Amazon is working on smart glasses to house Alexa AI, says FT

Amazon is working on building a pair of smart glasses to house its Alexa voice assistant, and a home security camera that could be linked to its existing Echo connected devices to further expand their capabilities, according to a report in the FT citing people familiar with the company’s plans.

The newspaper says one or both of these products could be launched before the end of the year, alongside updates to existing Echo devices.

An Amazon spokesperson declined to comment, saying company policy is not to comment on rumors or speculation.

According to the FT, the smart glasses are intended to be purely an earbuds-free housing for Amazon’s Alexa AI — with a bone-conduction audio system that would enable the wearer to hear Alexa without the need to be wired in.

With no mobile platform of its own to build on, Amazon has a strategic disadvantage vs Google and Apple because it cannot bake its voice AI into smartphone hardware where millions of engaged users could easily summon it — hence the company working on a plethora of alternative connected devices to try to put Alexa within earshot anyway.

The idea for the glasses, which would be its first wearable, would be to do just that: Enable Alexa to be summoned from anywhere, vs the current situation where users are barking commands at static in-home speakers.

The FT reports the glasses would wirelessly tether to a user’s smartphone for connectivity. They are also apparently being designed to look like a regular pair of spectacles, so they could be worn comfortably and unobtrusively.

The paper notes that Amazon hired Babak Parviz, founder of Google Glass, in 2014, and says he’s been closely involved in the project. It also points to several other Glass researchers, engineers and designers having moved to Amazon’s labs — per analysis of their LinkedIn profiles.

And while Google Glass roundly failed to ignite consumer interest — which can be partly blamed on its awkward, geeky appearance, including the inclusion of a camera and a small screen positioned in the eyeline — the FT says Amazon’s specs would likely eschew both camera and screen to avoid the risk of similar concerns, while also maximizing battery life.

That does mean the glasses appear to be a lot more basic than the AR specs Apple has been rumored to be working on — but also likely to come to market a lot sooner.

Of course if Amazon’s glasses contain an always listening microphone they would still represent a privacy concern — though it’s not clear if that’s Amazon’s intention at this stage, or whether the wearer would need to touch the glasses to summon the AI’s ear.

The ecommerce giant has been ramping up its connected devices portfolio ever since it outed the original Echo smart speaker in November 2014 — a device we dubbed “a tad baffling, but also intriguing” at the time.

The speaker went on to become something of a surprise hit for Amazon, whose prior mobile hardware forays had badly flopped. And while it has never broken out Echo sales figures, it’s clear the idea of a smart speaker has excited huge interest from industry, dovetailing with rising hype around voice interfaces as the next big user interaction shift, as computing becomes increasingly embedded into the environment where it might not be viable (or desirable) to have lots of screens.

Rivals were soon putting out their own AI-powered Echo clones, such as Alphabet’s Google Home smart speaker (rumored to soon be coming in a smaller form factor too). Apple is also now getting in on the smart speaker game, with the Siri housing HomePod.

Meanwhile Amazon has doubled down on Echo, turning its single breakout product into a full category portfolio — with an entry level option (~$50 Echo Dot), a portable speaker (Echo Tap), a speaker-plus-screen for in-home video comms (Echo Show), and a fashion-focused selfie-taker and style assistant (Echo Look).

If the FT’s sources are on the money the next Echo-branded addition could be an ‘Echo Protect’ security camera.

If this is true, Amazon will be playing catch up here as the category has plenty of competitors. Google, for example, already has such a product — its Nest division acquired Dropcam in 2014.

But despite some extant tech giant (and startup) competition, home security is a mainstream concern and thus a popular category in its own right. So the space could be a route for Amazon to get more mainstream consumers introduced to and comfortable with its Alexa AI.

The FT says Amazon’s secretive Lab 126 product development division has been tasked with studying the smart home market to determine which devices would make sense for Amazon to build next.

It also reports that the planned Internet-connected Echo camera would be able to tie into Amazon’s existing Echo products — by, for example, allowing users to view the video feed on the Echo Show’s screen.

There’s a potential privacy risk here too if a security camera Echo device could be configured to connect to any camera in the Echo family — given the Echo Look is intended to be located in a bedroom, for example.

Or indeed, if it could connect to any Echo device’s microphone to snoop on the audio in different rooms in the home.

So again it remains to be seen how Amazon handles integration between its growing portfolio of Echo devices to avoid the risk of the tech coming across as rather too creepy to be comfortable.