Google Home vs Amazon Echo vs Apple HomePod vs Samsung Galaxy Home: Alexa skills blueprints now available to UK users

Amazon make 22 templates available for custom skills

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24/01/2018: Apple has officially announced a release date for the HomePod, its answer to smart speakers like the Amazon Echo and Google Home.

The gadget will hit stores on 9 February next month, with pre-orders opening this Friday. The device is priced at 349 - significantly more than similar rivals like the Amazon Echo and Google Home.

Many have criticised the HomePod for being overpriced and lacking in features; Amazon's most expensive Echo speaker, the Echo Plus, tops out at 140 and includes a built-in smart home hub. HomePod, by contrast, lacks key features such as multi-room audio and stereo output.

Apple appears to be banking on the audio quality of its device, however, rather than its technological capabilities. The company will be hoping to use the HomePod as a means to drive Apple Music subscriptions, which is part of one of the company's primary revenue streams.

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Apple is also approaching the market significantly later than its competition; the Amazon Echo has been out for over three years, while Google Home has been offering stiff competition for over six months. Critics argue that at this point, Apple will struggle to find a gap in the market.

11/01/2018: Transport technology company the Voyage Team has collaborated with Heathrow Airport on a new skill for Amazon Alexa that provides flight information.

Heathrow has become the UK's first airport to get the feature, which allows travellers to ask Amazon's virtual assistant about flight status information, gate updates and details about arrivals and departures.

The two organisations put together a joint project team to explore ways artificial intelligence could be used to improve efficiencies in Europe's largest airport, which resulted in the development of the new Alexa skill.

The skill, which users can access through the Echo speakers, takes information from an estimated 1,300 aircraft movements that happen daily at the airport.

Currently, Heathrow works with more than 84 airlines, so it's constantly inundated with flight data. The Alexa skill aims to sort this information, and it can, the organisations claim, "understand queries related to multiple carriers and interpret alphanumeric codes".

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The skill taps into information taken from Heathrow's internal data hub, which is responsible for managing flight schedule information. Customers can access the Alexa skill alongside the official Heathrow website and mobile app.

Stephen Glenfield, senior digital manager at Heathrow, said the airport is constantly looking at ways it can improve customer information services through technology.

"Delivering detailed flight information directly to customers within their homes is another fantastic milestone in improving our digital experience," he said.

"Launching the first airport-specific Alexa Skill in the UK ensures easy access to the latest flight information, helping passengers to plan their journey more effectively and improve their experience from start to finish."

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Dave Wood, client Director at the Voyage Team, praised the partnership. "We have worked with Heathrow since 2005 and have a shared focus on providing the best experience for Heathrow customers," he said.

"Alexa is an exciting new frontier in customer service, and by adding an Alexa Skill, Heathrow is ensuring that it is serving technology-savvy customers and is ready for the growing trend in voice-based services."

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Graham Fletcher, head of research and development at Cubic Transportation systems, told IT Pro AI initiatives like this could revolutionise the transport sector.

"As AI continues to evolve, we'll see digital assistants make their way into new into the transport sector such as in train stations and airports, where high volumes of commuters can benefit from automated, real-time assistance," he said.

"Virtual ticketing machines with human guides are already being trialled in stations across the globe, and it's easy to see how this technology can be enhanced with AI, especially for routine queries, frequently asked questions and directing travellers to local points of interest around cities.

"AI will certainly make these experiences more conversational and reduce the strain on staff, but the key to a successful customer experience will be ensuring a seamless escalation from a virtual bot to a human agent, should a traveller require more personalised guidance."

20/11/2017: The launch of Apple's eagerly awaited HomePod smart speaker has been pushed back from December to early 2018, as it "needs a little more time" to be developed.

The HomePod, which initially appeared at Apple's WWDC event in June, was slated for release in time for the Christmas shopping surge, placing it in a great position to take on the likes of Amazon's Echo and Google's Home smart speakers. However, that has now changed, with the device perhaps proving more complex to produce than initially thought, though Apple hasn't given a specific reason.

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"We can't wait for people to experience HomePod, Apple's breakthrough wireless speaker for the home, but we need a little more time before it's ready for our customers," an Apple spokesperson said, speaking to CNET. "We'll start shipping in the US, UK and Australia in early 2018."

At 349, the HomePod promises to be able to deliver Siri-enabled features using some groundbreaking audio hardware, although the specific IoT functions have been kept hidden so far.

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Apple needs to have something compelling to show when it releases the device early next year, as its steep asking price risks pushing customers towards the more attractive price points of its rivals, which offer similar features at almost half the cost.

What we do know is that one of its biggest selling points will come from the HomePod's 'Spatial Awareness' feature, a technology that allows the device to automatically detect the space around it, adjusting the audio to best match its surroundings. It also supports Apple Music and will be able to access your library and recommend content based on your history.

06/11/2017: The BBC has announced an interactive audio drama pilot set to be released on voice devices.

Henry Cooke, a producer part of the BBC's R&D team, wrote that the company has teamed up with Rosina Sound to create audio for the story.

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Cooke wrote: "The project took shape collaboratively between R&D and Rosina Sound - together, we listened to existing interactive audio stories and, taking inspiration from computer games like The Stanley Parable and Papa Sangre and authors like Franz Kafka and Douglas Adams, the piece evolved into a comedy science fiction audio drama."

He also added that in the pilot users will be able to play an active part in the story with their voice, to make it feel like they are having a direct interaction with the characters.

Cooke said: "We haven't come across any other interactive stories like this on voice devices, and we're excited to see how people respond to it."

The BBC has built a "story engine" which allows them to release the same story across different voice devices. For now, it will be released on the Amazon Alexa and Google Home but Cooke wrote it may make its way across to Microsoft & Harman/Kardon's Invoke speaker, or Apple's HomePod and other devices as they come along.

The pilot is scheduled to be released on BBC Taster before the end of the year.

The BBC trialled AI voice capabilities on iPlayer with Microsoft back in August. Users could issue voice commands to login to the service by saying their name and a phrase.

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12/10/2017: Google disables snooping feature in Home Mini

The Google Home Mini's top touch function is now disabled as it was found listening and recording users unknowingly.

The "top touch" tool lets users interact with Google Assistant by pressing on the top of the Home Mini, rather than using voice controls. The Home Mini hasn't yet been released but is already in the hands of reviewers and Google's own employee testers.

While testing the device, Android Police reviewer Artem Russakovskii discovered that his held thousands of unintended recordings. Russakovskii reported that his Home Mini would repeatedly light up and Google Assistant would speak without any activation or instruction.

Within 24 hours of the issue being brought to Google's attention, a software update had been issued. Google also created a support page and removed any top touch initiated interactions with the device between October 4 and October 7.

Google also deleted any activities initiated through the top touch feature in My Activity, where all Google Assistant interactions are stored.

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A Google spokesperson, as reported by VentureBeat, stated that: "Although we only received a few reports of this issue, we want people to have complete peace of mind while using the Google Home Mini. We have made the decision to permanently remove all top touch functionality on the Google Home Mini. As before, the best way to control and activate the Google Home Mini is through voice, by saying Ok Google' or Hey Google,' which is already how most people engage with our Google Home products."

The device, which made its first appearance at the Google event earlier this month, will go on sale October 18 for $49.

12/10/2017: Alexa updated to recognise the voices of individual users

Amazon's Alexa voice assistant can now recognise individual users, thanks to an update. This brings it in line with Google Home, which has had the same feature since April this year. 

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This means that Alexa can personalise its response, giving other members within a home access to their own playlists, calendars, shopping lists, among other things. Voice profiles currently support the following Alexa features: calling/messaging, flash briefing, shopping, and the Amazon Music Unlimited Family Plan.

This feature will be handy for anyone using Amazon Echo's new calling facility as this will help Alexa phone only a particular user's contacts when that person uses the feature.

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In order to use the new feature, a user has to create a voice profile, either on the Echo, Echo Dot, or Echo Show. Setting up a profile invoices a user reading out ten sample phrases, after which, the training is complete. Voice Profiles can also be set up via the Alexa app on a smartphone.

Voice Profiles will roll out to other features in Alexa soon. The feature is available on any Echo product from now and should get smarter over time as it is used more. However, Amazon said that touch-to-talk devices, such as Amazon Tap and the Fire TV remote, will not support voice profiles.

03/10/2017: Home Mini appears on California resident's Google app

Google's alleged Amazon Echo Dot rival has appeared on a Google Home app belonging to someone living nearby the Google campus in California.

New evidence of Google's new Home smart speaker, the Google Home Mini, has emerged just days before the Google event where it's likely to be announced. According to Android Police, a device named "GoogleHome2787" appeared on the Google Home app of Raymond Durk, who lives mere blocks away from the Mountain View Google campus.

The name was accompanied by a picture of a pebble-shaped device, that is identical to the early images leaked by Droid Life in August. Because any new Home or Chromecast device appears on the Google Home app until it is connected to WiFi, it seems that an employee of Google who lives near Durk has received the device but has yet to set it up completely.

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Alongside the Home Mini, it's rumoured that Google will announce another addition to the Google Home family, the Home Max. This larger device, supposedly having a more premium design and better hardware, will compete with Apple's Homepod, although no specific details of it have been revealed.

The Google Home Mini, aimed at those who want the access to Google's assistant without the giant speaker, is rumoured to cost $49 when it goes on sale.

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29/09/2017: Google could be creating a smart screen device to compete with the Amazon Echo Show.

The device can be used for video calling and help bolster Google's presence in the AI smart home market, as reported by TechCrunch.

Sources have told the publication that the device has been codenamed "Manhattan" and will possess a similar screen to the Echo Show. It will offer Google Assistant, Google Photos, YouTube and video calling and can act as a smart hub to control smart home devices.

TechCrunch was told that the device launch was set for mid-2018 but thanks to the Echo Show there is pressure on Google to get it launched by 2017. It may still launch in 2018 as the tech giant seeks to establish smart hub partnerships and service partnerships too.

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The device is set to run Android, opening it up to developers who want to build apps. There's currently no price for the device or images of what it will look like.

IT Pro has contacted Google for comment.

Google pulled YouTube from the Echo Show this week which means users can no longer access it on their devices to watch cooking shows or music videos. Google said Amazon's use of YouTube on the Echo Show violated its terms of service which is why it was pulled.

Amazon introduced its brand-new Echo, Echo Plus and Echo Spot devices at an event in Seattle this week. It also made the Echo Show available in the UK for the first time priced at 199.99.

27/09/2017: Google removes YouTube from Amazon Echo Show

Google has pulled YouTube from the Echo Show, meaning that users can no longer access the service.

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If a user asks the device to play a video on Youtube, Alexa replies: "Currently, Google is not supporting Youtube on Echo Show", according to The Verge.

An Amazon spokesperson told the publication: "Google made a change today at around 3pm. YouTube used to be available to our shared customers on Echo Show. As of this afternoon, Google has chosen to no longer make YouTube available on Echo Show, without explanation and without notification to customers. There is no technical reason for that decision, which is disappointing and hurts both of our customers."

Google told IT Pro: "We've been in negotiations with Amazon for a long time, working towards an agreement that provides great experiences for customers on both platforms. Amazon's implementation of YouTube on the Echo Show violates our terms of service, creating a broken user experience. We hope to be able to reach an agreement and resolve these issues soon."

IT Pro has contacted Amazon for comment.

Earlier this month, it emerged that Amazon may be working on its own set of smart glasses. The device would allow users to talk to their Alexa system at any time, wherever they are. The glasses would connect to a user's smartphone and would be designed to be lightweight. Users would be able to listen to Alexa without using headphones through a "bone-conduction audio system" too.

21/09/2017: Amazon working on Alexa-powered smart glasses

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Amazon's first wearable powered by Alexa could be smart glasses, the FT has reported. The glasses would apparently allow the user to talk to their home Alexa system at any time, wherever they are.

The glasses would connect to a smartphone and would feature a lightweight design that looks just like standard glasses rather than the bulky smart glasses other manufacturers have previously released.

It would utilise a "bone-conduction audio system" so the user could hear Alexa without the use of earphones, which, although useful, could provide a strange experience.

The FT's source expects Alexa-powered smart glasses to launch before the year is out, although they were very secretive about revealing any further details about the device.

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Another new product in Amazon's Alexa portfolio could be a smart security system that would connect to the Echo home speaker and allow users to view footage on Echo Show's screen. It could also let Amazon customers see when their orders have arrived and are waiting on their doorstep.

The FT's source said there are plenty of other Alexa updates coming before the year is out, but they could not go into more details about what those updates may be.

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30/08/2017: Amazon has announced new capabilities for its Echo smart speaker system, including a partnership with Ocado allowing customers to order groceries through the power of their voice and a new Sonos-like multi-room music streaming feature.

The first new addition provides the ability for customers to edit existing Ocado orders, including adding new items or removing things you no longer need. You can find out when your order's due to arrive and ask the smart system whether you've already added a particular item to your order.

If you like to cook using seasonal ingredients, you'll be able to find out about the most in-season items and Echo will recommend how you can add them to recipes.

"Grocery shopping should be quick, easy and convenient. Using voice technology, we've made it even easier by developing our new app that will enable our customers to add to their Ocado baskets without lifting a finger," Lawrence Hene, Marketing and Commercial Director at Ocado.

"Consumer demand for increasingly convenient ways to shop is growing rapidly and we're excited to be the first supermarket in the UK to offer this technology, making customers' lives ever easier. Alexa will add any item to your Ocado basket simply by asking her to do so. It's as easy as that."

The other new feature supported on Echo is the ability to sync speakers in different rooms together and play different music in each 'zone', just like connected speaker systems such as Sonos. However, at the moment, this will only work through Amazon Music and TuneIn Radio rather than all third-party integrations currently supported on Amazon Echo.

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Amazon has opened up the API for multi-room music to third parties through the Alexa Voice Service (AVS) Multi-Room Music SDK, so expect to see more soon. Amazon also revealed that other speaker systems will also be able to communicate with the Connected Speaker API, including devices from Sonos, Bose, Sound United, and Samsung.

18/08/2017: Following Amazon's drive for third-party development on the Alexa platform, the company has now released a software kit that makes it easier for companies to develop their own devices powered by the smart assistant.

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The Alexa Voice Service (AVS), which was released in the UK in February, allowed manufacturers to create products with Alexa voice controls built in. This has now been expanded with the release of the AVS Device SDK, providing a means for companies to create their own software that can process audio inputs and triggers, as well as granting access to the AVS API library.

Third-party devices will now able to handle speech recognition, media streaming, timers and alarms, weather reports and other custom skills, essentially creating a fully-functioning version of Alexa.

This also means that companies will be able to create more bespoke versions of Alexa for products aimed at the business market.

Marc Vontobel, CTO of Swiss-based AI firm Starmind, argued that the release of AVS Device SDK will allow developers to create products that solve many limitations that prevent AI-powered devices from entering the workplace, including the lack of connection between human information sources.

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"The typical default skill of Alexa is: 'What is', which commands her to look up information on Wikipedia. There are other skills to access our music or to switch lights on and off-- but anytime the answer is not available in the data set, Alexa will say: 'Sorry I didn't understand'," said Vontobel.

However, by using Amazon's SDK, companies will now be able to develop devices that "connect you to the right human to answer that question - then Alexa would learn from the human conversation and next time Alexa could give the right answer directly".

The AVS Device SDK is now generally available for all Alexa developers and users, and supporting documentation, including tutorials and a sample app, can be found on a dedicated support page.

10/07/2017: Smart home assistant dials 911 to stop alleged assault

A smart home device has intervened in an alleged violent assault, calling 911 in response to what it perceived to be a voice command.

New Mexico resident Eduardo Barros and his girlfriend were house sitting in a town 15 miles outside Albuquerque, with his girlfriend's daughter also being present, according to ABC News.

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The two adults got into an argument, which reportedly escalated to a physical fight. According to the report, Barros threatened brandished a gun, asking her: "Did you call the sheriffs?"

A smart speaker in the home apparently heard this threat and took it as a command to call 911, Bernalillo County Sheriff Department spokeswoman Felicia Romero said.

Law enforcement officers responded to the call and were able to rescue the woman and the child who haven't been named. A standoff between Barros, a crisis negotiation team and SWAT then ensued but was ended without injury and the man was taken into custody.

In a statement, Bernalillo County sheriff Manuel Gonzalez said: "The unexpected use of this new technology to contact emergency services has possibly helped save a life. This amazing technology definitely helped save a mother and her child from a very violent situation."

The brand of the smart speaker involved hasn't been revealed.

The story is the latest relating to alleged crimes where a smart home device has been a crucial witness.

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In Arkansas, prosecutors were earlier in the year locked in a battle with Amazon over an Amazon Echo belonging to an alleged murderer, as reported by CNN.

Benton County prosecuting attorney Nathan Smith believed the Echo may have picked up the sounds of the final moments of a man who was found dead in a hot tub. Amazon would have potentially been in possession of the audio files on its servers, but pushed back against the request on the grounds of privacy.

Things don't always go as intended when it comes to alerting emergency services via a smart home device. Late last year, a video emerged of a man telling his Amazon Echo he needed urgent medical assistance.

Alexa, the AI that powers the Echo, helpfully added the item to his shopping list.

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28/06/2017: Amazon Echo Show offers Drop-In snooping

The Amazon Echo Show could offer friends and family a little more than they bargained for, with the Drop In feature that allows people you know to watch what you're doing as and when they like.

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However, Amazon will give you a bit of warning, blurring you out for ten seconds before you must decide whether to ignore the call, disable the camera or accept - if you're not doing anything too dodgy at the time.

Unsurprisingly, this has triggered privacy concerns, although you will have to turn it on from the settings menu of the touchscreen speaker-come-smart home device because it's turned off by default.

You can also pre-approve those who are allowed to just 'drop in', so it could be wise to limit the people who can watch you while you're showering, getting dressed or doing anything else private to those that know you best (and maybe not your mum, either).

"Drop In is an optional feature for Alexa customers to enable and use," an Amazon spokesperson told CNBC. "If customers decide to enable it, they have the option to turn on Do Not Disturb on one, or all, of their devices, which will block calls and messages from coming in. Customers will know when they are in a Drop In call as they will first hear a 'chime' and the green light on their Echo device will rotate throughout the call"

The company added Drop In could be useful to use as an intercom in a household, for example, to check in on an elderly relative, or to monitor a child being babysat if the parents are out for the evening.

26/06/2017: Google beats Amazon in home assistant trivia

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Google Home is better at trivia than Amazon's Alexa, according to a competition between the two voice assistants run by marketing firm 360i. 

The New York agency developed its own software to pit the two AI-backed helpers against each other in a battle of their wits, asking each 3,000 unique questions. Google Home ran away with the competition, getting the correct answer six times more frequently than Amazon's Alexa, according to a report in AdWeek.

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It's unclear whether Alexa was tripped up by its requirement to install "skills" before some questions can be asked, or if Home simply does better with search queries thanks to Google's rather extensive background in the subject. 

The results may lead trivia hungry smart assistant shoppers to favour Home, but so far Amazon's Echo leads the real battle: sales. Marketing research suggests 70% of smarGt assistant speakers will use Alexa in 2017, not Google Home or Apple HomePod. 

08/06/2017: Get live UK general election results through Alexa

Britain goes to the polls today to choose a new government to navigate the challenges ahead. Rather than staying glued to Jeremy Vine's graphic visualisations on election night, however, Amazon Echo owners can simply ask Alexa for an update.

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Amazon's voice assistant will be able to provide a rundown of current polling information, as well as a summary of opinion polls, news and information on the major political parties and their respective leaders.

Users can also ask general questions about the election, such as who is eligible to vote and who can call a general election, as well as asking for the latest news and headlines surrounding the campaign.

When asked by the Independent if the information would come from Amazon internally or from third-party sources, the company said that the polling data "is part of Alexa's knowledge graph".

Once the ballots close, users will be able to receive live information on the results as they come in, including the results in specific regions, current seat totals for each party and the current overall winner.

05/06/2017: Apple has finally revealed its long-awaited Siri-connected speaker at this year's WWDC, a direct rival to the likes of the Amazon Echo and Google Home.

The cylindrical speaker, known as the 'HomePod', resembles the Mac Pro at 7in tall and promises to "reinvent music in the home". From initial images, it appears the HomePod will be available in white or dark grey.

Its biggest selling point comes from its 'Spatial Awareness' feature, technology that allows the device to automatically detect the space around it, adjusting the audio to best match its surroundings. Demoed live on stage at the San Jose event on Monday, the HomePod showed off some pretty impressive auto-adjustment that meant sound was directed into open spaces rather than against nearby walls.

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Apple also states that two HomePods will work in tandem to help create richer sounds. Powered by an A8 chip, the device also boasts echo cancellation technology and real-time acoustic and bass modelling.

It is also designed to work with Apple Music subscriptions, able to access your music library and make recommendations based on song history.

Yet Apple wants to directly compete against the likes of Amazon's Echo and the Google Home, and has built its smart assistant Siri into the speaker. Through six microphones fitted around the edges of the device, users are able to not only control music through voice commands, but also use Siri to access services like news, weather, translation apps, and reminders. It is also compatible with Apple's HomeKit, allowing users to control connected home devices with speech.

"HomePod packs powerful speaker technology, Siri intelligence and wireless access to the entire Apple Music library into a beautiful speaker that is less than 7 inches tall, can rock most any room with distortion-free music and be a helpful assistant around your home," said Philip Schiller, Apple's senior VP of worldwide marketing.

HomePod will be initially available in the US, UK and Australia this December. It will be priced at $349 in the US, with local pricing announced later in the year.

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