Alexa Glasses: Amazon Echo Frames

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We’re all going to be wearing smart glasses. Someday. 

Based on patent filings, leaks and acquisitions, it’s evident that some of the biggest tech companies – Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Snap, and Facebook – are all working on new technology and innovation that will change how we think about wearables, hearables, and an A.I.-assisted lifestyle. Just this week, Mark Zuckerberg presented Facebook’s plans for smart glasses in 2021, with augmented reality glasses coming soon after.

This week Mark Zuckerberg said many companies are taking shortcuts when it comes to building AR glasses by basically showing some heads-up information. He said: “I call that ‘putting an Apple Watch on your face.'” Well, today we can at least get an Alexa assistant on our faces.

Yes, I wore Google Glasses. Yes, I wore Snap Spectacles. Yes, I desperately want a pair of Nreal Light Augmented Reality Glasses I tested at CES. Yes, this is a review of the new Amazon Echo Frames. Yes, I will buy the Facebook glasses and cannot wait for Apple’s rumored glasses to come out. That’s all on brand for me, right?

But if you know me, you know I love experimenting with these near-term innovation products NOT BECAUSE I’m dying for technology on my face. Rather, it’s because I’m fascinated with these small steps leading to the killer, smart, face-mounted device we will all use in the future. 

Think of all the smart phones that existed before the iPhone was introduced in 2007 and changed the paradigm of what a phone would be by 2020 and how our education, work, and lifestyle would revolve around these black mirrors.

So that’s how I view today’s smart glasses experiments… they are baby steps to a paradigm shift I believe is coming. Disclaimers aside, let’s chat about Amazon’s new smart glasses!

Amazon Echo Frames

Amazon’s Echo Frames are the most affordable, effective, and consumer-facing look around the corner of where smart glasses trends are headed. They look good. You can’t tell they are smart unless you’re told. And they are a remarkable step forward for getting our faces out of our phones and wrists in daily life. 

Available to consumers through Amazon’s invite-only Day 1 Editions program, Amazon Echo Frames are pre-priced at $179 (full retail will be $249), plus the cost of prescription lenses (~$100, depending where you order them). So not exactly Zenni prices, but certainly cheaper than Snap Spectacles ($380) and Google Glass ($1500). 

Frames have Alexa built-in, plus Siri or Google Assistant, and rely on a bluetooth connection to your phone for data. Similar to other Eco devices, Alexa is always listening for the ‘wake word,’ which then triggers A.I. assistant to spring into action and give you complete access to Alexa’s wide range of Skills, calls, drop-ins, and more. Or with a simple temple press, access Siri and its native access to your entire iPhone, testing, calls, apps and more. Same with Google Assistant on Android devices.

With four microspeakers and two beamforming microphones embedded in the stems, the audio quality is excellent except in heavy winds.For music, they are a little tinny. But the microphones are excellent for voice. I have to imagine Amazon’s engineers are exploring bone conduction audio for future iterations. But as long as you have the volume set low enough, they are pretty private.

In fact, the other day I was having a discussion with my wife and listening to a podcast at the same time. I’m a super nice husband. And I will not make that mistake again.

No screen! No camera!

The immediate initial questions I get asked about Echo Frames are: 1) Are you looking at me through a screen right now, and 2) Are you recording me? 

No! Frames are hearables in the purest sense. A small light inside the frames tells you when you’ve activated Alexa by voice or the backup stem button, but otherwise there is no visual display to look at or through (these are not augmented reality glasses) and no camera.

As for the audio side of “Are you recording me?” – well, that’s a stickier answer. This is an Amazon product, after all. 

Google Glass missed their PR window to educate consumers about privacy and use of its camera. Snap Spectacles attempted to inoculate privacy concerns by its placement of bright circling lights when they are recording.   

This 1st edition of Echo Frames doesn’t include any forward-facing indicator when the microphones are “listening” or sending audio to your phone, but I assume that’s intentional — the microphones aren’t facing outward and aren’t designed to record.

However, there are valid concerns about how Amazon stores and uses all of its Alexa-based data and recordings. That same scrutiny can be applied to Frames. And like all Echo products, there is a manual “mute” button with red light indicator that it is not listening. 

So after a month wearing Amazon Echo Frames off and on, how am I using them?

  • “Dropping in” on my kids while they’re doing school in their rooms. We have Echo Dots in each room of the house, and it’s pretty great to quickly be able to call them down for lunch or ask how school is going. 
  • Talking on the phone, texting, listening to music and podcasts, and recording Marco Polos – as a supplement to my AirPods.
  • Asking random factoids and information, like how many ounces are in a gallon – as a more intimate supplement to normal Echo requests. 

Of course, this test period is taking place during a global pandemic. So practical use in “normal” times, including during a commute, working from an office, or doing extra curricular activities has yet to be fully flexed. I more or less never leave my highly-connected home, where I can count eight always-listening Echo devices, plus Google Home and Facebook Portal. And my Echo Loop smart ring. So they are a tad bit duplicative in this season of life.

My biggest issues?

Battery life. Man, these batteries are not good. Maybe 3-4 hours battery life, depending on how much you’re using them. There’s nothing like wearing dead smart glasses for hours at a time in the afternoon. So the trade off of Echo Frames not being bulky and obnoxious is you are trading battery life.

You also MUST have your phone around to use them. Just like the Apple Watch’s evolution, you can imagine future iterations of Frames having their own data plan. Leave your phone at home and just head out with your Frames. It will happen.

And lastly, I do think there are valid privacy issues to anticipate with the mainstreaming of hearables, particularly as people become more educated on surveillance and sousveillance as it pertains to audio recordings. Where Google Glass dropped the ball on proactive PR, others need to learn and start working ahead on normalization and privacy controls.

BONUS: Now when my phone rings my laptop, phone, Apple Watch, Echo Loop ring, and Echo Frames glasses all ring! The future is amazing, you guys! I’ll never miss a telemarketer spam call again.

Should you buy Echo Frames?

Probably not. They aren’t necessarily intended for general public consumption. However, they are the highest quality, most affordable, best looking smart glasses I’ve worn. 

In fact, I genuinely like them. It took me a couple weeks to get prescription lenses, and now that I’ve got them I will wear them regularly.

On the other side, I mean… just look at these cool folks at the official Google Glass Meetup at SXSW in 2014…

Group photo from Official Google Glass Explorer Meetup at SXSW 2014

So Echo Frames Edition 1 are not the must-purchase, but they are a step to where we’re headed.

Where are we headed?

 As mentioned in the intro, I’m pretty bullish on smart glasses coming into the mainstream. When? It’s safe to say the next 10 years, although I predict it will be sooner. 

I’m fascinated with the promise and value of smart glasses, including new uses we can only start to imagine, including…

  • Notifications: Screenless and heads-up 
  • Real-time translation: via visual displays and/or audio
  • Smart lenses: dynamically changing prescription, focal length, blue light, and UV protection
  • Anticipatory A.I.: moving beyond notifications, reminders and lookups to offer proactive information, scheduling, and more
  • Standalone data: We could conceivably not need to carry a phone at all by 2030.
  • Augmented Reality: opening the digital layer of our world to its wearer for work, play, and daily use. Of note, Nreal is advancing this quickly.

Will the future look like Keiichi Matsuda’s short film, Hyper Reality (2016), experienced through smart glasses? We’ll find out soon enough. 


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RELATED COMMENTARY BY GREG:

Three Claps for Alexagate

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This week I’m testing out the Alexagate from MSCHF.

The device sits atop your Echo device and uses 7 ultrasonic speakers to jam your Echo’s mic so it can’t hear you say “Alexa…” or ANYTHING ELSE.

Why not just unplug your Echo if you’re worried about Amazon eavesdropping?

Don’t ask stupid questions.

You can turn the jamming on/off by clapping three times. The ultrasound device is beyond the range of adult human hearing, but I was a little worried about my dogs. Luckily, they don’t seem to mind.

The device isn’t really a mainstream utility, of course. Instead, it helps provoke a conversation about surveillance and sousvelliance (the recording of oneself, on purpose). And education. And privacy. And trust.

There’s a reason that Facebook Portals come with a plastic clip to block the camera lens and new Echo Shows have a physical camera lens blocker on a sliding switch.

Alexagate already prompted a number of conversations about the topic in my home: Who is listening? Where is that data stored? How can we access it? Have we said anything we shouldn’t or wouldn’t if it was made public? Even if we have software-side control of our data, do we trust the hardware? And the companies behind it?

Of course, this tension is exacerbated by the Echos in my other rooms that are still listening and being triggered by “Alexa” even when this one is jammed. And my Echo Auto. And my Alexa Echo Loop smart ring. And my new Alexa Frames glasses (review coming soon). It’s a thing at the Swan house.

Buy an Alexagate for your home here.


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Alexa on Your Finger: the Amazon Echo Loop smart ring

SWAN of the Week, Number 160
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Do you remember when there was a general skepticism toward smart watches and their widespread adoption? Humans tend to think either widely visionary (i.e. flying cars) or extremely small (i.e. “I see no value; so others won’t”) when it comes to emerging technology. 

Despite the early skepticism, today the global smartwatch market is valued at more than $20 billion (headed to almost $100 billion by 2027).

This week I’ve been testing the new Amazon Echo Loop smart ring. And it’s not a must-buy, but it is certainly a compelling look into the future of wearable technology. 

Will we all wear smart rings in the coming decade? No.

Will smart rings become more commonplace– similar to the adoption of smart watches? Probably.

Echo Loop is a step. Read why…


“We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten.”

-Bill Gates

If you study micro-innovations within a macro-trend, you can spot directional leaps that will inform broader consumer adoption and thus, behavior.

In this case, it’s hard to just talk about a ring I’ve been wearing for a week without begging the broader question — will we all be wearing internet- and A.I.-enabled smart rings in the future? Well, that depends on your definition of the scope of “the future.” But after spending some time with the Echo Loop, I predict it’s likely.

Ever since wearing a Ring gesture control prototype at CES in 2015 I’ve been extremely curious in the future of smart jewelry and possibilities of merging the capabilities of communication into our fingers. 

Here’s my demo video of Ring at CES, where you can see a gigantic ring controlling audio volume through gestures. It was clunky (I did it incorrectly at first) and not the most utilitarian. And what a bold name! Ring!

Today there are multiple smart rings on the market, including McLear (that lets you do payments), NFC Opn (which has NFC built in), ORII (which has voice), Go2sleep (which tracks sleep), and Oura (which we’ll talk about further down).

Now Amazon has released a limited amount of Echo Loop smart rings into the world to help explore what a more modern approach to finger-mounted devices could be.

And this product isn’t some shitty Kickstarter fake product from a start-up that will never live up to expectations. It’s from Amazon, the largest Internet company by revenue in the world, the second largest private employer in the United States, and one of the world’s most valuable companies.

It’s a quality product with great design. And it’s clear when you hold the Echo Loop in your hand that the technology to fit two microphones, a speaker, battery, antenna and haptic device (vibration!) into a low-profile ring has come very far in the last five years.

Echo Loop not only has all of that tech, it’s wrapped in brushed titanium that isn’t ugly!

From a control perspective, unlike all other Alexa devices — except the Dash Wand, which was just discontinued — the Echo Loop is not constantly listening for the wake word, “Alexa.” Instead, there is a small wake button on the side of the ring you press to trigger functions and a small speaker designed to be held to your ear for private listening and interaction.

Custom Sizing

Before you order your Echo Loop, Amazon mails you a sizing kit with different sized options. They recommend you wear them throughout the entire day, as your finger changes size throughout the day. And try different fingers to see what’s comfortable.

Easy Voice Assistant Access

The Echo Loop can access both Alexa and Siri’s A.I. voice assistants. This is the killer feature of this device.

Because I’m a heavy Apple user, I tend to prefer Siri, but Alexa can handle more intensive requests. This is an Amazon product, after all. But it does both!

For months now, I do this thing where I continually ask Siri and Alexa how many days it’s been since March 13, 2020. That date marks the first day of working from home, pulling our kids out of school and activities, and the beginning of the current state of whatever this is we’re living in now. 

So, I’ve been asking Echo Loop to tell me how many days it’s been. The ring doesn’t have a wake word (no “Hey Siri” or “Alexa ___”), so you choose which by a single press (Alexa) or long press (Siri). 

The results are accurate, of course. But the “press button, wait, speak, hold to ear to listen” process takes a little practice to get the rhythm down.

RELIANT ON YOUR PHONE

Similar to early smart watches, the Echo Loop requires a bluetooth connection to a smart phone for signal. This reliance on a separate device for cellular or wifi data means there can be an obvious delay in the Loop’s responsiveness to the initial summon or answer.

It also sometimes drops connection completely. This is a beta product, but it’s still irritating the Echo Loop loses access to the Alexa mobile app on these requests if you haven’t used it recently.

Asking your finger the same request over and over just reinforces how much easier it would be to pull your phone out of your pocket. It reminds me of the early smart watch days.

what do you use alexa on your finger for?

If you’re not already an Alexa power user, the Echo Loop may help you unlock more utility by relying on Alexa more, including:

  • Creating To Do Lists
  • Setting Reminders
  • Using it for Shopping
  • Turning on/off IoT devices like lights
  • Helping you do simple math you’ve probably forgotten how to do thanks to smart devices.

Sitting on your finger all day, the Echo Loop almost dare you to come up with a reason to summon Alexa.

Ring In Your Pocket?

Echo Loop is water-resistant, so you can wash your hands while wearing the ring, but showering and swimming are not recommended. I got mine covered in ice cream at one point, because I’m apparently a gross person. After that I find myself slipping it into my pocket quite often. Fingers are super dirty!

Important note: don’t forget to put your ring back on. It’s a thing you can forget.

As this technology improves, its waterproof capacity will increase. You swim with many smart watches today, and soon you will swim wearing these rings.

Hello? This is greg’s finger. who is this?

If taking a phone call from an Apple Watch still seems strange, taking a call from your finger takes will take some getting used to.

Note: please excuse my COVID hair.

When my phone rings now… my phone in my pocket vibrates, my watch vibrates, and my finger vibrates. There’s no way I’m going to miss the telemarketer trying to get me to buy an extended warranty on a vehicle I sold four years ago. 

However, unlike taking telephone calls from smart watch external speakers, the Echo Loop doesn’t SHOUT your call for eavesdropping from anyone nearby. The design of the small speaker you hold up to your ear actually gives you much more privacy than you would expect.

Of course, most geeks like me have wireless headphones for those watch phone calls, which isn’t yet a feature here — linking headphones to your ring. But it could be in the future!

EXPECTATIONS VS REALITY

In the buildup to the Apple Watch launch, it seemed like the general public always wanted to look to pop culture and science fiction to understand how we may use a wrist-based piece of technology that made phone calls, had A.I. built in, payments, cameras, microphones and more.

“Greg Swan… pointed out that the smartwatch has been a cultural touchstone for decades. Dick Tracy, James Bond, the Jetsons, Penny from the Inspector Gadget cartoons. They all had smartwatches.

“We have this amazing dream and this cultural vision of what we expect watches to do,” said Swan, who started the discussion with a presentation, ‘Smartwatches: Past, Present and Future.'”

What would it take for you to buy a smartwatch? Star Tribune, September 10, 2014

Therefore, we should probably go ahead and talk about Green Lantern, right?

Even if you’re not a super geek like me, you may remember the Ryan Reynolds movie (I know, I know), and that the comic superhero Green Lantern has a special ring that helps him defeat evil.

According to the DC Database, a Green Lantern’s ring, considered by some to be one of the most powerful weapons in the known universe, has the ability to affect and use fundamental forces of the known universe, including electromagnetic energies such as gravity, radiation, heat, light, and powerful blasts of concussive force…. The ring can also create fields of force formed from an unknown energy that is bound by the users’ will. The limitations of such use are the skill, knowledge and imagination of the user.

So, if you’re only basis for a smart ring of the future is Green Lantern, there are a couple similarities worth noting:

  • Knowledge: the Green Lantern’s ring served as a galactic encyclopedia, giving its wearer access to all knowledge and memories before it, which is well in line with the access of Siri and Alexa to the world wide web to tell you pretty much anything you ask of it.
  • Translation: Green Lantern’s ring can translate virtually any language in the universe, which is true of the Echo Loop!
  • Power: Rings in the Green Lantern universe need periodic recharging, which is true of the Echo Loop. One charge lasts about a day, depending on use.
  • Imagination is the Weakness: the limitations of Green Lantern’s ring include skill, knowledge and imagination, which is a nice summary of the knowledge you need of the Alexa ecosystem’s user-experience and opportunities to get the most out of your loop!

So that’s a little silly, but hey — we love our pop culture, and Green Lantern has one of the most famous smart rings of all time!

the future of smart rings: Learning from the build-up to the Apple Watch

There’s a lot we can learn from the evolution and eventual adoption of smart watches as we consider how smart rings may add value to our wearable technology lifestyle and quantified future selves.

smartwatches
This is my actual arm.

I wore a lot of activity trackers and smart watches before Apple’s watch product just dominated that category. Some tracked steps. Some tracked skin temp and activity. Some did sleep. And some had standalone GPS. Remember the Nike FuelBand?

The 2014 research that showed self-tracking products were popular for six months before they are discontinued wasn’t lost on Apple as they let others make mistakes and refined their watch products. Lots of folks have old Fitbits they no longer use.

So, Apple deliberately incorporated quantified self-tracking sensors, software and gamification into Apple Watch to maximize the benefits users will get from daily wear. They spent time and technology investment dollars to get a stand-alone cellular connection small enough and at a high enough reliability that you can now leave your phone at home and bring your music and phone calls with you. They spent time on privacy and added deep health tracking into their product. And because they couldn’t solve sleep tracking, they skipped it. For now.

And today, the Apple Watch is the most popular health tracker out there, with a staggering 55% of the market as of Q1 2020.

If you look at where the heat is around smart rings, we have to look closely at smart watches and also athletics…

Oura: GQ, Photo Illustration by C.J. Robinson

Right now, NBA players are wearing the $300 Oura smart ring to help pre-indicate possible risk factors of COVID-19. The Finnish company has been around for a couple years, but its leadership saw an opportunity to both get its product into influential hands and do a real-world test of the utility and impact of ring-based smart tech may be in the short-term.

The Oura ring tracks sleep and temperature, which could potentially be critical factors in tracking the spread of COVID-19.

“We had a user in Finland who made a public Facebook post in early March, basically saying, ‘I’ve had this ring for a year, I’m an avid athlete, and normally my readiness range is 80 to 90. Then all of a sudden, I woke up one day and my score was 54.’
He was asymptomatic, but he’d been traveling and his body temperature was a degree higher than normal, so he decided to contact the health authorities to get tested. Sure enough, he tested positive.”

Axios: How the NBA’s “smart rings” work to assess coronavirus risk

Although Echo Loop doesn’t currently track personal identifiers like biorhythms and temperature, you can see where adding health data to the power of Alexa and Siri, connected to a phone (for now, and eventually stand-alone) could be really powerful.

Given the size of Amazon’s work force, you can be sure they’ll be doing some testing with their warehouse staff on all of these areas.

As this technology gets smaller and more inexpensive, there’s no question that some people who don’t like watches are prefer to wear “dumb” luxury watches may see value in smart rings. Especially if you can: make payments, unlock your home/car/computer, and keep the phone at home.

Even further out, if smart rings are further adapted, marketers will need to help brands think through their smart ring strategies. Just as we helped brands adapt their content from a website to a mobile experience, or watch-based to a voice-based Alexa experience, we’ll need to determine how content is shared on fingers, too.

Should you try to buy an Amazon Echo Loop ring? Nah.

But if you do, go into it knowing the money you’re spending isn’t a long-term investment. It’s fun to push betas and explore the edges of consumer value and behavior. If this sounds like something you would like to experiment with, you can request an invitation here.

If that’s not your thing, don’t worry. I’ll be trying whatever’s next and spending time figuring out where we’re headed next!

See you on the internet!
Greg


If you liked this, here are some of my previous takes on wearable tech and quantified self:


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