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U.S. consumers aren’t adopting voice-based shopping as quickly as expected, according to a new report today from eMarketer. While consumers have been happy to bring smart speakers into their home, they continue to use them more often for simple commands — like playing music or getting information, for example — not for making purchases. However, the overall number of voice shoppers is growing. It’s just slower than previously forecast, the analysts explain.

By the end of this year, eMarketer estimates that 21.6 million people will have made a purchase using their smart speaker. That’s lower than the Q2 2019 forecast, which expected the number to reach 23.6 million.

Still, it’s important to point out that the overall number of people making purchases via a smart speaker is growing. It will even pass a milestone this year, when 10.8% of all digital buyers in the U.S. will have made a purchase using their smart speaker.

EMarketer attributes the slower-than-anticipated growth to a number of factors, including that security concerns are leading people to not yet fully trust smart speakers and their makers. Many consumers would also prefer a device with a screen so they could preview the items before committing to buy. Apple and Google have addressed the latter by introducing smart home hubs that include screens, speakers and built-in voice assistants. But consumers may have already bought traditional Echo and Google Home devices and don’t feel the need to upgrade.

In addition, the report upped the estimates for percentage of users listening to audio (81.1%) or making inquiries (77.8%).

“Though there are thousands of smart speaker apps that do everything from let you order takeout to find recipes or play games, many consumers don’t realize that they need to take extra and more specific steps to utilize all capabilities,” said eMarketer principal analyst Victoria Petrock. “Instead, they stick with direct commands to play music, ask about the weather or ask questions, because those are basic to the device.”

To be fair, a forecast like this can’t give a complete picture of smart speaker usage. Many consumers do ask Alexa to add items to a shopping list, for instance, which they then go on to buy online at some point — but that wouldn’t be considered voice-based purchasing. Instead, the smart speaker sits as the top of the funnel, capturing a consumer’s intention to buy later, but doesn’t trigger the actual purchase.

That said, Amazon, in particular, has failed to capitalize on the potential for voice shopping, given how easily it can tie a voice command to a purchase from its site. Perhaps it became a little gun-shy from all those mistaken purchases, but the company hasn’t innovated on voice shopping features. There are a number of ways Amazon could make voice shopping a habit or turn one-time purchases into subscriptions, just by way of simple prompts.

Amazon could also develop a set of features, similar to Honey (now owned by PayPal), that allow users track price drops and sales, then alert Echo owners using Alexa’s notifications platform or even an “Amazon companion” skill, that could be added to users’ daily Flash Briefings (e.g. “The item you were watching is now $50 off. The new price is…$X…would you like to buy it?”). The companion could also track out-of-stock items, alert you to new arrivals from a favorite brand, or even send product photos to the Alexa companion app, as suggested deals.

Instead, Alexa voice shopping remains fairly basic. Without improvements, consumers will likely continue to avoid the option.

EMarketer also today adjusted its forecast for overall smart speaker usage. Instead of the 84.5 million U.S. smart speaker users, the 2020 estimate has been dropped to 83.1 million users, indicating slightly slower adoption.

Read more: https://techcrunch.com/2020/02/04/shopping-via-smart-speakers-is-not-taking-off-report-suggests/

Amazon Alexa can now play podcasts from Apple, making Amazon’s line of Echo devices the first third-party clients to support the Apple Podcasts service without using AirPlay. Before, this level of support was limited to Apple’s HomePod. According to Amazon, the addition brings to Alexa devices Apple’s library of more than 800,000 podcasts. It also allows customers to set Apple Podcasts as their preferred podcast service.

The move is the latest in a series of partnerships between the two rivals, which also included the launch of the Apple TV app on Amazon’s Fire TV platform, as well as the launch of Apple Music on Echo devices and Fire TV. Amazon, in response, has expanded its assortment of Apple inventory to include Apple TV, iPad, iPhone, Apple Watch and more.

To get started, Apple users who want to stream from Apple Podcasts will first need to link their Apple ID in the Alexa app. Customers can then ask Alexa to play or resume the podcasts they want to hear. Other player commands, like “next” or “fast forward,” work, too. And as you move between devices, your progress within each episode will also sync, which means you can start listening on Alexa, then pick up where you left off on your iPhone.

In the Alexa app’s Settings, users will also be able to specify Apple Podcasts as their default player, which means any time they ask Alexa for a podcast without indicating a source, it will stream from the Apple Podcasts service.

Not to be outdone, Spotify also today announced its support for streaming podcasts on Alexa in the U.S.

Of course, Spotify Premium users have been able to use Spotify Connect to stream to Echo before today.

But now, Spotify says that both Free and Premium U.S. customers will be able to ask Alexa for podcasts as well as set Spotify as their default player.

Alexa’s support for Spotify podcasts was actually announced in September (alongside other news) at Amazon’s annual Alexa event in Seattle, so it’s less of a surprise than the Apple addition.

At the time, Amazon said it was adding support for Spotify’s podcast library in the U.S., which would bring “hundreds of thousands” of podcasts to Alexa devices. That also includes Spotify’s numerous exclusive podcasts — something that will give Echo users a reason to set Spotify as their default, perhaps.

Shortly after that announcement, Spotify said its free service would also now stream to Alexa devices, instead of only its paid service for Premium subscribers.

Read more: https://techcrunch.com/2019/12/13/apple-and-spotifys-podcasts-come-to-echo-devices-in-the-u-s/

Most in tech would agree that following the launch of Alexa and Google Home devices, the “Voice Era” is here. Voice assistant usage is at 3.3 billion right now; by 2020, half of all searches are expected to be done via voice. And with younger generations growing up on voice (55% of teens use voice search daily now), there’s no turning back.

As we’ve reported, the voice-based ad market will grow to $19 billion in the U.S. by 2022, growing the market share from the $17 billion audio ad market and the $57 billion programmatic ad market.

That means that voice shopping is also set to explode, with the volume of voice-based spending growing twenty-fold over the next few years due to voice-based virtual assistant penetration, as well as the rapid consumer adoption of home-based smart speakers, the expansion of smart homes and the growing integration of virtual assistants into cars.

That, combined with the popularity of digital media — streaming music, podcasts, etc. — has created greenfield opportunities for better brand engagement through audio. But brands have struggled to catch up, and there have not been many ways to capitalise on this.

So a team of people who co-founded and worked at Zvuk, a leading music streaming service in Eastern Europe, quickly understood why there is not a single profitable music streaming company in the world: subscription rates are low and advertisers are not excited about audio ads, due to the measurement challenges and intrusive ad experience.

So, they decided to create SF-based company Instreamatic, a startup which allows people to talk at adverts they see and get an AI-driven voice response, just as you might talk to an Alexa device.

Thus, the AI powering Instreamatic’s voice-driven ads can interpret and anticipate the intent of a user’s words (and do so in the user’s natural language, so robotic “yes” and “no” responses aren’t needed). That means Instreamatic enables brands which advertise through digital audio channels (streaming music apps, podcasts, etc.) to now have interactive (and continuous) voice dialogues with consumers.

Yes, it means you can talk to an advert like it was an Alexa.

Instead of an audio ad playing to a listener as a one-way communication (like every TV and radio ad before it), brands can now reach and engage with consumers by having voice-interactive conversations. Brands using Instreamatic can also continue conversations with consumers across channels and audio publishers — so fresh ad content is tailored to the full history of each listener’s past engagements and responses.

An advantage of the platform is that people can use their voice to set their advertising preferences. So, when a person says “I don’t want to hear about it ever again,” brands can optimize their marketing strategy either by stopping all remarketing campaigns across all digital media channels targeted to that person, or by optimizing the communication strategy to offer something else instead of the product that was rejected. If the listener expressed interest or no interest, Instreamatic would know that and tailor future ads to match past engagement — providing a continuous dialogue with the user.

Its competitor is AdsWizz, which allows users to shake their phones when they are interested in an ad. This effectively allows users to “click” when the audio ad is playing in the background. One of their recent case studies reported that shaking provided 3.95% interaction rates.

By contrast, Instreamatic’s voice dialogue marketing platform allows people to talk to audio advertising, skipping irrelevant ads and engaging in interesting ones. Their recent case study claimed a much higher 13.2% voice engagement rate this way.

The business model is thus: when advertisers buy voice dialogue ads on its ad exchange, it takes a commission from that ad spend. Publishers, brands and ad tech companies can license the technology and Instreamatic charges them a licensing fee based on usage.

Instreamatic has now partnered with Gaana, India’s largest music and content streaming service, to integrate Instreamatic into Gaana’s platform. It has also partnered with Triton Digital, a service provider to the audio streaming and podcast industry.

This follows similar deals with Pandora, Jacapps, Airkast and SurferNETWORK.

All these partnerships means the company can now reach 120 million monthly active users in the United States, 30 million in Europe and 150 million in Asia.

The company is headquartered in San Francisco and London, with a development team in Moscow, and features Stas Tushinskiy as CEO and co-founder. Tushinskiy created the digital audio advertising market in Russia prior to relocating to the U.S. with Instreamatic. International Business Development head and co-founder Simon Dunlop previously founded Bookmate, a subscription-based reading and audiobook platform, DITelegraph Moscow Tech Hub and Zvuk.

Read more: https://techcrunch.com/2019/12/19/instreamatic-signs-deals-to-allow-people-to-talk-to-adverts-on-streaming-services-like-an-alexa/

Spotify has worked with Amazon Echo since 2016, but only for premium subscribers. Today, that changes as Spotify says its free tier will now stream across Alexa-powered devices, as well as other smart speakers from Sonos and Bose. The Alexa support will be available for users in the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand. Support for Sonos and Bose is more broadly available to users around the world.

In the case of Alexa devices, like Amazon Echo speakers or the Fire TV, users will be able to ask Alexa to play Spotify’s playlist, like “Today’s Top Hits,” or their personalized playlist, “Discover Weekly,” among others. The service can also be set as the default, so you can use commands like “Play my Discover Weekly,” “Like this song,” or “Pause,” and more, without having to say “on Spotify.”

Meanwhile, on Sonos and Bose speakers, users can set up Spotify Connect from the Spotify app. This works with Bose smart speakers and soundbars, as well as all Sonos smart speakers, including the new indoor/outdoor speaker Sonos Move and the Symfonisk IKEA WiFi Speaker, integrated with the Sonos Home Sound System.

To use Spotify Connect, you’ll tap the “Devices” icon on the screen to select which speaker you want to use. This will also require the Bose and Sonos devices are updated to the latest firmware, the company says.

The expanded support for smart speakers comes only a day after Amazon directly challenged Spotify with a major move of its own. On Tuesday, Amazon announced its own music service would become free across devices, including the web, Fire TV, iOS, and Android. Before, the free, ad-supported music service was only available on Echo devices. While the services is a rival of sorts to other free services, like Spotify and Pandora, it has a more limited catalog of just 2 million tracks. That makes it better for those who only casually listen to music stations and curated playlists.

Spotify’s stock dropped almost 5% on Tuesday after Amazon’s announcement, however.

By now making Spotify’s free tier more accessible, it’s likely that many people will choose Spotify’s free streaming over Amazon’s free streaming, given the larger catalog of over 50 million songs. In addition, Spotify is best known for its personalization capabilities that help introduce users to new music based on their likes and listening history, which continues to be a major draw.

However, Amazon is only one of many challengers Spotify faces these days, with Apple Music, YouTube Music and regional players in big markets like India and China, also vying for users.

In addition, TikTok owner ByteDance is said to be preparing to move into music streaming, aiming for markets like India, Indonesia, and Brazil. That’s a huge threat not only because of the markets it’s targeting but because you can now draw a direct line between TikTlk top tracks and No. 1 tracks and hits on Spotify, which gives it a competitive advantage.

Read more: https://techcrunch.com/2019/11/20/spotifys-free-music-service-will-now-stream-on-alexa-devices-plus-bose-and-sonos-smart-speakers/

The contract between the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) and ecommerce giant Amazon — for a health information licensing partnership involving its Alexa voice AI — has been released following a Freedom of Information request.

The government announced the partnership this summer. But the date on the contract, which was published on the gov.uk contracts finder site months after the FOI was filed, shows the open-ended arrangement to funnel nipped-and-tucked health info from the NHS’ website to Alexa users in audio form was inked back in December 2018.

The contract is between the UK government and Amazon US (Amazon Digital Services, Delaware) — rather than Amazon UK. Although the company confirmed to us that NHS content will only be served to UK Alexa users. 

Nor is it a standard NHS Choices content syndication contract. A spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) confirmed the legal agreement uses an Amazon contract template. She told us the department had worked jointly with Amazon to adapt the template to fit the intended use — i.e. access to publicly funded healthcare information from the NHS’ website.

The NHS does make the same information freely available on its website, of course. As well as via API — to some 1,500 organizations. But Amazon is not just any organization; It’s a powerful US platform giant with a massive ecommerce business.

The contract reflects that power imbalance; not being a standard NHS content syndication agreement — but rather DHSC tweaking Amazon’s standard terms.

“It was drawn up between both Amazon UK and the Department for Health and Social Care,” a department spokeswoman told us. “Given that Amazon is in the business of holding standard agreements with content providers they provided the template that was used as the starting point for the discussions but it was drawn up in negotiation with the Department for Health and Social Care, and obviously it was altered to apply to UK law rather than US law.”

In July, when the government officially announced the Alexa-NHS partnership, its PR provided a few sample queries of how Amazon’s voice AI might respond to what it dubbed “NHS-verified” information — such as: “Alexa, how do I treat a migraine?”; “Alexa, what are the symptoms of flu?”; “Alexa, what are the symptoms of chickenpox?”.

But of course as anyone who’s ever googled a health symptom could tell you, the types of stuff people are actually likely to ask Alexa — once they realize they can treat it as an NHS-verified info-dispensing robot, and go down the symptom-querying rabbit hole — is likely to range very far beyond the common cold.

At the official launch of what the government couched as a ‘collaboration’ with Amazon, it explained its decision to allow NHS content to be freely piped through Alexa by suggesting that voice technology has “the potential to reduce the pressure on the NHS and GPs by providing information for common illnesses”.

Its PR cited an unattributed claim that “by 2020, half of all searches are expected to be made through voice-assisted technology”.

This prediction is frequently attributed to ComScore, a media measurement firm that was last month charged with fraud by the SEC. However it actually appears to originate with computer scientist Andrew Ng, from when he was chief scientist at Chinese tech giant Baidu.

Econsultancy noted last year that Mary Meeker included Ng’s claim on a slide in her 2016 Internet Trends report — which is likely how the prediction got so widely amplified.

But on Meeker’s slide you can see that the prediction is in fact “images or speech”, not voice alone…

Screenshot

So it turns out the UK government incorrectly cited a tech giant prediction to push a claim that “voice search has been increasing rapidly” — in turn its justification for funnelling NHS users towards Amazon.

“We want to empower every patient to take better control of their healthcare and technology like this is a great example of how people can access reliable, world-leading NHS advice from the comfort of their home, reducing the pressure on our hardworking GPs and pharmacists,” said health secretary Matt Hancock in a July statement.

Since landing at the health department, the app-loving former digital minister has been pushing a tech-first agenda for transforming the NHS — promising to plug in “healthtech” apps and services, and touting “preventative, predictive and personalised care”. He’s also announced an AI lab housed within a new unit that’s intended to oversee the digitization of the NHS.

Compared with all that, plugging the NHS’ website into Alexa probably seems like an easy ‘on-message’ win. But immediately the collaboration was announced concerns were raised that the government is recklessly mixing the streams of critical (and sensitive) national healthcare infrastructure with the rapacious data-appetite of a foreign tech giant, with both an advertising and ecommerce business, plus major ambitions of its own in the healthcare space.

On the latter front, just yesterday news broke of Amazon’s second health-related acquisition: Health Navigator, a startup with an API platform for integrating with health services, such as telemedicine and medical call centers, which offers natural language processing tools for documenting health complaints and care recommendations.

Last year Amazon also picked up online pharmacy PillPack — for just under $1BN. While just last month it launched a pilot of a healthcare service offering to its own employees in and around Seattle, called Amazon Care which looks intended to be a road-test for addressing the broader U.S. market down the line. So the company’s commercial designs on healthcare are becoming increasingly clear.

Returning to the UK, in response to early critical feedback on the Alexa-NHS arrangement, the IT delivery arm of the service, NHS Digital, published a blog post going into more detail about the arrangement — following what it couched as “interesting discussion about the challenges for the NHS of working with large commercial organisations like Amazon”.

A core critical “discussion” point is the question of what Amazon will do with people’s medical voice query data, given the partnership is clearly encouraging people to get used to asking Alexa for health advice.

“We have stuck to the fundamental principle of not agreeing a way of working with Amazon that we would not be willing to consider with any single partner – large or small. We have been careful about data, commercialisation, privacy and liability, and we have spent months working with knowledgeable colleagues to get it right,” NHS Digital claimed in July.

In another section of the blog post, responding to questions about what Amazon will do with the data and “what about privacy”, it further asserted there would be no health profiling of customers — writing:

We have worked with the Amazon team to ensure that we can be totally confident that Amazon is not sharing any of this information with third parties. Amazon has been very clear that it is not selling products or making product recommendations based on this health information, nor is it building a health profile on customers. All information is treated with high confidentiality. Amazon restrict access through multi-factor authentication, services are all encrypted, and regular audits run on their control environment to protect it.

Yet it turns out the contract DHSC signed with Amazon is just a content licensing agreement. There are no terms contained in it concerning what can or can’t be done with the medical voice query data Alexa is collecting with the help of “NHS-verified” information.

Per the contract terms, Amazon is required to attribute content to the NHS when Alexa responds to a query with information from the service’s website. (Though the company says Alexa also makes use of medical content from the Mayo Clinic and Wikipedia.) So, from the user’s point of view, they will at times feel like they’re talking to an NHS-branded service (i.e. when they hear Alexa serving them information attributed to the NHS’ website.).

But without any legally binding confidentiality clauses around what can be done with their medical voice queries it’s not clear how NHS Digital can confidently assert that Amazon isn’t creating health profiles. The situation seems to sum to, er, trust Amazon. (NHS Digital wouldn’t comment; saying it’s only responsible for delivery not policy setting, and referring us to the DHSC.)

Asked what it does with medical voice query data generated as a result of the NHS collaboration an Amazon spokesperson told us: “We do not build customer health profiles based on interactions with nhs.uk content or use such requests for marketing purposes.”

But the spokesperson could not point to any legally binding contract clauses in the licensing agreement that restrict what Amazon can do with people’s medical queries.

We also asked the company to confirm whether medical voice queries that return NHS content are being processed in the US. Amazon’s spokeswoman responded without a direct answer — saying only that queries are processed in the “cloud”. (“When you speak to Alexa, a recording of what you asked Alexa is sent to Amazon’s Cloud where we process your request and other information to respond to you.”)

“This collaboration only provides content already available on the NHS.UK website, and absolutely no personal data is being shared by NHS to Amazon or vice versa,” Amazon also told us, eliding the key point that it’s not NHS data being shared with Amazon but NHS users, reassured by the presence of a trusted public brand, being encouraged to feed Alexa sensitive personal data by asking about their ailments and health concerns.

Bizarrely, the Department of Health and Social Care went further. Its spokeswoman claimed in an email that “there will be no data shared, collected or processed by Amazon and this is just an alternative way of providing readily available information from NHS.UK.”

When we spoke to DHSC on the phone prior to this, to raise the issue of medical voice query data generated via the partnership and fed to Amazon — also asking where in the contract are clauses to protect people’s data — the spokeswoman said she would have to get back to us. All of which suggests the government has a very vague idea (to put it generously) of how cloud-powered voice AIs function.

Presumably no one at DHSC bothered to read the information on Amazon’s own Alexa privacy page — although the department spokeswomen was at least aware this page existed (because she knew Amazon had pointed us to what she called its “privacy notice”, which she said “sets out how customers are in control of their data and utterances”).

If you do read the page you’ll find Amazon offers some broad-brush explanation there which tells you that after an Alexa device has been woken by its wake word, the AI will “begin recording and sending your request to Amazon’s secure cloud”.

Ergo data is collected and processed. And indeed stored on Amazon’s servers. So, yes, data is ‘shared’. Not ‘NHS data’, but UK citizens’ personal data.

Amazon’s European Privacy Notice meanwhile, sets out a laundry list of purposes for user data — from improving its services, to generating recommendations and personalization, to advertising. While on its Alexa Terms of Use page it writes: “To provide the Alexa service, personalize it, and improve our services, Amazon processes and retains your Alexa Interactions, such as your voice inputs, music playlists and your Alexa to-do and shopping lists, in the cloud.” [emphasis ours]

The DHSC sees the matter very differently, though.

With no contractual binds covering health-related queries UK users of Alexa are being encouraged to whisper into Amazon’s robotic ears — data that’s naturally linked to Alexa and Amazon account IDs — the government is accepting the tech giant’s standard data processing terms for a commercial, consumer product which is deeply integrated into its increasingly sprawling business empire.

Terms such as indefinite retention of audio recordings. Unless users pro-actively request that they are deleted. And even then Amazon admitted this summer it doesn’t always delete the text transcripts of recordings. So even if you keep deleting all your audio snippets, traces of medical queries may well remain on Amazon’s servers.

On this, Amazon’s spokeswoman told us that voice recordings and related transcripts are deleted when Alexa customers select to delete their recordings — pointing to the Alexa and Alexa Device FAQ where the company writes: “We will delete the voice recordings and the text transcripts of your request that you selected from Amazon’s Cloud”. Although in the same FAQ Amazon also notes: “We may still retain other records of your Alexa interactions, including records of actions Alexa took in response to your request.” So it sounds like some metadata around medical queries may remain, even post-deletion.

Earlier this year it also emerged the company employs contractors around the world to listen in to Alexa recordings as part of internal efforts to improve the performance of the AI.

A number of tech giants recently admitted to the presence of such ‘speech grading’ programs, as they’re sometimes called — though none had been up front and transparent about the fact their shiny AIs needed an army of external human eavesdroppers to pull off a show of faux intelligence.

It’s been journalists highlighting the privacy risks for users of AI assistants; and media exposure leading to public pressure on tech giants to force changes to concealed internal processes that have, by default, treated people’s information as an owned commodity that exists to serve and reserve their own corporate interests.

Data protection? Only if you interpret the term as meaning your personal data is theirs to capture and that they’ll aggressively defend the IP they generate from it.

So, in other words, actual humans — both employed by Amazon directly and not — may be listening to the medical stuff you’re telling Alexa. Unless the user finds and activates a recently added ‘no human review’ option buried in the Alexa app settings.

Many of these ‘speech grading’ arrangements remain under regulatory scrutiny in Europe. Amazon’s lead data protection regulator in Europe confirmed in August it’s in discussions with it over concerns related to its manual reviews of Alexa recordings. So UK citizens — whose taxes fund the NHS — might be forgiven for expecting more care from their own government around such a ‘collaboration’.

Rather than a wholesale swallowing of tech giant T&Cs in exchange for free access to the NHS brand and  “NHS-verified” information which helps Amazon burnish Alexa’s utility and credibility, allowing it to gather valuable insights for its commercial healthcare ambitions.

To date there has been no recognition from DHSC the government has a duty of care towards NHS users as regards potential risks its content partnership might generate as Alexa harvests their voice queries via a commercial conduit that only affords users very partial controls over what happens to their personal data.

Nor is DHSC considering the value being generously gifted by the state to Amazon — in exchange for a vague supposition that a few citizens might go to the doctor a bit less if a robot tells them what flu symptoms look like.

“The NHS logo is supposed to mean something,” says Sam Smith, coordinator at patient data privacy advocacy group, MedConfidential — one of the organizations that makes use of the NHS’ free APIs for health content (but which he points out did not write its own contract for the government to sign).

“When DHSC signed Amazon’s template contract to put the NHS logo on anything Amazon chooses to do, it left patients to fend for themselves against the business model of Amazon in America.”

In a related development this week, Europe’s data protection supervisor has warned of serious data protection concerns related to standard contracts EU institutions have inked with another tech giant, Microsoft, to use its software and services.

The watchdog recently created a strategic forum that’s intended to bring together the region’s public administrations to work on drawing up standard contracts with fairer terms for the public sector — to shrink the risk of institutions feeling outgunned and pressured into accepting T&Cs written by the same few powerful tech providers.

Such an effort is sorely needed — though it comes too late to hand-hold the UK government into striking more patient-sensitive terms with Amazon US.

This article was updated with a correction to a reference to the Alexa privacy policy. We originally referenced content from the privacy policy of another Amazon-owned Internet marketing company that’s also called Alexa. This is in fact a different service to Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant. We also updated the report to include additional responses from Amazon 

Read more: https://techcrunch.com/2019/10/24/alexa-where-are-the-legal-limits-on-what-amazon-can-do-with-my-health-data/

Amazon wants Alexa to be a multiple purpose tool, the sort of thing you absent-mindedly use for everything. Whether youre queuing up a song, ordering more toilet paper, or checking the forecast, the goal is for you to have a relationship with Alexa. Part of building a relationship is keeping things fresh, so Amazon has packed Alexa with little Easter eggs. Super Alexa Mode is one of these.

What is Super Alexa Mode?

Super Alexa Mode is a silly joke hidden inside Alexa for the enjoyment of developers and users in the know. Inspired by secret menus in video games, Super Alexa Mode doesnt actually serve a purpose. That doesnt mean it isnt fun. You can activate Super Alexa Mode by telling your Amazon device Alexa, up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A, start. If the code sounds familiar to any gamers out there, thats because its the Konami code.

What does Super Alexa Mode do?

Once youve told Alexa the secret code, Alexa announces that Super Alexa Mode is activated. Your device will shout: Super Alexa mode, activated. Starting reactors, online. Enabling advanced systems, online. Raising dongers. Error. Doners missing. Aborting. Then, silence. Super Alexa Mode apparently cannot fully engage until it finds its missing dongers. Should they be found, we will update this article with that information.

Dont feel left out if you dont own an Echo. You dont need an Amazon-specific device to use Super Alexa Mode. It also works on the Alexa app available in your favorite app stores.

Amazon

What is the Konami code?

The Konomi code that Super Alexa Mode is referencing wasnt originally meant for normal gamers to experience. While it was popularized by 1988s Contra for the NES, according to Dmarketit first popped up in 1986s Gradius when developer Kazuhisa Hashimoto added the code for playtesters. By pausing the game and entering the Konomi code playtesters could unlock every power-up in the game. After Gradius was released, Konomi discovered the code was still included. Rather than risk breaking the game by removing it, they left the title as is.

Over time it became something of an Easter Egg for gamers, a secret to share with others in the know. This is probably due to Gradius punishing difficulty. Konami, accepting the popularity of the code and its usefulness for playtesters, started including it other games. That popularity reached its zenith with Contra, which is why many people also refer to it as the Contra code even to this day.

Nintendo

What does raising dongers mean?

While the inclusion of the Konami code in Super Alexa Mode is odd, raise your dongers is a particularly deep cut. The phrase was first used by a popular League of Legends player known as Imaqtipe, aka Michael Santana. Imaqtipie nicknamed his LoL champion Heimerdinger donger, which evolved into calling his fans the dongsquad, which was also the password for his Twitch stream. As Imaqtipes popularity grew, so did the dongsquad, which spammed Twitch streams with #dongsquad420.

According to KnowYourMeme, raise your dongers began on April 28, 2013, when a League of Legends forum user made a thread asking about the roots of #dongsquad420. One month later, on May 24, a League of Legends player website began selling Dongsquad shirts.

YouTube

Then on June 17, 2013, a call went out to dongers everywhere.

To date over 561 people have retweeted to raise their dongers. Interestingly, only 536 people have liked the raising of the dongers. As you can see in the Tweet, the dongers even have their own emoji: .

Is that all?

Nope. The raising of the dongers might have just been a footnote in internet history if not for music. On July 21, 2013, Dumis Gaming Power Land released The Raise of a Donger, an EDM musical tribute to Imaqtpies legion. The music video for The Raise of a Donger featured gameplay footage from League of Legends and has been viewed over 129,500 times. On November 6, 2013, Instalok took things further with the Kanye West parody Donger feat Badmin. Donger has been streamed 5,751,717 times and counting since its release.

Now only one question remains: Who is the donger over at Amazon who created Super Alexa Mode? And, more importantly, who do they main in League of Legends? Some questions will never be answered. We dont understand the internet sometimes but we respect it. You can stream Donger for yourself below.

Read more: https://www.dailydot.com/debug/super-alexa-mode-amazon-echo/

At Amazon’s hardware event last month in Seattle, the company announced plans to launch multi-lingual modes for its Alexa devices in the U.S., Canada, and India, where the smart voice assistant would be able to speak a combination of English and Spanish, French and English, and Hindi and English, respectively. Today, Amazon says the multi-lingual mode for U.S. speakers is officially live across the country, allowing users of both Echo and Alexa-powered devices to switch between Spanish and English. Alexa can also be set to speak only Spanish in the Alexa app settings.

The new support also means developers can build skills for the platform that target Spanish language speakers.

The experience introduces a new Spanish voice for Alexa, plus local knowledge, hundreds of Spanish skills including those form Univision and Telemundo, and more.

To use Alexa in Spanish mode, U.S. users will be able to toggle to “Español (Estados Unidos)” in the Alexa app. They can then speak to Alexa in Spanish to get news, weather, control their smart home devices, set reminders, and launch skills.

However, the more interesting addition is the multi-lingual mode option, which allows customers to seamlessly switch between Spanish and English.

For example, you could ask Alexa in English for the weather, and she’ll reply in English. But if you speak in Spanish, she replies in Spanish. This makes the device more useful in multi-lingual households where a mix of both languages is spoken.

To complement the new Spanish-language support, Amazon Music listeners in the U.S. will be able to ask Alexa for several newly launched Latin music playlists in U.S. Spanish, including Sin Filtro (urban artists), Tierra Tropical (bachata, salsa, cumbias), Puro Reggaeton, and Fierro Pariente (Regional Mexicano).

Amazon said the other multi-lingual modes for Canada and India (French and Hindi, combined with English), will also be available, but didn’t say when they would be fully rolled out.

Read more: https://techcrunch.com/2019/10/11/alexa-now-speaks-spanish-including-in-multi-lingual-mode/

At the big European tech trade show, IFA 2019, Amazon today announced more than 20 new Fire TV-branded devices, including a next-generation Fire TV Cube, Fire TV Edition soundbar from Anker — its first foray into Fire TV Edition audio products — and 15 new Fire TV Edition products, including the first OLED Fire TV Edition smart TVs.

The announcement represents a significant expansion of Amazon’s Fire TV hardware line and integrations at a time when Roku has gained a lead over Amazon in the U.S., in terms of connected-TV market share, while Fire TV has been claiming the top spot in some European markets and an international lead over Roku.

The company today said its Fire TV devices now have more than 37 million monthly active users globally, which is ahead of the 30.5 million Roku reported in Q2. Both companies offer products that may be used by more than one person in a household, of course, but each household only gets counted as one user (or account) as long as they’ve streamed through the platform in the past month. It’s a relatively fair comparison, in other words.

Of the new devices, the new Fire TV Cube is one of the more interesting additions to the lineup as it represents the second generation, and a big upgrade, over the existing product. The device offers a hands-free Fire TV experience, and has become the testing ground for many Fire TV software enhancements before they roll out to the wider product lineup.

All

The updated Fire TV Cube now includes a faster, “hexa-core” processor that’s twice as powerful as the one that shipped in the first-generation device. It provides “instant access” to Dolby Vision and 4K Ultra HD content, Amazon claims, at up to 60 frames per second. The new Cube also includes on-device processing with Local Voice Control, which lets you more quickly execute some of your common voice commands like “Alexa, go home,” or “Alexa, scroll right,” for example. These commands will now execute up to 4 times faster, says Amazon.

The Fire TV Cube will also ship with far-field voice recognition capabilities with 8 microphones and technology that helps suppress noise, reverberation, content currently playing and even competing speech so Alexa better hears your voice commands even when the TV is on in a room full of people.

Customers will be able to control their compatible TV, soundbar, A/V receiver, cable or satellite box, as well as other smart home devices by way of the device’s support of multi-directional infrared technology, cloud-based protocols and HDMI CEC, combined with Alexa. 

“Fire TV Cube was the first hands-free streaming media player powered by Alexa, and since launching last year we have gathered a wealth of feedback from customers about how they use voice in the living room,” said Marc Whitten, vice president of Amazon Fire TV, in a statement. “Over the past year, we have continued to expand and advance the Fire TV Cube experience based on this feedback with dozens of new features including Multi-Room Music, Follow-Up Mode, and Alexa Communications. These key learnings carried over and guided the development of the second-generation Fire TV Cube, and we are excited to introduce this new-and-improved experience to customers around the world,” he said.

The new Fire TV Cube is available for pre-order in the U.S. for $119.99, in Canada for $149.99, the United Kingdom for £109.99, Germany for €119.99 and Japan for ¥14980. It ships on October 10 in all markets except Japan, where it ships on November 5, instead. And it will be sold in a package with Ring Video Doorbell 2 for $249.99 (or $69 off).

Fire

Amazon’s Fire TV Edition lineup is expanding, too. This is the licensed version of the Fire TV OS available to other manufacturers for use in their own products.

The company announced more than 15 new products from brands including Skyworth, Arcelik, TPV, Compal and others.

In partnership with Dixons Carphone, Amazon is teaming up to launch JVC – Fire TV Edition Smart 4K Ultra HD HDR LED TVs, which are the first Fire TV Edition products in the U.K. They’ll be sold by Currys PC World and online at Amazon.co.uk and are priced at £349 and up.

With IMTRON, a company of MediaMarktSaturn Retail Group, Amazon is launching a lineup of Fire TV Edition smart TVs under the private label ok. These will be available in Germany and Austria, as will the 11 Fire TV Edition smart TVs from Grundig, including the first OLED Fire TV Edition television (available in 55” and 65” models, starting at €1,299.99 for hands-free; or starting at €1,199.99 if not; pictured below). 

Grundig

Other more affordable Grundig Fire TV Edition products will be sold on Amazon.de in 32″, 40″, 43″, 49″, 55″ and 65″ variations, starting at €239.99. They’ll also come to retailers, including MediaMarkt, Saturn, Euronics, Expert, EP:, Medimax and others.

In the U.S., Amazon and Best Buy announced the first 65-inch Toshiba – Fire TV Edition smart TV with Dolby Vision, which will be available for customers in the United States next month for $599.

Finally, following Roku’s lead into home audio, Amazon also announced the first expansion of Fire TV Edition beyond the TV itself with the launch of the Nebula Soundbar from Anker. (Roku also today launched its own wireless soundbar).

The new device supports 4K Ultra HD, a unified smart TV user interface, near-field Alexa voice control, Dolby Vision pass-through and more. It also can be added to a multi-room speaker group through the Alexa app, and comes with a 90-day trial to Amazon Music Unlimited. 

Nebula

It’s available for pre-order today for $229.99 in the United States, $269.99 in Canada, £179.99 in the United Kingdom, and €209.99 in Germany. It will begin shipping on November 21.

The expansion of Fire TV Edition-branded products is also meant to challenge Roku on the success of its Roku TV-branded television sets, which are similarly manufactured by partners but run the Roku OS.

In the U.S., Roku OS is the No. 1 licensed TV OS in the U.S. and now powers more than 1 in 3 smart TVs. Amazon today is clearly answering that challenge by focusing on the international markets with a suite of new partners for Fire TV Edition.

Read more: https://techcrunch.com/2019/09/04/amazon-unveils-a-new-fire-tv-cube-soundbar-and-over-a-dozen-fire-tv-edition-products/

If you’re a big basketball fan like me, you’ll be glued to the TV watching the Golden State Warriors take on the Toronto Raptors in the NBA finals. (You might be surprised who I’m rooting for.)

In honor of the big games, we took a shot at breaking down investment activities of the players off the court. Last fall, we did a story highlighting some of the sport’s more prolific investors. In this piece, we’ll take a deeper dive into just what having an NBA player as a backer can do for a startup beyond the capital involved. But first, here’s a chart of some startups funded by NBA players, both former and current.

In February, we covered how digital sports media startup Overtime had raised $23 million in a Series B round of funding led by Spark Capital. Former NBA Commissioner David Stern was an early investor and advisor in the company (putting money in the company’s seed round). Golden State Warriors player Kevin Durant invested as part of the company’s Series A in early 2018 via his busy investment vehicle, Thirty Five Ventures. And then, Carmelo Anthony invested (via his Melo7 Tech II fund) earlier this year. Other NBA-related investors include Baron DavisAndre Iguodala and Victor Oladipo, and other non-NBA backers include Andreessen Horowitz and Greycroft.

I talked to Overtime’s CEO, 27-year-old Zack Weiner, about how the involvement of so many NBA players came about. I also wondered what they brought to the table beyond their cash. But before we get there, let me explain a little more about what Overtime does.

Founded in late 2016 by Dan Porter and Weiner, the Brooklyn company has raised a total of $35.3 million. The pair founded the company after observing “how larger, legacy media companies, such as ESPN, were struggling” with attracting the younger viewer who was tuning into the TV less and less “and consuming sports in a fundamentally different way.”

So they created Overtime, which features about 25 to 30 sports-related shows across several platforms (which include YouTube, Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, Twitter and Twitch) aimed at millennials and the Gen Z generation. Weiner estimates the company’s programs get more than 600 million video views every month.

In terms of attracting NBA investors, Weiner told me each situation was a little different, but with one common theme: “All of them were fans of Overtime before we even met them…They saw what we were doing as the new wave of sports media and wanted to get involved. We didn’t have to have 10 meetings for them to understand what we were doing. This is the world they live and breathe.”

So how is having NBA players as investors helping the company grow? Well, for one, they can open a lot of doors, noted Weiner.

“NBA players are very powerful people and investors,” he said. “They’ve helped us make connections in music, fashion and all things tangential to sports. Some have created content with us.”

In addition, their social clout has helped with exposure. Their posting or commenting on Instagram gives the company credibility, Weiner said.

“Also just, in general, getting their perspectives and opinions,” he added. “A lot of our content is based on working with athletes, so they understand what athletes want and are interested in being a part of.”

It’s not just sports-related startups that are attracting the interest of NBA players. I also talked with Hussein Fazal, the CEO of SnapTravel, which recently closed a $21.2 million Series A that included participation from Telstra Ventures and Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry.

Founded in 2016, Toronto-based SnapTravel offers online hotel booking services over SMS, Facebook Messenger, Alexa, Google Home and Slack. It’s driven more than $100 million in sales, according to Fazal, and is seeing its revenue grow about 35% quarter over quarter.

Like Weiner, Fazal told me that Curry’s being active on social media about SnapTravel helped draw positive attention and “add a lot of legitimacy” to his company.

“If you’re an end-consumer about to spend $1,000 on a hotel booking, you might be a little hesitant about trusting a newer brand like ours,” he said. “But if they go to our home page and see our investors, that holds some weight in the eyes of the public, and helps show we’re not a fly-by-night company.”

Another way Curry’s involvement has helped SnapTravel is in terms of the recruitment and retainment of employees. Curry once spent hours at the office, meeting with employees and doing a Q&A.

“It was really cool,” Fazal said. “And it helps us stand out from other startups when hiring.”

Regardless of who wins the series, it’s clear that startups with NBA investors on their team have a competitive advantage. (Still, Go Raptors!)

Read more: https://techcrunch.com/2019/06/01/startups-net-more-than-capital-with-nba-players-as-investors/

If your neighbor is playing loud music, there’s no need to call the cops on them.

Just consider adopting Mr. Magoo, a bird who recently told Alexa to “stop,” presumably in reference to music being played. 

In Mr. Magoo’s defense, the song in question was Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” hands down one of the most annoying songs of all time.

Read more: https://mashable.com/video/bird-alexa-amazon-loud-music/