Sep 25, 2020 - Technology

Amazon wants to flood America with Alexa cameras and microphones

The new Echo Show 10 has a camera and screen that rotate to follow someone as they move around a room. Image: Amazon

Photo: Amazon

In a Thursday event unveiling a slew of new home devices ahead of the holidays, Amazon made clearer than ever its determination to flood America with cameras, microphones and the voice of Alexa, its AI assistant.

The big picture: Updating popular products and expanding its range to car alarms and in-home drones, Amazon extended its lead in smart home devices and moved into new areas including cloud gaming and car security. The new offerings will also fuel criticism that the tech giant is helping equip a society built around surveillance.

Driving the news: Amazon introduced more than a dozen new devices and services on Thursday, including

  • New spherical Echo speakers, cheaper Fire TV sticks and faster Eero Wi-Fi routers.
  • Three new Ring products for the car, including a basic car alarm and more advanced models with cameras that can record a police stop or summon help.
  • Luna, a cloud-based gaming service that taps Amazon's cloud services and Amazon-owned Twitch to take on Google's Stadia and Microsoft's xCloud.
  • New capabilities for Alexa, including the ability to participate in interactions with multiple people.

The most futuristic offering is Ring Always Home, a $249 camera drone that flies around the house capturing video.

  • Our thought bubble: Amazon says the new drone is for people who want more home security but don’t want to pay for a camera in each room. It might also be a way for the company to get customers to subsidize field tests of its autonomous drone tech on a wide scale.

Be smart: The battle over so-called ambient computing is heating up as the tech giants see the market as nascent, but key to their future. Queries that once went to the search bar on a PC or phone will increasingly get sent to whichever screen or speaker is closest — and all the big tech companies want a piece of the action.

Where it stands:

  • Amazon was early to the market with Alexa and Echo and has extended that lead — with its own new devices and through the acquisitions of Ring and Eero.
  • Google was a fast follower with Google Assistant and has since consolidated its speaker and smart display business with its Nest smart home line.
  • Apple got in early with Siri, but Alexa and Google Assistant have more rapidly gained skills, and Apple's lone smart speaker, the pricey HomePod, has not taken off.
  • Facebook, by contrast, was late to this market but has been gaining some ground with its Portal and Portal TV devices.
  • Microsoft stumbled with its Cortana assistant and has scaled back its ambitions.

Between the lines: While Amazon has done an enviable job of getting Alexa built into all manner of gear, critics say putting microphones and cameras in so many devices and locations creates an inescapable environment of surveillance — one that often involves not just the people who buy the devices but bystanders as well.

In an interview, Alexa head Tom Taylor said that Amazon is trying to be thoughtful about privacy, including new options announced Thursday that allow customers to more easily delete recorded audio by Alexa and offer end-to-end encryption of video captured by Ring cameras.

  • "We do not want customers to have to think they are choosing between innovation and privacy," Taylor said. "They get to have both."

What's next: Google has a hardware event slated for Sept. 30, with a new Nest smart speaker expected to be among the offerings.

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