Amazon has unveiled the Echo Look, a $200 camera powered by its Alexa AI, which it is pitching at style-conscious fashion fans looking for a more personalized shopping experience inside Amazon’s gargantuan retail marketplace. While an immediate threat to bricks and mortar, the device is the first step towards a video-enabled smart home focused Echo – a device type that Apple is now rumored to be developing too.
The Siri-powered speaker is rumored to house Apple’s rather flaky digital assistant, as well all the required HomeKit functionality to let it run as a smart home hub. Rumored to be in the prototype stage, the Apple device would be its first new product category launch since the Apple Watch.
Rumors suggest that the device could employ facial recognition via camera, and would likely feature technologies that Apple acquired via Emotient and Faceshift. Mac Rumors reports sources that say some of the prototypes are being designed to “act based on who is in a room or a person’s emotional state,” implying that Apple has a facial recognition system capable of gauging the vibe before dishing out advice or recommendations.
Those same sources reveal that Apple worked on both small and large versions of the speaker back in 2014, alongside development that eventually saw a Siri button added to the Apple TV remote, rather than integrating the microphone into the Apple TV box itself. The current prototypes are undergoing testing inside the homes of some Apple designers, and is being considered as a way to “augment the iPhone,” – helping make the Apple ecosystem and experience more attractive and sticky.
Meanwhile, Amazon’s device is a little confusing in its ambitions. The Look appears more like the sort of device that would be added as a niche device to flesh out an existing portfolio. Sure, Amazon isn’t marketing it as the next big thing, but we would have expected Amazon to expand on its Echo range with a smart home security camera system – much like the Nest Cam, the Icontrol Piper, Canary, or Ring.
Instead, the Look is going to provide fashion advice and clothing recommendations to its users, in a move that looks like Amazon is attempting to bring more of the in-store shopping experience to the home. While Amazon is currently the largest apparel retailer in the US, and the Look is a way of protecting that status, a smart home camera seemed like the more obvious first step for Amazon.
But the Look will certainly provide useful feedback for Amazon’s engineers, when it comes to launching other versions of the Echo. The Look is a pretty small device, and the Echo itself has enough space to begin directly integrating cameras into it. Standalone security cameras would take the same form-factor as the look, but Amazon will have to work out whether it wants to delve into wireless cameras for home security.
As for Apple, it looked certain that Apple was about to unveil its HomeKit platform over two years ago, using a redesigned Apple TV as the in-house hub that would control smart home devices while an iPhone was away from home. But no such launch materialized, and a slow trickle of HomeKit-compatible devices began to appear on the shelves – evidence of a last-minute cancellation.
At the time, it looked like Apple was in a race with Google to launch its smart home system, ahead of what would have been an Android system centered around Nest – the darling of the smart home scene, which Google had paid $3.2bn for. But again, Google didn’t launch Android Home, and Nest, the Alphabet subsidiary, collapsed in spectacular fashion over the next three years.
In that three-year period, both the major smartphone platforms chose not to launch a smart home offering, which left the door open for Amazon to launch the Echo – a product whose success took Amazon by surprise. The Alexa digital assistant was a phoenix rising from the ashes of Amazon’s Fire Phone debacle, and perhaps its only redeeming feature.
After the phone died its fiery death, Amazon was left with Alexa, and someone in its engineering department decided that a Pringles can was an ideal form factor for a speaker, microphone array, and motherboard, and so the Echo was born – aggressively pitched at Prime subscribers, and slow to launch outside the US.
The next step for Amazon was to open up the Echo platform to other developers, and while Google’s Home is catching up, Amazon was enjoying clear air – when it came to the number of supported devices that could be paired with the Echo. Of course, Amazon is keen to use the device as a means to drive more sales through its retail marketplace, but the Echo is a great way for the company to gain more customer data that it can use to boost sales and marketing revenue.
Google has similar desires in the smart home, but Apple differs here, as it has been pretty vocal about not monetizing user data and selling it to third-parties. For Apple, device sales seem to be the core component of smart home revenue, but by that same token, it hasn’t exactly looked keen to expand its own portfolio – instead opting for a HomeKit certification system that will likely earn it a tidy license fee.
There have been complaints that Apple’s strict requirements for specific secure elements in the chips that power HomeKit devices slowed vendors’ time to market, but in the wake of the Mirai botnets and ongoing headlines about shoddy IoT security, Apple’s very conservative approach makes more sense – as the company is extremely concerned with its corporate image.