Echo leverages Amazon Web Services and can respond to user requests for information, music, news, weather, traffic, and more from across the room. It uses far-field voice recognition with an array of seven microphones. Advanced beam-forming technology combines the signals from the individual microphones to suppress noise, reverberation, and even competing speech.

"The Amazon Echo is the closest thing to the science fiction concept of interacting with computers, in part because it responds to a voice command or inquiry so quickly," says Bill Meisel, executive director of the Applied Voice Input/Output Society (AVIOS) and president of TMA Associates.

Already Amazon has approved seven projects through the Alexa Fund. They include the Orange Chef, a connected device for use in the kitchen; Scout Alarm, a connected home security system; Garageio, which makes a connected garage door opener; Toymail, a maker of Wi-Fi-connected toys; Dragon Innovation, which helps companies build consumer devices; MARA, providers of a virtual running coach; and Mojio, maker of connected car diagnostics devices.

"We're thrilled to use the Alexa Voice Service to integrate Alexa with Scout to support voice control capabilities," said Dave Shapiro, chief technology officer at Scout Alarm, in a statement. "Alexa opens new ways for our customers to interact with their security system—ways not yet seen in our industry."

"Providing Alexa as a separate cloud-based service for hardware or application developers positions it in the category of personal assistant, competing with Siri, Cortana, and Google voice search, but with a subtle difference in emphasis provided by the focus on listening to it for a long time rather than episodic, short requests," Meisel observes.

When Amazon first launched Echo in November, it offered hands-free voice control for music (Amazon Music, Prime Music, iHeartRadio, and TuneIn), information from Wikipedia and the Web, weather, timers and alarms, news, and shopping/to-do lists. It has since expanded the music available through integrations with Pandora; integrated more sources of news, sports, and traffic and weather information; added connected home services with the integration of Belkin WeMo and Philips Hue products; added access to audiobooks from Audible; and integrated with Google Calendar. It has also added a feature to allow owners to order products through Amazon and its affiliated retailers.

Amazon is reportedly working with Intuit, Glympse, StubHub, AOL, and others to add voice capabilities to their products as well.

"Amazon is continually adding features, but the one most revealing of their long-term intent is the ability to reorder anything you've bought from the company by just asking for it," Meisel says. "Their intent is to make Alexa always available to you, even in the kitchen while cooking, and particularly if you think of something you want to buy." 

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