SEATTLE — Amazon has a plan to make sure Alexa is everywhere we go by adding the voice assistant to glasses, wireless ear buds and a shiny black ring.
Those wearables are just a few of the newest grab bag of products announced by Amazon on Wednesday as part of its push to get a little bit of Alexa into every corner of our lives. But as those gadgets move from customers' kitchens and living rooms to their ears and faces, the company will learn how far consumers will be willing to trust Amazon with their privacy.
To head off such concerns, Amazon Senior Vice President for Devices Dave Limp listed features the company includes to address privacy concerns in the first 10 minutes of his 75-minute presentation.
Because Amazon lacks an Alexa-powered smartphone like Google and Apple, it's looking for other ways to make its always-listening assistant omnipresent. In addition to the wearables, it announced an updated Echo Dot that shows the time and a new 8-inch Echo Show. There was also the Echo Glow, which is essentially a soothing Alexa-controlled night light. The Alexa-controlled Smart Oven can read bar codes on packaged foods and automatically cook them according to the directions, while a new Ring doorbell adds Alexa to the front door to chat up visitors and take a message if you're away.
(Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
The online retail giant has previously taken a similar spaghetti-against-the-wall approach to such events, introducing dozens of new features and gadgets like an AI-assistant-powered microwave and a wall clock that could show a timer. But many of those devices haven't exactly taken off. For example, last year's Echo Auto device, which retroactively brings Alexa to older vehicles, was still available only by invitation as of Tuesday. On Wednesday, it was open to all customers.
Amazon has recently jumped in on the traditional fall events that technology companies, including Apple and Google, host to highlight their new products, most of which are released in time for the holiday season. But Amazon takes a looser approach than its sometimes-rival Apple. Instead of showing off a handful of nearly finished products, Amazon is more likely to share a long list of releases of varying quality and readiness, not all of which will make it to consumers.
Meanwhile, Amazon has spent much of the past five years pushing its Alexa voice assistant into as many nooks and crannies of people's lives as possible. It lives in the company's Echo smart speakers, but it also works with third-party speakers, as well as cars, kitchen appliances and a fancy toilet. The research firm eMarketer says Amazon Echos will make up 63.2 percent of the smart-speaker market this year, while Google's Home speakers will take 31 percent.
But while Amazon leads in smart speakers, a phone is conspicuously missing from its strategy. Google and Apple sell phones with their own smart assistants built into the operating system and resting in billions of pockets. That advantage is crucial as the tech giants fight for what may be the next big battleground: conversational computing. Each company is racing to emerge with the dominant voice technology that consumers will use to tell their gadgets to play music, turn on lights and find information.
And while Amazon has a head start in bringing speech recognition to consumers' homes, it faces a huge hurdle competing against Apple and Google, whose technology runs most smartphones around the globe, in the mobile world.
That was part of what the firm tried to address Wednesday. In addition to new hardware, Amazon announced a wide range of new software features and products. Alexa can now tell when you are frustrated with it by detecting changes in the volume and tone of your voice and choice of words. It will change how it replies accordingly, sheepishly apologize and try to correct course. And like Google Assistant before it, Alexa is adding the ability to use celebrity voices, starting with Samuel L. Jackson.
Still, Amazon's critics have questioned the company's commitment to privacy. Many have pointed to Amazon's facial recognition technology, which is taking off in use by law enforcement, as posing risks to civil liberties.
Bezos told reporters at the event that the area of facial recognition is "a perfect example of where regulation is needed." He said it can be positive, and you don't want to pump the brakes. "At the same time, there's lots of potential for abuses with that kind of technology, and so you do want regulations. It's a classic dual use kind of technology."
Additionally this spring, a coalition of 19 consumer groups accused Amazon of illegally collecting voice recordings and other identifying information on users under 13 with its Echo Dot Kids Edition.The company is continuing to develop products for kids, an area Limp said has seen the most traction in the last year. It will let educational software companies create Alexa skills. That will allow a parent, for example, to ask an Echo how their kid did on a test or what homework they have to do, instead of asking their child directly. It is adding its child-focused service FreeTime to Echo Show devices, too, which will let kids send messages to an approved list of people.
Limp said Amazon has improved by 50 percent the accuracy of detecting when users say "Alexa" to wake the device to hear commands. That way, Echo devices are less likely to listen into conversations when users don't want them to.
"We want to get better and better on that," Limp said.
In May, Amazon gave consumers the ability to use voice commands to delete recordings of what they've said throughout the day. Users can now ask Alexa what the device heard. And they will soon be able to ask Alexa why it took specific actions, so they can understand why it played music or turned on lights when users didn't intend for that to happen.
Amazon also added a new $59.99 home camera from Ring, the doorbell-camera company it bought 18 months ago. Its Alexa Guard security service can use those cameras, along with its Echo devices, to detect sounds such as breaking glass, something that can indicate whether a house has been broken into.
Last month, The Washington Post reported that Ring has forged video-sharing partnerships with more than 400 police forces across the United States, giving them access to homeowners' camera footage if users grant it. Heading off questions about surveillance, Limp said the new Ring gadgets let customers flip on "home mode" that users to halt recording of sounds and images."
We continue to believe when you add Ring to a neighborhood, crime is reduced," Limp said.
Several of Amazon’s newest products could test the limits of consumer comfort with regard to privacy. The Echo Buds headphones record anything a wearer says when it hears the wake word “Alexa.” People who wear its new Echo Frames — an experimental device available for now only by invitation — will have a microphone on their heads as long as they have their glasses on. Limp said the device only records when instructed.