Razer integrates Amazon’s Alexa voice controls and haptic feedback into its gaming platform

Razer, the company that makes high-end hardware and software specifically tailored to gaming enthusiasts, is adding new voice and touch features to its platform to bring it into the next generation of computing and take the Razer gaming experience to the next immersive level. Today at CES, the company announced that it will be integrating Amazon’s Alexa into its gaming platform to let users control certain aspects of the Razer gaming experience by voice; and it also announced a new range of devices it’s calling HyperSense, to provide haptic interfaces for its gamers.

The Alexa integration will start to be rolled out in Q2 2019, while the HyperSense ecosystem is only getting previewed with no launch date at this stage.

Razer is also making some strides in its efforts to expand the ubiquity of its ecosystem to more than just Razer products: the company said that its Chroma Connected Devices Program — which brings in a new range of peripherals that can work with Razer machines — now has 15 new partners and covers 300 different devices that can run Chroma-enabled games and apps.

The move is a signal of how, while Amazon has yet to build its own dedicated gaming hardware, it has been making some headway into that consumer sector regardless among the 100 million devices that now work with the voice assistant. Last September, Microsoft announced that Alexa would work with the Xbox One, the first big gaming console announcement for Alexa after making a little headway with Sony and the PlayStation Vue a year before.

As with those two, it looks like the Alexa integration with Razer is more around controlling what happens around the game — you will be able to control voice-control lighting effects, device settings and so on, but not in-game actions themselves — although you might consider that in-game controls could be the next step (perhaps one that Amazon would prefer to make itself).

“We’re thrilled to work with Razer and provide customers a first-of-its kind integration that showcases how Alexa can enhance the gaming experience,” said Pete Thompson, VP of the Alexa Voice Service, in a statement. “With Alexa, users can control compatible Razer peripherals while taking full advantage of other Alexa capabilities, including the ability to manage smart devices, access tens of thousands of skills and more.”

In the case of Razer, the company is bringing Alexa into its ecosystem by way of its Razer Synapse 3 Internet-of-Things platform, which it uses to connect up Razer and third-party peripherals that a user might have set up to play.

As Razer describers it, those wearing Razer headsets and mics can then be used to control compatible devices, such as in-game lighting, mice, keyboards and headsets. 

“This is an amazing look forward for Razer into a future for gamers where the full potential of gaming gear is seamless and intuitively controlled through voice activation, synchronization and connected cloud services,” said Razer Co-Founder and CEO Min-Liang Tan (pictured above) in a statement.

The haptic developments, meanwhile, will also come by way of a partnership with third parties — in this case, two companies called Lofelt and Subpac, and others that Razer is not disclosing.

As with other haptic systems, the idea with HyperSense is not that die-hard gamers will start installing wind machines, chillers and strange smells in their living rooms, but that Razer wants to build and work with others to create, for example, high-fidelity speakers and touch boards that will give users the sensation of different experiences in a way that will bring them even closer into the action of the game. (If you think this sounds closer and closer to Ready Player One, you’re not alone.)

So in the case of HyperSense, cues might include specific sound cues in games like rocket firing, or wind, which will might get “played out” in the form of sound waves that you can feel in your feet or — if you might imagine — a connected jacket that will suddenly make you colder, lean to one side, and shudder with the gust.

“We are finally able to feel what we see and hear all around using the gaming arena, sensing the hiss of enemy fire or feeling the full bass of a monster’s growl,” said Min. “Much like Razer Chroma where we have demonstrated the power of a connected lighting system across gaming devices, Razer HyperSense syncs gaming devices equipped with high-fidelity haptic motors to enhance immersion in gaming.”

 

The number of Alexa skills in the U.S. more than doubled in 2018

Amazon Alexa had a good year as a developer platform – at least in terms of the number of voice apps being built for Alexa, if not yet the monetization of those apps. According to new data published today by Voicebot, the number of Amazon Alexa skills in the U.S. more than doubled over 2018, while the number of skills grew by 233 percent and 152 percent in Alexa’s two other top markets, the U.K. and Germany, respectively.

Amazon began the year with 25,784 Alexa skills in the U.S., which grew to 56,750 skills by the end of 2018, said Voicebot. That represents 120 percent growth, which is down from the 266 percent growth seen the year prior – but still shows continued developer interest in the Alexa platform.

At this rate of growth, that means developers were publishing an average of around 85 skills per day in 2018.

Voicebot has its own method for tracking skill counts, so these are not Amazon’s own numbers, we should note. However, Amazon itself did say at year-end 2018 that its broader Alexa ecosystem had grown to “over 70,000” total skills across markets.

In the U.K., the number of Alexa skills rose 233 percent this year to reach 29,910 by year end. In Germany, the skill count grew by 152 percent to reach 7,869 skills. Canada had 22,873 skills as of the beginning of January 2019; Australia has 22,398; Japan has 2,364; and France has 981. (Voicebot says it hasn’t yet set up a system for counting the skills in India, Spain, Mexico or Italy at this time.)

Also of interest is that much of the skill growth occurred near year-end, ahead of the busy holiday season when Alexa devices became top sellers. In the U.S., U.K. and Germany, developers published 181, 84, and 37 skills per day, respectively, during the last two months of the year.

The firm also pointed out there is some debate over whether or not the growth in third-party skills even matters, since so many of them are virtually invisible – never discovered by end users or installed in large numbers. That’s a fair criticism, in a way, but it’s also still early days for voice-based computing. Developers who are today publishing lower-rated skills may be learning from their mistakes and figuring out what works; and they’re doing so, in large numbers, on the Alexa platform.

As to what sort of skills are actually striking a chord with consumers, Amazon itself recently shared that information.

It released a year-end list of Alexa’s “top” skills, which were selected based on a number of factors including customer reviews, engagement, innovation and more, Amazon told us.

Many of the top skills were games. And many had benefited from their association with big-name brands, or had been promoted heavily by Amazon, or both.

Among the top games were music skill Beat the Intro; Heads Up!, already a top paid iOS app from Ellen DeGeneres; National Geographic’s Geo Quiz skill; Question of the Day; Skyrim Very Special Edition; The Magic Door; Trivia Hero; World Mathematics League; Would You Rather for Family; and Volley’s roleplaying game, Yes Sire.

The non-game skills were focused on daily habits, wellness, and – not surprisingly, given Alexa’s central place in consumers’ homes – family fun.

These included kid-friendly skills like Animal Workout, Chompers, Kids Court, Lemonade Stand, and Sesame Street; plus habit and wellness skills like Chop Chop, Fitbit, Headspace, Sleep and Relaxation Sounds, Find My Phone, AnyPod, Big Sky, Make Me Smart, and TuneIn Live.

It’s interesting to note that many of these also are known app names from the mobile app ecosystem, rather than breakout hits that are unique to Alexa or smart speakers. That begs the question as to how much the voice app ecosystem will end up being just a voice-enabled clone of the App Store, versus becoming a home to a new kind of app that truly leverages voice-first design and smart speakers’ capabilities.

It may be a few years before we have that answer, but in the meantime, it seems we have a lot of voice app developers trying to figure that out by building for Alexa.

 

 

Noa’s new Alexa skill has human narrators read news from NYT, FT, Economist & others

News junkies who want something more in-depth than Alexa’s Flash Briefing now have a new option for listening to the day’s news — as well as features and other reporting — right from their smart speaker. A company called Noa has just launched an Alexa skill that uses human narrators to read you the news from top publishers like The New York Times, Financial Times, The Economist and others. With the skill, you can catch up on the stories you missed while you’re doing other things — like cooking, cleaning, commuting or exercising, for example.

The skill is aimed at those who already enjoy listening to longer-form audio, like podcasts or talk radio, on their Amazon Echo or other Alexa-powered device.

The use case here is also similar to that of “read it later” apps like Pocket or Instapaper, both of which have added an audio playback option for listening to your saved articles.

However, those apps currently rely on text-to-speech functionality, not on human narration.

Noa, meanwhile, employs a team of half a dozen narrators based across the U.S., U.K. and Ireland who read the stories published by the company’s current partners. These include: The New York Times, Financial Times, Business Insider, The Economist, The Independent, Bloomberg, The Irish Times and the Evening Standard.

That list will grow in 2019 to include more news organizations and magazine partners, the company says.

To use the skill, you must first enable it on your Alexa device by saying, “Alexa, enable Noa.” (It’s pronounced like the “Noah” from the Bible — the one with the ark.)

You can then ask Noa to read the news by publisher, journalist or category.

For example, you can say “Alexa, open Noa and play ‘The New York Times;'” or “Alexa, ask Noa to play Tim Bradshaw;” or “Alexa, open Noa and play ‘Technology.'” 

Not all articles from the publisher partners will be available, explains Noa CEO Gareth Hickey.

“Only a limited subset of articles lend themselves well to audio — namely, the opinion and feature style stories. Essentially longer-form journalism,” he says.

The skill also employs a metered-access paywall that allows listeners to stream up to 10 articles per week for free. To listen to more, you have to subscribe at $7.99 per month (or €/£7.99 per month, depending on location) for unlimited access. The company doesn’t currently support Amazon Pay, so you’ll have to sign up at Noa’s website or through its mobile apps if you want to upgrade.

The Alexa skill is the latest from the Dublin-based startup Noa, founded in 2015 by Hickey and Shane Ennis, with the goal of providing access to audio journalism.

“While audio-journalism is a core part of our offering, personalized discovery and quality curation are equally as important,” Hickey says. “The goal isn’t to inundate users with audio articles, but instead to help them learn and understand the news,” he adds.

Given Noa’s focus on audio, smart speakers make sense as the next big platform to address — especially now that they’ve reached critical mass. The startup raised $600,000 last year, Hickey notes. 

It’s not the only company working to provide human narration of the news for the booming smart speaker market. SpokenLayer, for instance, currently powers “Spoken Edition” podcasts for many news publishers, including TechCrunch. And Amazon’s Audible Channels launched with spoken-word recordings from publishers like the The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Harvard Business Review, Foreign Affairs, Charlie Rose, McSweeney’s, The Onion and other periodicals.

Noa’s Alexa skill is called “Noa – Journalism, narrated,” and is free to install and use for up to 10 articles per week.

Noa also has a limited presence on Google Home, allowing listeners to hear four Editors’ Picks each day. But its next version will allow for journalist, publisher and category navigation — the same as on Alexa. Noa will soon launch on Android Auto and CarPlay, as well.

Noa’s new Alexa skill has human narrators read news from NYT, FT, Economist & others

News junkies who want something more in-depth than Alexa’s Flash Briefing now have a new option for listening to the day’s news — as well as features and other reporting — right from their smart speaker. A company called Noa has just launched an Alexa skill that uses human narrators to read you the news from top publishers like The New York Times, Financial Times, The Economist and others. With the skill, you can catch up on the stories you missed while you’re doing other things — like cooking, cleaning, commuting or exercising, for example.

The skill is aimed at those who already enjoy listening to longer-form audio, like podcasts or talk radio, on their Amazon Echo or other Alexa-powered device.

The use case here is also similar to that of “read it later” apps like Pocket or Instapaper, both of which have added an audio playback option for listening to your saved articles.

However, those apps currently rely on text-to-speech functionality, not on human narration.

Noa, meanwhile, employs a team of half a dozen narrators based across the U.S., U.K. and Ireland who read the stories published by the company’s current partners. These include: The New York Times, Financial Times, Business Insider, The Economist, The Independent, Bloomberg, The Irish Times and the Evening Standard.

That list will grow in 2019 to include more news organizations and magazine partners, the company says.

To use the skill, you must first enable it on your Alexa device by saying, “Alexa, enable Noa.” (It’s pronounced like the “Noah” from the Bible — the one with the ark.)

You can then ask Noa to read the news by publisher, journalist or category.

For example, you can say “Alexa, open Noa and play ‘The New York Times;'” or “Alexa, ask Noa to play Tim Bradshaw;” or “Alexa, open Noa and play ‘Technology.'” 

Not all articles from the publisher partners will be available, explains Noa CEO Gareth Hickey.

“Only a limited subset of articles lend themselves well to audio — namely, the opinion and feature style stories. Essentially longer-form journalism,” he says.

The skill also employs a metered-access paywall that allows listeners to stream up to 10 articles per week for free. To listen to more, you have to subscribe at $7.99 per month (or €/£7.99 per month, depending on location) for unlimited access. The company doesn’t currently support Amazon Pay, so you’ll have to sign up at Noa’s website or through its mobile apps if you want to upgrade.

The Alexa skill is the latest from the Dublin-based startup Noa, founded in 2015 by Hickey and Shane Ennis, with the goal of providing access to audio journalism.

“While audio-journalism is a core part of our offering, personalized discovery and quality curation are equally as important,” Hickey says. “The goal isn’t to inundate users with audio articles, but instead to help them learn and understand the news,” he adds.

Given Noa’s focus on audio, smart speakers make sense as the next big platform to address — especially now that they’ve reached critical mass. The startup raised $600,000 last year, Hickey notes. 

It’s not the only company working to provide human narration of the news for the booming smart speaker market. SpokenLayer, for instance, currently powers “Spoken Edition” podcasts for many news publishers, including TechCrunch. And Amazon’s Audible Channels launched with spoken-word recordings from publishers like the The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Harvard Business Review, Foreign Affairs, Charlie Rose, McSweeney’s, The Onion and other periodicals.

Noa’s Alexa skill is called “Noa – Journalism, narrated,” and is free to install and use for up to 10 articles per week.

Noa also has a limited presence on Google Home, allowing listeners to hear four Editors’ Picks each day. But its next version will allow for journalist, publisher and category navigation — the same as on Alexa. Noa will soon launch on Android Auto and CarPlay, as well.

Smart speakers hit critical mass in 2018

We already know Alexa had a good Christmas – the app shot to the top of the App Store over the holidays, and the Alexa service even briefly crashed from all the new users. But Alexa, along with other smart speaker devices like Google Home, didn’t just have a good holiday — they had a great year, too. The smart speaker market reached critical mass in 2018, with around 41 percent of U.S. consumers now owning a voice-activated speaker, up from 21.5 percent in 2017.

According to a series of reports from RBC Capital Markets analysts released in December, the near doubling of the adoption rate for smart speakers in the U.S. was driven by growth in both Alexa and Google Home devices, while Apple’s HomePod played only a small role.

The firm found that U.S. penetration of Alexa-enabled devices reached 31 percent this year, compared with 41 percent overall for smart speakers.

It also forecast that Alexa would generate $18 billion to $19 billion in total revenue by 2021 – or ~5 percent of Amazon’s revenue –  through a combination of device sales, incremental voice shopping sales, and other platform revenues. In the U.S., there are now over 100 million Alexa-enabled devices installed – a key milestone for Alexa to become a “critical mass platform,” the report noted.

RBC additionally called out Amazon’s progress with Alexa’s development, with launches like Alexa Guard, which listens for break-ins and smoke detector alarms; plus new features like local voice control for when the internet is down; location-based reminders; advanced routines; email integrations; expanded calling options; and many others.

Alexa’s third-party app ecosystem also grew in 2018, with 150 percent year-over-year growth in skills to reach over 60,000 total Alexa skills by year-end. That’s up from 40,000 skills in May; 25,000 in Q3 2017; and just 5,000 two years ago.

Google Home also gained traction in 2018, with U.S. penetration for Google devices growing to 23 percent, up from 8 percent in 2017. Each household owns around 1.7 devices, which leads a Google Home install base of around 43 million in the U.S., and around 9 million in other Google Home markets, the forecast said.

However, the report doesn’t see as much revenue coming in from Google Home over the next few years, compared with Alexa. Instead, it estimates that Google Home generated $3.4 billion in revenue this year, and will grow that to $8.2 billion by 2021.

But combined with Google’s other hardware products like Pixel, Nest, and Chromecast, the hardware suite will have generated approximately $8.8 billion in 2018, and will grow to $19.6 billion in 2021.

This is the first year the analysts asked about Apple’s HomePod in the consumer survey, and they found its share of the U.S. smart speaker market remains small. Amazon has a 66 percent share to Google’s 29 percent. HomePod had 5 percent, it said.

Siri Shortcuts app gets updated with weather, alarms, timers and more

Alongside today’s announcements of new iPads and Mac, Apple also rolled out an updated version of its Siri Shortcuts app. The app, first introduced at WWDC, arrived with iOS 12 as a way to unlock Siri’s potential by allowing users to create their own custom voice commands and workflows. Now, it can do a few new things, too – including setting alarms and timers, getting the latest weather, and more.

The weather actions should be especially useful for those who have created custom morning routines with Siri Shortcuts, as you’ll now be able to use the latest weather in your shortcuts with the new “Get Current Weather” and “Get Weather Forecast” actions. Being able to ask for this sort of information is already among the top use cases for voice assistants, like Alexa and Google Assistant, so it makes sense to offer these sorts of commands to Siri Shortcuts users, as well.

Also helpful are the new “Create Alarm,” “Toggle Alarm,” and “Start Timer” actions, which addressed another notable hole in the Shortcuts app at launch. Many people were confused about how to use alarms within the app because these actions weren’t available, and the request often came up on Apple’s own support site, too. The new release, Siri Shortcuts 2.1, addresses this problem.

Other new actions include the ability to convert between a variety of units from the “Measurement” and “Convert Measurement” actions, and the ability to get the most recent set of imported photos from the Photos app using the “Get Last Import” action.

The app also fixes a problem with using Siri Shortcuts with HomePod. It will now automatically play back media from the HomePod over AirPlay, when you run the shortcut from HomePod via Siri – which just makes more sense.

Siri Shortcuts version 2.1 is the first major update following the app’s release with iOS 12. However, the app today still largely appeals to iOS power users – those who were already comfortable using its predecessor, Workflow, and who understand how to build routines.

More mainstream users are likely being exposed to Siri’s expanded powers through their favorite apps. With iOS 12, a number of top developers updated their apps with “Add to Siri” buttons that point out special tasks their apps can perform by way of voice. Early adopters on this front included Pandora, The Weather Channel, Sky Guide, Citymapper, Google News, TripIt, Trello, Monster, and others.

The updated version of Siri Shortcuts is available for download from the App Store.

You can now use Alexa and Cortana to control your Xbox

You can now control the Xbox from Alexa and Cortana. Microsoft announced his morning it’s introducing a new way to interact with Xbox One using voice commands, by way of an Xbox Skill that works with both Alexa and Cortana, across platforms. The skill will allow users to launch games, adjust the volume, start and stop their broadcasts to Mixer, capture screenshots and more.

For example, players will be able to say to their Echo speaker, “Alexa, start Rocket League,” and the console would power on, sign them in, and launch the game.

To use the new feature with Alexa, players will first have to sign in with their Amazon account then link their Microsoft account to the skill. With Cortana, users will instead have to first sign into the Xbox they want to control, then sign in with their Microsoft account to link the skill on their Windows 10 PC.

They could then say something like “Hey Cortana, tell Xbox to open Netflix.”

 

Microsoft says the skill will work across a range of voice-powered devices, including Windows 10 PC, Amazon Echo devices, Harman Kardon Invoke, Sonos One, or the Cortana and Alexa apps for iOS and Android.

A full list of its commands will be posted to the Xbox Insiders Reddit. 

The Xbox Skill, at launch, will be rolling out gradually to U.S. Xbox Insider rings (Alpha Skip Ahead, Alpha, Beta) as the company takes in feedback from its early adopters. To see if you have the option available, you’ll need to look in Settings –> Devices on your console to see if the “Digital Assistant” setting is visible.

Meditation app Headspace bets on voice and A.I. with Alpine.AI acquisition

Headspace, a meditation app with 31 million users that is valued at $320 million, is doubling down on voice and A.I. technology to help differentiate itself from the rest of the wellness pack. The company today has announced that it has acquired Alpine.AI (previously called VoiceLabs), one of the early players in the digital assistant market, to bring more voice interaction into its main app.

“There are a few meditation apps out there right now…but the ability to react to where you are in your journey with specific advice through voice applications will be [far ahead] of where our competitors are,” says Headspace’s new CTO Paddy Hannon, who will lead the Alpine team of four who are joining Headspace’s offices in San Francisco.

Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but the deal includes both the team and the technology, Headspace said. The team joining will include Alpine.AI co-founder and CTO Alexandre Linares and three engineers. Alpine.AI CEO Adam Marchick will retain an advisory role going forward.

VoiceLabs had experimented across a number of voice-based products over the years. They included a voice advertising product that Amazon squashed; an analytics service for voice app developers; and most recently, a solution that could build voice shopping apps by importing retailers’ catalogs and using A.I. to answer customer questions about those products.

The latter, known as Alpine.AI, is what Headspace found most interesting.

Alpine.AI was working on solutions for retailers, which would allow customers to talk to their voice assistants naturally. For example, asking for a mascara, the voice assistant would respond with things like, “What color?” and “Do you want it to be waterproof?”

Headspace is not about to start selling make-up, but it does see potential in applying Alpine.AI’s machine learning technologies to its own domain.

Today, Headspace’s primary interface with users is audio. Users are guided through meditation sessions by the soothing, calm and distinctive voice of Andi Puddicombe, the co-founder who is a former Tibetan monk.

Building on that foundation, the plan will be to implement Alpine.AI’s technology to give people an interactive voice-based way to discover the different meditation sessions available on Headspace, and to use those interactions to make better suggestions to individual users.

A consumer might tell Headspace they’re “stressed out,” and the app would make an appropriate recommendation based on the customer’s history in the app.

The addition of Alpine’s technology could be a competitive advantage for Headspace, in the crowded and growing field of self-care apps. Headspace is just ahead of chief rival Calm.com in terms of valuation, with the latter at around $277 million, according to data from PitchBook.

Beyond the initial advantage of improving Headspace’s voice apps, Hannon says Alpine’s technology can be put to use in other ways, as well, including within its iOS and Android apps where users’ actions — not a voice command — could be the trigger that kicks off a personalized suggestion.

Hannon says Alpine.AI was also appealing because of how it was built.

“They built everything on Amazon. They use Docker. This was another reason it was a very attractive acquisition,” Hannon explains. “They built software using the same patterns that we build our software with internally. They’re leveraging much of the same database technologies that we’re using. They use REST services like we do…so from an infrastructure perspective, it was very straightforward.

“I think where it’s going to be interesting is attaching our audio content to their text-based system. But when you look at what Amazon’s providing with things like Lex right now, there’s a lot of text-to-speech or speech-to-text systems, that I think will enable us to do that implementation,” he added.

The deal is also about betting on the future of voice computing. The number of voice-enabled digital assistant devices has grown to over 1 billion worldwide over the past two-and-a-half years. Today, 20 percent of U.S. households have a dedicated smart speaker, and that number is expected to grow.

As one of the leading apps in the profitable self-care app market, Headspace today reaches 31 million users, including over 1 million paying subscribers, across 190 countries. It also runs a B2B business focused on bringing its meditation exercises to larger organizations and their employees, where it has more than 250 businesses on board.

Alpine.AI was a seed stage company at the time of the acquisition, having raised “a few million” from investors including The Chernin Group, Javelin Venture Partners and Betaworks. But while voice-enabled smart speakers have proven to have some popularity, we’ve yet to see many startups working in voice-based interfaces scale up and take on the likes of Nuance or other large platform players like Apple, Google and Amazon. This might have been part of the reason why Alpine.AI was an attractive acquisition target (and was also open to the exit).

The startup is winding down the small handful of retailers, including Petco, who were using the product and is offering each a one-on-one transition plan.

“We are thrilled to be dedicating our efforts to coaching and guiding users to build healthy routines,” said Alpine.AI CEO Adam Marchick, about the acquisition. “Alpine’s machine learning capabilities accelerate Headspace’s efforts to bring new conversational experiences to market.”

 

Google and AISense will talk voice at Disrupt SF 2018

Only a few years ago, talking to your phone or computer felt really weird. These days, thanks to Alexa, the Google Assistant and (for its three users) Cortana and Bixby, it’s becoming the norm. At this year’s Disrupt SF 2018, we’ll sit down with AISense founder and CEO Sam Liang and Google’s Cathy Pearl to discuss the past, present and future of voice — both for interacting with computers but also as a way to help us capture and organize information.

It’s probably a fair guess that you’ve heard of Google, and Cathy Pearl has literally written the book on designing voice user interfaces. You’re probably also quite familiar with the Google Assistant.

AISense, on the other hand, may not be a household name yet, but it’s flagship product, Otter.ai, is quickly gaining a following. Otter.ai is a mobile and web app that automatically transcribes phone calls, lectures, interviews and meetings in real time. The team built its own voice recognition tech that can distinguish between speakers, making for pretty clean transcripts that aren’t always perfect but still very usable. Otter.ai is also the exclusive provider of automatic meeting transcription for Zoom Video Communications.

We’ll be using Otter.ai to provide real-time transcripts of all of the panels on the Disrupt stage next week, so you’ll be able to see it in action at the event.

Amazon’s Echo Dot Kids Edition gains new skills from Disney and others

Amazon is today rolling out a set of new features to its Echo Dot Kids Edition devices – the now $70 version of the Echo Dot smart speaker that ships with a protective case and a year’s subscription to Amazon FreeTime, normally a $2.99 per month subscription for Prime members. Now joining the Kids Edition’s parental controls and other exclusive content are new skills from Disney, Hotel Transylvania, and Pac-Man as well as a calming “Sleep Sounds” skill for bedtime.

There are now four new skills that play sounds of thunderstorms, rain, the ocean, or a babbling brook, as well as an all-encompassing “sleep sounds” skill that offers 42 different soothing options to choose from. New parents may be glad to know that this includes baby soothing sounds like cars, trains and the vacuum (don’t knock it until you try it, folks. It works.)

Amazon clarified to us that while there is a version of sleep sounds in the Skill Store today, this version launching on the Kids Edition is a different, child-directed version.

Also new to the Kids Edition is “Disney Plot Twist,” which is like a Disney version of Mad Libs where players change out words and phrases in short adventure stories. The skill features popular Disney characters like Anna, Olaf and Christoff as the narrators and is exclusive to Kids Edition devices.

The new movie “Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation” is featured in another new skill, Drac’s Pack, which includes monster stories, songs and jokes.

Meanwhile, Pac-Man Stories is a skill that includes interactive stories for the whole family, that work similar to choose-your-own-adventures – that is, the decisions you make will affect the ending.

Both of these are broadly available on Alexa, meaning they don’t require a Kids Edition device to access.

Stories, however, does appear to be one of the areas Amazon is investing in to make its Alexa-powered speakers more appealing to families with young children. The company recently decided to stop working on its chat stories app Amazon Rapids, saying it will instead continue to adapt those Amazon Rapids stories for the Alexa platform.

Amazon also tries to market the Echo Dot Kids Edition to families by making some kid-friendly content, like Disney Plot Twist, available exclusively to device owners.

For example, it already offers exclusive kid skills like Disney Stories, Loud House Challenge, No Way That’s True, Funny Fill In, Spongebob Challenge, Weird but True, Name that Animal, This or That, Word world, Ben ten, Classroom thirteen, Batman Adventures, and Climb the Beanstalk, with this device.

But the Kids Edition can also be confusing to use, because the exclusive skills come whitelisted and ready to go, while other kid-safe skills have to be manually whitelisted through a parents dashboard. And there isn’t enough instruction either from Alexa or in the Alexa app on this process, at present, we found when testing the device earlier.

Unless there’s a specific exclusive skill that parents really want their kids to have, the savings are also minimal when buying the Kids Edition Dot/FreeTime bundle, versus buying a regular Dot and adding on FreeTime separately.