We’ve all seen the ads on TV and the web showing happy people asking their Amazon Echo for something. “Alexa, call Susan.” “Alexa, play The Black Keys.” “Alexa, turn on the lights.” “Alexa, give me a foot rub.” (Note: Alexa does not do foot rubs.)
This, I thought to myself as I ordered one, is The Future™ at last!
It is not.
I spent the weekend trying to learn Alexa’s language. If you phrase your request even slightly wrong, it will either say it doesn’t know how to do it or just do nothing.
“Alexa, turn on the lights,” I say, enunciating clearly.
After a moment of lights spining and flashing: “I don’t know how to do that.” Grumble, grumble. I try again.
“Alexa, turn on ‘My Lights’,” I say, since that’s the name I gave to my lights.
Flashing, spinning. “Okay,” she says agreeably. Great, I think. Now we’ll see some—
Similar conversations went on all weekend. At it’s worst, I was listening to CBC Radio and Alexa thought it heard the command to turn off the lights. I was plunged into darkness. As I told CBC’s Stephen Quinn,
I was listening to the radio, and my Amazon Echo decided that somebody told it to turn off the lights. Plunged into darkness. So @CBCStephenQuinn, that’s a new superpower you can look into.
“Alexa, volume 10.”… “Alexa, play ‘Never gonna give you up’ by Rick Astley”
— Steve Cavers (@stevecavers) February 4, 2018
I’m not an expert in usability (actually, I am a bit), but I think there might be a bit of a weakness in Echo’s voice interface. It usually takes two or more tries to get a command right, if it works at all, but it will interpret random conversation as commands.
And then, to top it off, last night it decided that it couldn’t connect to the Internet. All of my other devices were fine, but my Echo couldn’t figure it out. I actually had to use light switches! Barbaric.
I need to unwind. Alexa, play some classical music.
“I’m sorry. I can’t find anything called ‘classical’. Would you like to listen to ‘William Shatner – The Transformed Man’?”
No! Alexa, you’re useless. And turn on the lights. Fine I’ll do it myself.