Monday, March 16, 2015

Echo Part I: Talk To Me

This is part one of a three part write-up of Amazon's Echo.  It is part history, part review, and part wish list for computer voice capabilities and the device that Amazon is currently starting to offer.  The first part will cover some of my personal history with voice command, control, and communication of IT devices, to include my various experiences with the offerings that have been available. It will also cover my  experiences with the basic set up of the Echo and placing it into use.  The second part of this will cover my experiences placing Echo into daily use, its utility, and then the last part my wish list for its future (or the next generation of products).
Note:  I did not get my Echo for free (I did get the Prime Member discount which was available to anyone), I am not being paid by Amazon (or selling them ads), I am not excerpting this from any other review (surprised how many reviews I have read are primarily material from elsewhere), I am not going to repeat tech specs and marketing words (check with Amazon site for that), and I am putting this thing through its paces based on what I consider important and useful functionality.
So how did all this start?  When I was a kid, I used to watch Star Trek with my Dad.  One of the most memorable aspects of the USS Starship Enterprise was the fact that the crew would carry on conversations with the ship's computer.  I thought it was pretty cool that Kirk, et al could vocally request information from the computer and the computer would also respond back vocally.  There was no emotion in the computer's voice (which I found out later was Majel Barrett, who also played Nurse Chappell and was Gene Rodenberry's wife) and it was simple data output without opinion or human intuition.  Simple, but at the same time the most revolutionary concept.
To me, the whole idea of such an interface with a computer changed, when on the episode Tomorrow Is Yesterday, the computer had been overhauled on the female-dominated planet Cygnet XIV, and the technicians there felt the computer needed a personality so they gave it one.  As a result the computer went from having an electronic-ish nasal voice, to having a distinct semi-flirty female persona.  That was it for me, I had to have me one of those!
Speech Synth Card, from
In 1977, I first began working with main frame computers in college.  I was disappointed that they had no voice or personality, other than a bad temper at times.  As the PC world was born, I started to seek out ways to make my PC talk to me.  I tried a number of things.
I started with programs that produced electronic hissing through a PC speaker that sounded like a bad AM radio.  The next step was a speech synth cards that required me to enter every single phonetic word to coax some electronic verbiage from a little 3 inch add on speaker.  The end result sounded like a member of the East German Swim team with a mouth full of marbles who was using an electro-larynx.  The biggest let down was the lack of inflection, which would have given the PC personality.  Also, these devices delivered no data, no answers to questions -- it was, strictly speaking, parroting the text that I programmed into it.
Speech cards got better, but playing individual lines through a WAV program wasn't really what I had in mind.  One lucky day in 1995, I came across Moon Valley Software's IconHearIt and HearIt F/X programs that changed everything!   It gave voice to all the computer commands!  It even had a voice clock and Solitaire game!  Joy of joys, I thought I had found it!  My joy lasted only a few hours.  The voices were HORRIBLE!  Not that they were bad quality, but they lacked personality.  If you are not familiar, you have a choice of an American woman or man, a British man, or a Southern woman.
Like all good things, if you want it done right, do it yourself!  So I did, the result was a collection of WAV files I created several different vocalists performing the commands that was meant to replace those from IconHearIt and HearIt F/X.  This was still not data retrieval but the computer did have a personality. 
At this point, I had gone as far as I could, and other demands for my time took over. 

In the late 1990s I discovered a tool called Dragon Naturally Speaking aka Dragon or DNS.  I can't remember the version number I started with, but the program is now on version 13 and I have owned every version since my first trial of the product.  This program represents a major turning point in going from touch device computer input (keyboard, mouse, pen, etc.) to vocal interface. 
My primary use for DNS is to dictate text even though it can provide full vocal control of all Windows and Windows application's commands.  I use it for anything that might require me to type over 3 sentences be it email, documents, or blog entries like this one.  DNS allows me to create the written word as fast as I can speak, and because the speed of my creativity is no longer limited by the speed of my typing, I find that I have better continuity of thought. 
Over the years, Dragon has gotten faster and more accurate.  I have increased the accuracy of the program by performing training from time to time (as my voice ages) and by allowing the program to evaluate and analyze my writing style and vocabulary.  I think the program is about 99% or as accurate as I rarely have to train words it fouls up, but I am not sure of the validity of that percentage since I probably use a certain vocabulary a majority of the time.  I did use the program to write Three Paperclips & a Grey Scarf as well as other books on which I am working.
As I mentioned before, I do not use DNS for commanding programs, it has limitations that still require manual manipulation (i.e. swapping between fore & background Windows) which slows me down since I have to swap back and forth between interfaces to accomplish what I need done.  Therefore, I am still not quite to the Star Trek interface that I have been wanting for most of my life, but DNS was a significant step forward.
Siri might have been my next way point, but I never had any experience with her.  I am not an Apple technology user, except for the iTouch.  I can write volumes as to why I feel the way I do about that segment of tech and why I feel it is too locked down to suit me, but that is not what this article is about.  I have been in information technology since the late 70s and PCs since the 80s, and in all that time the one constant I have learned is that people want and are happy with different things -- my feeling is that is best if folks use what they are happy with.  I do, however, use several Android devices and there is a great App called Assistant that provides a verbal interface.  
Two things I really like about Assistant are that I can adjust what it is called and what it calls me.  It is great as a self-contained system, but cannot gather information from other sources and very often gives me a screen full of data when it cannot find an exact answer.  I will admit that I have not tried the professional version, so I will not go into a wider discussion of the program as it would be unfair of me to do so without taking that version into consideration.  My point in mentioning Assistant and Siri is that such mobile programs exist and that the verbal interface is progressing.
With all of that background explained, we are ready to take a look at the Echo.  It is reasonable to assume that I very much want to like this product, but at the same time it is reasonable to assume that I will be pushing the device's limits and have some preconceived notions about how it should work.  I am human and I have been waiting many years for this; I have equal parts bottled up exuberance and bottled up expectations that must remain uncompromised.  This will be interesting.  To reiterate:  I did not get my Echo for free (I did get the Prime Member discount which was available to anyone), I am not being paid by Amazon (or selling them ads), I am not excerpting this from any other review (surprised how many reviews I have read are primarily material from elsewhere), I am not going to repeat tech specs and marketing words (check with Amazon site), and I am putting this thing through its paces based on what I consider important and useful functionality.
When I first heard rumors of the Echo device, I started trying to get my hands on one.  I wrote a few unanswered emails to Amazon and then I started to get responses that basically said "something is in the works but it is not ready for public consumption just yet".  In November 2014, like many, I got the from letter from Amazon about the Echo and its pending release, as well as the program that would allow some Prime Members to get their hands on one early at a 50% discount.  I had no problem with having to pay for what I perceived as a Test Pilot version of the system, but I wanted it NOW
I signed up to be one of the first and waited.  In January I was notified that I had been selected to get the Echo early and a delivery date would be forthcoming.  I placed the official order and waited.  In February I got an email that my Echo would arrive in mid-March, then it backed up a few days over time and the Echo arrived the first week of March.  Not to give away the ending, but it was worth the wait.
I won't bother with describing the packaging, other than to say it was both simple and elegant.   I followed the quick reference card and got Echo plugged in and the app loaded, and then tried to bring it on line.  I run my network with security in place and therefore I rely on having information available for the devices I am bringing on line like MAC Address, etc.   None of that type of information was readily available, but if you are running your home network with those measures in place you are enough of a tech to figure out how to get the device to get the information from it. 
Once on line, I entered some rudimentary information in the app (available via PC or Android device) and brought Echo to life.  Because Echo continually synchs with the Amazon Cloud, you can access and update the information using the app across multiple platforms.  I have the app loaded on my phone, Kindle Fire, Samsung S4 phone, and Asus Transformer tablet; plus I have the web address linked on my laptop.  There are benefits to having access to the Settings and other info like To Do and Shopping Lists available on all devices you use.
With all that done, I started to use the device and Echo became Alexa.
I did not run the Training program for the first week, and even without it Alexa understood almost everything I said.  Being an Army Brat, I do not really have an accent so that probably helped.  My point in mentioning this is that the device heard quite accurately right out of the box.
My first command “Alexa: Play Eagles radio on iHeartRadio”
She started with “Take It To the Limit”.  I plan on it.

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