Alexa brings hands-free TV to more devices

Alexa’s latest trick is offering a hands-free TV viewing experience, that will allow consumers to turn on or off their television, change inputs, fast forward, rewind and more, without having to first invoke a specific skill, or even press a button on their remote. Instead, makers of smart home devices are today adding new “entertainment controls” to their own skills, which allow customers to control a variety of devices, including TVs, as well as AV receivers, IR hubs and even connected speakers.

Amazon says this new capability is today available via the smart home skills from Sony, Logitech Harmony, and BroadLink, while others from Denon, Creston, LG and Pulse-Eight are coming soon. The skills are first available to U.S. users, with support for U.K. and Germany arriving in the future.

The companies are using an updated Smart Home Skill API to make the hands-free TV and media player control possible. Because this API already uses Amazon’s standardized Alexa language model, the companies don’t have to build out their own voice interactions for their existing skills, Amazon explains.

Alexa will understand the user’s speech, convert it into a command, and then send it to the skill adapter that communicates with the device in question.

For consumers, what this means is that you’ll be able to just talk to Alexa to control your TV or other entertainment devices without having to remember to invoke a particular skill. So, for example, you could just say things like, “Alexa, turn on the TV,” “Alexa, fast forward,” “Alexa, make it louder,” or “Alexa, switch input to Blu-Ray.”

This is not the first time that Alexa has been used for hands-free TV. In May, Dish rolled out an Alexa integration that allowed its pay TV customers using either its Hopper or Wally receiver to search for programs, change channels, rewind and fast-forward television, and more, just by speaking, in much of the same way.

And of course, Amazon’s own Fire TV platform already supports the ability to use Alexa to launch streaming apps like Netflix, as well as do things like play TV shows, movies, and more.

But by bundling this “entertainment control” feature into Alexa’s existing Smart Home Skill API, hands-free TV becomes just another part of the larger smart home ecosystem, while simplifying the experience for end users. For example, previously, users had to say “Alexa, ask Harmony to…” before issuing their TV-related commands, when using Logitech’s skill. Now they can just talk to Alexa directly.

Third-party devices aren’t the only ones getting a smart upgrade, it seems. As spotted by the blog Android Police, a Fire TV software update changelog implied that users with Alexa-powered devices, like the Echo, would be able to control playback on their Fire TV, also just by speaking. Users could use phrases like pause, resume, fast forward, and next episode – the same sort of thing that was already possible via the Alexa button on the Fire TV remote. The difference is that you’d be able to now skip the remote and just talk to your Echo instead.

However, after the news was published, the changelog page was apparently changed to remove the reference. (We’ve asked Amazon to comment on this, and will update if a response is provided.)

The big picture here is that Alexa is becoming an ever more centralized point of control for interacting with the smart home. But it’s also expanding beyond what some consider to be the more superfluous, geeky aspect of using smart home devices – like video doorbells or colorful, dimmable light bulbs – to instead control a more commonly used device: your TV.