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Who is Alexa? She is Amazon’s new virtual assistant

You’ve probably heard of Google Home, the smart device you ask questions of all kinds, instead of typing into your phone or iPad – but have you heard of Alexa?

“Alexa” is the other name you call out when you have a question (provided you own an Amazon Echo). Amazon’s virtual assistant has been integrated into several of the company’s products and is starting to find its way into third-party devices and smart home systems such as Control4. This voice-activated virtual assistant can perform a variety of simple tasks, like playing music or checking the weather, but it also has the ability to be used for more intelligent actions such as dimming the lights, locking the doors, adjusting the thermostat, or even turning your TV on. 

While “Alexa” has become synonymous with products like the Amazon Echo and has been a major selling point for devices like the Amazon Fire TV, you can’t actually go out and buy an “Alexa.” So what is Alexa exactly? Here’s everything you need to know about Amazon’s virtual assistant.

Who is Alexa?

For most people, all you really have to know about Alexa is that it’s the name of Amazon’s virtual assistant. Basically, Alexa is to Amazon what “Siri” is to Apple. You can ask it questions, such as “what is the weather today in Brisbane?” or assign it to perform a host of differing tasks. Alexa has been integrated into many of Amazon’s services and can be used with products such as the Amazon Echo and Amazon Fire TV.

But really, what exactly is Alexa? When you ask Alexa question, what you’re really doing is communicating with a cloud-based service. Amazon has designed the Alexa Voice Service (AVS) to mimic real conversations, but you’re actually using intuitive voice commands to get this service to perform specific tasks. “Alexa” is simply the “wake word” that alerts the service to start listening to your voice. For most devices, you just have to say it to get a response, but with the Tap, you’ll need to press a button to make it start listening.

Here’s how Amazon describes the Alexa Voice Service on its developer page:

“The Alexa Voice Service (AVS) is Amazon’s intelligent voice recognition and natural language understanding service that allows you to voice-enable any connected device that has a microphone and speaker.”

While Alexa is the official name for Amazon’s voice assistant, you can change this wake word to “Amazon” or “Echo.” That’s a useful feature, especially if your own name happens to be Alexa.

Why Alexa?

Apple has Siri. Google Home comes alive when you say “OK, Google.” And Amazon has Alexa. But why? According to David Limp, the Amazon executive who oversaw the development of the service, the name “Alexa” was chosen for a few reasons. First, the name “Alexa” harks back to the Library of Alexandria, which attempted to collect all of the world’s knowledge. Amazon is attempting to do the same thing. Alexa is always learning but, in theory, it should be a seamless source of information.

More practically, the service was named Alexa because it contains the uncommon “X” sound. Since this service is voice-activated, Amazon wanted to choose a name that wouldn’t get confused with other words that could accidentally awaken the device.

“We did go through a number of names and the name is important as much for the personality that it creates around the persona than is this computer-based voice computer in the cloud. But there’s computer science behind it, too,” said Limp. “If any of you have Echoes, you know that it only wakes up when it hears the word “Alexa,” and the phonics of that word and how that word is parsed and the fact that it has a hard consonant with the ‘X’ in it, is important in making sure that it wakes up only when it’s asked for. And so, a combination of those two things allowed us to kind of narrow in on Alexa.”

Where can I use Alexa?

On its own, the Alexa devices are simply wireless speakers that can answer queries like Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana. When paired with smart home devices, however, Alexa becomes quite powerful. You may have heard of the smart home automation system, Control4 – it is a fantastic system that we use in our smart home projects to control multiple systems together autonomously (Lighting, Security, AV etc). With Alexa and Control 4, you can now trigger smart home scenes with your voice, scenes that would normally be triggered by the push of a button. For instance, you could trigger a “Good Night” scene that locks a smart lock, turns the lights off and sets the thermostat to a comfortable sleeping temperature. A “Game Time” scene could dim the lights, lower the shades and turn your TV and gaming console on, all with a single voice command.

Those scenes are a mainstay of Control4 setups — so much so that the smart-home-as-a-service provider offers customized wall switches to trigger each one with a button press. To trigger them with Alexa, you’ll just need to tell her to turn them on, as in, “Alexa, turn on Game Time.”

If you saw us at the September HIA HomeShow in Brisbane, you would have seen our Mirror TV set up with Alexa set up as our virtual assistant. With the simple voice command “Alexa, turn Living on”, the mirror TV did just that – take a look!

At Electronic Living, we have an awarding winning showroom located in Virginia, just north of Brisbane, showcasing the latest and greatest in smart home technology, including Amazon Alexa and Google Home voice control – so contact us to arrange a visit to our highly-acclaimed showroom and see how your home can be made into a smart home.

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