CES: Digital assistants battle for partners, Alexa appears in AR glasses

At this week’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES), digital assistants – voice-activated and AI-driven – were in the spotlight. These devices have the potential to be the new smartphone for digital services providers, creating a powerful opportunity for Google, Amazon, Apple and others to control the user experience across mobile, smart home and media usage, and to place their content and apps center-stage. Google and Apple succeeded in doing that in the smartphone, but now need additional platforms to drive uptake of their services and their access to customer data. Amazon and other web players failed to break the Apple/Android duopoly in handsets, but see digital assistants as their new chance to shine.

So Amazon was trying to keep up the momentum behind Alexa, the assistant software which powers its surprisingly successful Echo smart speaker and an expected range of other smart home and car devices to come. At CES, it was showing the first augmented reality glasses to feature Alexa, heralding a revival of interest in smart glasses – which grabbed plenty of attention a couple of years ago, but failed to take off among real consumers.

The Alexa glasses are made by a start-up called Vuzix and will be able to talk to Amazon’s voice-activated assistant and display information to the wearer’s field of view. This is part of an Amazon program to extend Alexa’s reach by supporting third party hardware rather than keeping it confined to Amazon’s own devices, Apple-style. The difference, of course, is that, while the ecommerce giant makes devices from Kindle tablets and ereaders to the Echo range, its revenues and customer experience are based around content and the sale of virtual and physical goods – while for Apple, the hardware, with its distinctive user interface, remains the heart of the business, even while services are its fastest growing activity.

There are other ways to tie users into a company’s experience though – for instance, wearers of the Vuzix Blade AR glasses will have to become Amazon customers to enable Alexa in the gadget.

Like Google, Amazon will be trying to get Alexa into as many gadgets as possible to drive its other services – and after the failure of its Fire Phone, more smartphone partners, to add to Huawei, would be particularly welcome. As well as the Vuzix glasses, it also has a deal with Sonos for an Alexa-powered smart speaker.

Vuzix will release its Blade AR glasses by the second quarter at a retail price of about $1,000, though the firm says it aims to get that figure below $500 by 2019.

The second wave of smart glasses is expected to be heavily driven by AR, which enables them to support a wider range of functions than the first generation, epitomized by Google Glass, and to reach out to more everyday users than VR does.  Apple is reported to be preparing AR glasses for launch in 2019 or 2020, while Facebook’s VR unit, Oculus, plans to release a $200 VR/AR headset this year which will not require connectivity to a PC or smartphone (and so will rival Samsung’s offering). Google, having backed away from Glass, has recently been concentrating on adding distinctive AR capabilities to its Pixel smartphone.

Among the big four AI-augmented digital assistants, Microsoft’s Cortana has been slipping behind in terms of device and developer support. Like Amazon, Microsoft has failed in the smartphone world, but unlike Amazon, it does not have home-based devices to push adoption of its software either. However, last fall, the two vendors announced they would integrate Cortana and Alexa, which may be the best route for Microsoft – to focus on building business for its Azure cloud platforms and machine learning engines, rather than continuing to try, in vain, to replicate the device dominance it had in PCs.

The tie-up also bridges the home environment, where Alexa is thriving, and the workplace, where Cortana does have some presence thanks to Windows laptops and tablets, notably the Surface range. However, that still leaves a gaping void for both, in the shape of the mobile device where Apple Siri and Google Now hold sway, thanks to those companies’ dominance of the smartphone user experience. By contrast, Amazon and Microsoft have both failed in their attempt to create well-used mobile platforms, and are likely to need further partnerships to fill that essential gap, as well as penetrate the connected car.

Microsoft has a presence in the vast majority of enterprises, which use its Office suite and Outlook email platform in their everyday operations –  although Google and its software suite are doing their best to scratch out some market share from Office. With the Alexa integration, Microsoft would be able to open up all of the rich data from that professional environment, and make it available to Alexa – for the benefit of the worker while they are at home.

In such a scenario, and with the appropriate permissions granted, a user could ask an Amazon Echo device in their home to ‘open Cortana,’ at which point they would be able to query calendar schedules or set reminders and tasks – hosted on their employer’s Exchange system.

Similarly, the Microsoft system should be able to push alerts to those Alexa users. This will be useful for those that use Alexa as a way to check schedules in the morning, or plan their days over breakfast. In reverse, the system would let a user at an office PC interact with their Amazon ecosystem, adding things to shopping lists or controlling smart home devices.

“The world is big and so multifaceted. There are going to be multiple successful intelligent agents, each with access to different sets of data and with different specialized skill areas. Together, their strengths will complement each other and provide customers with a richer and even more helpful experience,” said Jeff Bezos, Amazon CEO. “It’s great for Echo owners to get easy access to Cortana.”

“Ensuring Cortana is available for our customers everywhere and across any device is a key priority for us,” said Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s CEO. “Bringing Cortana’s knowledge, Office 365 integration, commitments, and reminders to Alexa is a great step toward that goal.”

The partnership was apparently kicked off in May 2016, according to the New York Times, which said that CEOs Bezos and Nadella agreed to the idea at Microsoft’s CEO Summit. Speaking to the New York Times last year, Bezos said he had not reached out to Apple or Google to broker a similar agreement, but said he would welcome their involvement, and that hopefully they will be inspired by the Microsoft collaboration.