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Libratone update will add Amazon Alexa voice control to its speakers



Libratone, a Danish maker of snazzy high end wireless speakers, has announced its existing Zipp and Zipp Mini speakers will get support for Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant via a free app update, slated to arrive this fall.

This means existing owners of the speakers will be able to jump aboard the smart speaker craze — and use their Libratone Zipps like an Amazon Echo and ask Alexa to do stuff like look up sports scores, tell a joke, provide a weather update or indeed order something from Amazon.com.

Although — unlike Amazon’s Echo speakers — the Libratone Zipps do not have built-in microphones that are persistently listening for a trigger word.

The company confirmed that users wanting to talk to Alexa will therefore have to manually touch a button on the top of the speaker to do so. So while the quality of Libratone’s audio is more premium than Amazon’s Echo speaker hardware, its existing microphones (previously used to support a conference call functionality) aren’t as tuned for this use-case — ergo there will be more friction between you and Alexa’s ‘lazy web’ answers to your voice commands.

(Or more privacy safeguards between you and Amazon’s data-harvesting AI, depending on your perspective.)

Rival speaker maker Sonos had already been expected to unveil its own voice play on October 4. And according to an FCC filing, Sonos intends to introduce support for multiple voice assistants to existing speaker hardware.

But Libratone’s opening gambit here is to start with just Amazon’s Alexa as its chosen partner for ‘smartifying’ its premium hardware.

Asked why it’s adding Alexa Libratone’s president, Mike Culver, told TechCrunch it had noticed some customers already using their Zipps with Amazon’s entry level Echo Dot device — so seeking to control their Zipp via Alexa voice commands sent to the ever-listening Dot.

“We started investigating additional integrations that would make sense based on the consumer demand — for the Amazon Alexa capabilities, but available in a much better quality sounding speaker, which is why they’re purchasing Zipp and Zipp Mini and pairing it with the Echo Dot,” he said. “That was the stimulus.”

“Then when we looked at the bigger picture we fundamentally believe that one of the key interfaces, from a usability standpoint for our speakers, should evolve to include voice. It’s a natural way to interact with our speakers and with music. And we believe the speaker also serves as a natural integration point to the smart home.

“So both of these led us to integrate with Amazon,” he added.

What happens if a customer does not want their speaker to be turned into an Amazon-enabled listening outpost? Culver said that while the user does not have a choice to decline the firmware update, they would need to take additional steps to actually enable and activate Alexa. And thus could choose not to.

“After the Libratone Zipp or Zipp Mini speaker have the firmware update for Amazon Voice Services, the user will need to use the Libratone App to enable and configure it,” he confirmed. “The Libratone App will include a step that will take you to the Alexa App (and require you to download it if you do not already have it), where you will register the Zipp/Mini speaker for use with Amazon Voice Services.  Afterward, you will be passed back to the Libratone App for final confirmation.” 

Culver also noted that as part of the Alexa App registration a user would have to accept Amazon’s privacy policy, since they will be using Amazon’s voice services. Though, again, Zipp owners not wanting to agree to their personal data being processed by the ecommerce giant can do so by avoiding registering for the Alexa app.

“All of our updates require the customer to authorize the update to the speaker… And once they update — and we’re always doing updates so eventually all the speakers will have this capability — they still have to configure it for it to start working,” added Culver, further emphasizing that even users who do configure Alexa still have to manually touch a button on the top of the speaker and say the word “Alexa” to summon the AI.

Therefore, he said, Libratone will not be updating its own privacy policy ahead of this impending update as it does not believe it needs to.

“That’s the difference between farfield microphones, that are just continuously listening, vs the way we’ve implemented it — which is based on the use-case that the customer has to intentionally want to do this. They have to touch the bird [logo on the button on top of the speaker] and at the same time give the Alexa voice command,” he added.

“We are planning to add the possibility to disable [the Alexa integration] from within the Libratone App if customers wish to do so,” he also noted.

Culver would not comment on whether Libratone is planning to launch any new speaker models in future with the Alexa AI baked in from the get-go plus microphone hardware that is always listening.

“This is what we think is a really good first step,” he added. “And we’re always studying voice as a user interface — and I think all the questions that you’re asking are the same ones that we’re continually asking ourselves… so we’ll see how this [space] evolves both in implementation as well as with other competing voice services in the future.”

In another integration twist, Amazon and Microsoft yesterday announced a forthcoming tie-up will enable users of Alexa to summon Microsoft’s Cortana voice assistant, and vice versa. So, in future, it may end up that enabling one voice assistant means being able to get in touch with any of them — at least, that’s Jeff Bezos’ prediction.

In the meanwhile, Libratone owners enabling the Alexa integration can certainly look forward to being able to ask the AI to summon Cortana too — if they really want to use their speaker to update their calendar or check something in Outlook.

For now it looks like the immediate future of voice interfaces will be voice assistants nested within voice assistants — in an attempt to make the technology more useful. Let’s just hope all these various vocal summons don’t result in cacophonous confusion of AI assistance.

What’s the collective noun for a group of voice AIs? With ‘echo’ already taken directly, we’ll have to pencil in ‘nest’ (sorry, Google!) as the working word for that.



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