I plod into the kitchen on a Sunday morning and tell the new Alexa to turn on CNN. Its screen lights up, and it shows a video about Russia as I microwave bacon and worry if there will be a nuclear war.
The Echo Show is Amazon’s new $230 device with a built-in camera and touchscreen, powered by the AI-assistant, Alexa. In the top right-hand corner of its little 7-inch screen, I see a person-shaped icon. I tap it and the display changes; now it's telling me which of my contacts have been recently active. I wonder if it is also telling them that I am active now too.
This thing, Alexa, that's been living with me, listening to me, is now looking at me as well. It can see that I'm awake and about now, talking to it. If the original Echo, and Echo Dot, were all about device interactions, this new Echo Show seems to be largely designed to help you interact with other people. Once you connect it to your phone’s address book, it looks up which of your contacts also have Echo Show devices, so you can place video calls. (It already does this for voice calls with the Echo.) And to facilitate these conversations, it has a “Recently Active” feature that tells you who from your Drop In contacts (see below) has been up and about, and interacting with their Echo Show. So, conceivably, it could have told other people that I'm active, but at this point I only have one Drop In contact with an Echo Show. And because she works for Amazon PR, and we only talked to test the device, it would kind of weird for her to call me first thing in the morning, on a Sunday.
I dismiss the thought. The Echo Show makes me dismiss a lot of thoughts.
It has this wild new feature called Drop In. Drop In lets you give people permission to automatically connect with your device. Here’s how it works. Let’s say my father has activated Drop In for me on his Echo Show. All I have to do is say, “Alexa, drop in on Dad.” It then turns on the microphone and camera on my father’s device and starts broadcasting that to me. For the several seconds of the call, my father’s video screen would appear fogged over. But then there he’ll be. And to be clear: This happens even if he doesn’t answer. Unless he declines the call, audibly or by tapping on the screen, it goes through. It just starts. Hello, you look nice today.
Honestly, I haven’t figured out what to think about this yet. But, it’s here.
I love making calls with Alexa. Video calling, both Drop Ins and garden-variety video chats where one party initiates a call and the other accepts it, are the Echo Show’s killer feature for now. Because I only have one other contact with an Echo Show (again, the nice woman who works for Amazon), I only made a handful of video calls. But they are all amazing. (Eventually, these video calls will also work with the Alexa smartphone app, in addition to the Echo Show.)
Long ago, when we imagined the future, we often imagined video calls. And although they’ve been around forever, doing one from a mobile phone, or a desktop computer, never felt quite as futuristic as this pulsing thing in my kitchen that’s always watching me, and always listening, ready to do what I tell it.
It’s Facetime without the phonebook. You can use it without tapping any icons. Without pulling a device out of your pocket. Without having to hold it in your hands, or prop it up. I command it to make calls for me, and it does.
And during calls, the sound booms out of it. If you’re used to placing video calls on a phone, or a tablet, this is an entirely other experience. The other person’s presence fills the room. (Or at least their voice does; the screen is tiny.)
I don’t like the way Alexa makes me look. If you place it on a countertop, or table, or desk, it peers up at you from below. It’s not a flattering angle. It makes me think about my neck and chin. It makes me wish I was thinner.
But mostly, it is easy and delightful. This is why we let these things into our homes. They make little tasks — turning on the lights, placing a call, playing music — easier than to do than they are on a phone. My three year-old can reliably use it to place calls to her grandparents on their Echo.
Brave new world.
Okay, so, shopping is pretty great on the Echo Show. It’s nice to be able to see the thing you are about to buy. I buy a lot of stuff.
There’s this great karaoke-like thing the Echo Show can do. Play a song, and it shows the lyrics, verse by verse. It doesn’t do it for every song, but it seems to do it for most.
Sometimes I wonder if anyone at Amazon has figured out that children exist, often in the same household as their parents. My six year-old wanders into the kitchen and asks Alexa to play California Girls. Instead, it plays California Gurls.
Sex on the beach
We don't mind sand in our stilettos
In my jeep
“Alexa, stop!” Jesus, Alexa.
It’s long bothered me that there’s no way to ban Alexa from playing songs with explicit lyrics. (It will restrict content from YouTube.) The screen makes it worse, especially for eager young readers.
I ask Alexa to play Insane Clown Posse, just to see. It turns out, it may play fuck, but it spells it f**k. That aversion to spelling out profanity was something that changed during the time I have been testing the device. Originally, it spelled every f-bomb that came up.
It makes me think Alexa is learning.
Sometimes, I vaguely worry about my children growing up with an AI that is always listening to them, and now sees them too.
Clearly, Amazon is capable of facial recognition. Prime Photos — the unlimited photo storage app Amazon offers Prime members — can already tell my children’s faces from other people’s, for example. Will Alexa start to see them, to really see them, as individuals, and tailor what it shows on the display based on what it knows about them?
And what about that camera? You have to place a lot of trust in Amazon to let it send an internet-connected camera into your home. Amazon says no video is stored on the device, or in the cloud. (But like the Echo, it does store your audio queries online, and gives you options to delete them.) Amazon also says it won’t release customer information to the government without a valid and binding legal demand.
But, come on now. Even the former director of the FBI puts tape over the camera on his computer.
According to Amazon, when you press the button on the top of the device, it turns off power to the microphones, so it can’t pick up audio. I asked if it did the same thing with the camera, and what other security precautions it had to keep unauthorized people from looking in, but an Amazon spokesperson wouldn’t give me any further details.
I think about all this in my kitchen, looking at my reflection in Alexa’s screen. I worry someone might be watching me. I overtly pick my nose, and walk away.
Okay, so, the screen is really small, but it's bright and vivid, and it's a great experience for watching video. It works best with Prime Video, and is fantastic for streaming Amazon shows like Man in the High Castle. YouTube is also pretty great. The Echo Show is better at finding general types of YouTube videos (“Alexa, show me YouTube videos of surfing”) than specific ones.
You probably don't want to watch a movie on that 7-inch screen, but for casual playback, or stuff like CNN video clips, it's ace.
I try to get Alexa to help me with a pizza dough recipe, but it is pretty useless. I just want to see the measurements, but every few minutes, the Allrecipes skill stops and the screen resets back to the home screen. So I keep having to pull up the recipe again. And again. And again. It's a multiple-step process every time. The screen can only show a few recipe options at a time. The thin-crust pizza dough I want is not displayed in the first set of recipe options, so I have to call up recipes, then scroll across the touchscreen with my finger and pick the right one, then open it. Every time. And every time, before I can read all the ingredients and their ratios, they vanish. Shit.
1 teaspoon active dry yeast
1/4 teaspoon white sugar
3/4 cup lukewarm water
2 cups all-purpose flour, divided
1/2 teaspoon salt
It strikes me that the Echo Show is treating text and images similarly to the way Echo treats sound. Both devices are meant to deliver information to you on demand, right now, right here, right in front of you. Yet a screen lets that information be resident; it can stick around. Sound is by nature ephemeral. You can play it again, or transcribe it, but you can’t keep the words hanging there in the air.
Recipes, even easy ones, are exactly the kind of thing that want resident information, rather than ephemera. Text and images have a sense of permanence that sound does not. It makes me wish I could force the screen to keep whatever is on there, on there. But as far as I could tell, there’s no way to do this.
My wife and I are drunk in the kitchen on a Saturday night. We’re talking about this new Alexa. I like it. My wife doesn't. She doesn’t like the screen. She wishes the screen was always off. You can turn it off, so it just shows a clock, but as soon as you say its wake word and ask it to do something, the Echo Show comes back on again and stays on.
Across the bottom of the screen, Alexa scrolls through prompts. Most of these are calls to action meant to encourage you to fiddle with it.
Some of these are suggestions for thing for you to do with your device. (“Alexa, set an alarm for 6:00 am.” Or: ”Alexa, how many calories are in an egg?”) Some are notifications from Skills (which are basically third party apps). It also has “trending topics.” These are just annoying. Mastiff Wins Ugliest Dog Competition. Or: Harry Potter Released Twenty Years Ago.
The prompts are what bother my wife.
“It is an output that asks for inputs,” she says. “We have too many of those already.”
I do keep wondering about this thing watching me. In the Alexa app, it says that Drop In uses interactions with Alexa and motion sensors on the Echo Show to let contacts with permission know whether you’re available. I also know it goes to sleep after a while if it doesn’t detect anyone in the room.
I take it downstairs to our garage, plug it in, shut the door, and turn off all the lights. I sit there looking at it, trying to be still. Trying to hide. I wait for the screen to go to sleep, and wonder how long it will take.
Maybe I should have hidden better.