Amazon put a lot of work into making sure its smart speaker, Echo, can hear you really well. It built a beefy seven-microphone array so the cylindrical speaker can pick up voice commands from afar or even in noisy rooms.
“Over four years ago, the inspiration for how we got started was the Star Trek computer,” said Steve Rabuchin, vice president of Alexa Voice Services, in an interview. “We thought wouldn’t it be interesting if we could have a voice service in the cloud that could controls things around you and get information. We’re not 100 percent there today, but that’s how we got started.”
Now Amazon is making the same technology that enables the far-field voice recognition available to outside hardware developers through its Alexa Voice Service program.
The Seattle tech giant is offering a hardware reference design that packages all the same technology together, including the seven microphones as well as the custom algorithms that pick up the “Alexa” wake word and help filter out voice commands in noisy environments.
The seven-microphone development kit will be available to partners through an invite-only program for now. Amazon is not charging any money to get access to the technology.
“This is not about making money,” Priya Abani, director of Amazon Alexa, said. “This is about making it easier for device manufacturers so that there are no impediments to adding voice.”
Opening up this technology is part of Amazon’s ongoing effort to get its intelligent voice assistant, Alexa, into as many devices in our lives as possible. Although Amazon sells its own Alexa-powered devices, that’s not where the real opportunity is. Through Alexa voice commands, users can access Amazon Prime services like music streaming or even shop on Amazon.
Amazon has helped outside companies in the past integrate Alexa into their devices. For example, it has worked with partners like chipmaker Conexant for helping manufacturers create Alexa devices with a two-microphone array. But with this new reference design, Amazon is letting partners build devices that have more robust voice recognition. Amazon said it was driven to release this latest reference design because partners were asking for it.
Amazon started opening up Alexa to other hardware developers in June 2015 and has recruited an impressive list of outside developers. At January’s Consumer Electronics Show, Amazon said there were more than 40 partners who signed on to become Alexa-powered devices — everything from speakers to refrigerators to cars.
The Echo made its first appearance in late 2014 limited to only Amazon Prime members, and became more widely available in June 2015. The device proved to be a surprise hit in the tech world. It showed the world a tantalizing future powered by voice. Users can ask Alexa to do things like play music, make a shopping list, order an Uber car or turn on the lights. New capabilities (or “Skills” as Amazon calls them) are being added every week. Amazon has sold 8.2 million Echos so far, according to recent estimates by Consumer Intelligence Research Partners. Last year, Google followed Amazon up with its own voice-powered speaker, Google Home.