Alexa Has New Alien-Themed Game, Is Getting Major Update

Alexa Has New Alien-Themed Game, Is Getting Major Update

Alexa has gotten an interesting new addition, and in the near future the smart assistant may also be able to continue a discussion without using a wake word.

To correspond with what’s known as ‘Alien Day,’ Alexa has a new skill called Offworld Colony Simulator. According to Fortune, you can use the skill on all devices that have Alexa. The skill is a game that’s similar to roleplaying games and that uses voice prompts and responses to challenge you to get away from a Xenomorph. There have been other voice-based RPGs available on Alexa (like The Magic Door). This one, though, is for sci-fi and Alien lovers.

There’s also news that Alexa may soon gain some more useful abilities. TechCrunch reports that Alexa users will be able to talk with Alexa more naturally and have Alexa remember certain things they choose.

Currently, when you want to use Alexa, you have to use a wake word (like “Alexa” or “Echo”). But in the future, Alexa will not always need you to use the wake word when you’re asking follow-up questions. So if you ask a question and then need more information, you won’t have to wake Alexa up all over again and form a complete new question. This will make conversations with Alexa flow more smoothly and be a little easier to manage.

As TechCrunch notes, you’ll also be able to ask Alexa to remember things. You can ask her to remember peoples’ birthdays or other important pieces of information. Then you’ll be able to ask her about that information in the future and retrieve it easily.

All of this is meant to give Alexa a more expansive and useful memory. It will make her more personal to each user’s account and it will make conversations with her feel a step closer to a conversation with a human (though, of course, we’re not fully there yet).

Offworld Colony Simulator is available to play now, while Alexa’s new memory updates are coming soon (TechCrunch says there’s not yet a launch date).

The Battle of the Smart Speakers

The Battle of the Smart Speakers

Over the past few years, you’ve likely heard more and more about smart assistants and smart speakers. Amazon’s Echo and Echo Dot have been particularly heavily advertised. This is no surprise, since the Echo is what really launched this current boom of smart speakers.

You might be thinking the Echo is the only real contender in the smart speaker race. If that’s the case, you might be surprised to learn there are actually quite a few smart speakers on the market. If you’re interested in buying your own smart assistant-enabled speaker, keep reading for the info you need to narrow down your options.

What I mean by ‘smart speaker’

You might be wondering what a smart speaker actually is. Technically, there are many different kinds of speakers that could be considered smart speakers. There are plenty of speakers out there that do more than the typical old-school speaker.

However, when I talk about smart speakers in this article, I’m referring to a specific type of smart speaker. This is a speaker that has a built-in virtual assistant. These smart speakers can usually be controlled by voice and by app. You can ask them questions, have them perform virtual tasks, and of course, play music through them.

Who are the smart assistants?

Smart speakers come with smart assistants (or virtual assistants) ready to respond to your requests. Here are the smart assistants I’ll mention again later in this article:

  • Alexa—This assistant comes from Amazon. Alexa comes ready to do all sorts of things, including answer questions, make jokes, play music, give a weather forecast, make calls, and more. She can then be personalized by enabling additional skills that let her do a wide variety of other things.
  • Cortana—Microsoft developed this assistant. You might have heard Cortana on your Windows 10 computer or a Windows phone. Cortana can do all the basic things like answer questions (using Bing search results), create reminders, and give the current weather. She also now has third-party skills available to expand her capabilities.
  • Google Assistant—Naturally, Google offers this assistant. You can access Google Assistant through many different devices, including quite a few Google and Android phones. The Assistant can answer questions, create alarms, make purchases, change settings, and more. You can also enable third-party apps that expand your Assistant’s possibilities.
  • Siri—You likely already knew the name of Apple’s smart assistant. Siri has been available for quite some time through devices like the iPhone. Siri can do all the basics, like answer questions, set reminders, change settings, and more. She can also send messages and make calls. You can also enable some apps to work with Siri.

What options are there?

There are a few main smart speakers that are typically considered the frontrunners—the best of the best. However, some others are coming up against the competition to give consumers more options.

This is not a full, completely definitive list of smart speakers. But the 9 smart speakers listed below are some of the most popular, recent, and talked about options. Keep in mind there are many more features available on each speaker, not just the handful I mention!

Amazon Echo

Ratings: 8.1/10 CNET, 4.5/5 PC Mag
What it is: A smart speaker with Alexa—from the people who created Alexa.
Some key features:

  • Built in Alexa, a well-received and popular assistant
  • Good sound quality from the 2.5” woofer & 0.6” tweeter with Dolby
  • 7 microphones that help the Echo hear and understand from a distance and in noisy places
  • Multiple wake words to choose from (“Alexa,” “Computer,” or “Echo”)
  • Style options, with 6 colors to pick from
  • Connects to Bluetooth and has an audio output
  • 4 buttons on top: action, volume up, volume down, microphone off
  • Also works through the Alexa app (for Android & iOS)

Price: $99.99

Amazon Echo Dot

Ratings: 9.5/10 CNET, 4/5 PC Mag
What it is: The smaller version of Amazon’s Alexa-enabled smart speaker.
Some key features:

  • Built in Alexa, a well-received and popular assistant
  • Small and easy to place anywhere without taking up much space
  • 7 microphones that help the Echo hear and understand from a distance and in noisy places
  • Multiple wake words to choose from (“Alexa,” “Computer,” or “Echo”)
  • Connects to Bluetooth and has an audio output, so you can improve sound quality by connecting to another Bluetooth speaker
  • 4 buttons on top: action, volume up, volume down, microphone off
  • Also works through the Alexa app (for Android & iOS)

Price: $49.99

Apple HomePod

Ratings: 8/10 CNET, 3.5/5 PC Mag
What it is: Apple’s smart speaker with their popular voice assistant Siri integrated. This smart speaker is set up by using an iOS device like an iPhone or iPad.
Some key features:

  • Built in Siri, Apple’s well-known smart assistant
  • Good sound quality from its high-excursion woofer and 7 tweeters
  • Visually stylish, with a mesh exterior
  • Intelligent sound, with the ability to hear from across a room and through noises, as well as change its sound based on where you are at the time
  • 6 available controls on top of the device: play/pause, next track, previous track, volume up, volume down, Siri

Price: $349

Google Home

Ratings: 8.3/10 CNET, 3.5/5 PC Mag
What it is: Google’s smart speaker with their Google Assistant built in.
Some key features:

  • Built in Google Assistant
  • Connects with Chromecast
  • Uses Voice Match to recognize who’s speaking and perform tasks appropriately
  • Works like a Bluetooth speaker, so you can connect other devices
  • Multi-colored lights on top indicate what the Home is doing
  • Responds to touch: mute, wake the Assistant, play/pause, change volume

Price: $99

Google Home Mini

Ratings: 8.2/10 CNET, 3.5/5 PC Mag
What it is: The smaller version of Google’s smart speaker with Google Assistant.
Some key features:

  • Built in Google Assistant
  • Style options, with 3 different colors
  • Small and easy to place anywhere
  • Connects with Chromecast
  • Uses Voice Match to recognize who’s speaking and perform tasks appropriately
  • Works like a Bluetooth speaker, so you can connect other devices
  • Dots on top indicate what the Home Mini is doing
  • Responds to taps: change volume, start/stop, mute

Price: $39

Harman Kardon Invoke

Ratings: 7.3/10 CNET, 2/5 PC Mag
What it is: The first smart speaker with Microsoft’s Cortana built in.
Some key features:

  • Built in Cortana
  • 360° sound from its 3 woofers, 3 tweeters, and 2 passive radiators
  • Connected Skype for voice calling
  • 7 microphones and multiple technologies to hear commands from all directions and in noisy environments
  • Touchpad on top for touch controls
  • Lights indicate when Cortana is responding

Price: $99.95

JBL Link 20

Ratings: 8.2/10 CNET, 4/5 PC Mag
What it is: A Google Assistant-enabled smart speaker from speaker and electronics company JBL.
Some key features:

  • Built in Google Assistant
  • Recognizes commands from across the room with its far-field voice recognition
  • Connects with Bluetooth so you can play audio from other devices
  • Battery powered and portable—its battery can last up to 10 hours
  • Waterproof and durable
  • Built in Chromecast connection so you can cast to the Link 20

Price: $149.95

Sonos One

Ratings: 8.7/10 CNET, 4/5 PC Mag
What it is: A smart assistant from electronics company Sonos, with Alexa built in (and Google Assistant coming soon).
Some key features:

  • Built in Alexa
  • Wide variety of music services available to connect (including Amazon Music and Pandora)
  • 6 microphones that help the One hear commands from a distance and over noise
  • Built for good sound quality using Class-D amplifiers
  • Touch controls on top: volume up, volume down, skip, mute
  • Moisture resistant
  • LEDs on top to indicate the One’s status

Price: $199 or two for $349

Sony LF-S50G

Ratings: Not available on CNET or PC Mag
What it is: Sony’s smart speaker with built-in Google Assistant.
Some key features:

  • Built in Google Assistant
  • 360° sound and a speaker with a two-stage diffuser & bass reflex duct
  • Bluetooth connectivity so you can listen to music from other devices
  • Responds to touchless gestures—wave to change the volume
  • Volume adjustment that automatically changes volume based on sound in the room
  • Splash-proof
  • Digital clock on the side of the speaker
  • LEDs to display what the speaker is doing

Price: $199.99

Don’t forget…

This article gave some of the basics you need to know when choosing your smart speaker. Take a closer look at the speakers you’re most interested in to see even more about their features!

Facebook in the News—Devices, Apps, & Features

Facebook in the News—Devices, Apps, & Features

Quite a bit has happened with Facebook over the past week. From upcoming devices and features to app updates, there’s a lot to catch up on!

A New Device?

Facebook may be releasing a home voice-activated device, joining the likes of Amazon and Google in the world of voice controlled products. This news comes from Cheddar, a livestreaming network that covers subjects like finance and technology.

According to Cheddar, Facebook’s video chat device will be called “Portal,” and it will be focused on social connection, including more features than just video chatting. It will also use a wide-angle lens and incorporate its facial recognition technology so it can connect people it sees to their Facebook accounts. (You might recall Facebook’s facial recognition tech was recently in the news because of its use in a new tagging feature.)

This focus does make Facebook’s potential new device sound a little different from devices like the typical smart device which functions as a personal assistant. With “Portal,” there will be a straightforward purpose—social engagement—though there will also be access to things like Spotify and Netflix.

Cheddar notes that the current plan is to officially announce “Portal” in May, as well as to sell it for $499. This is a pretty hefty price tag for a voice-controlled device, but of course, we’ll have to wait a while to get confirmation of the device and more details. At this point, not much is really known about its full features.

App Updates

Facebook also released Messenger Kids for more devices this week. TechCrunch reports that Facebook’s messaging app is now available for Fire tablets. The app was previously available for iOS.

Messenger Kids is the child-safe version of Messenger. Children can use it to send messages and make video calls. However, they can only contact people approved by a parent, and kids aren’t able to hide messages from their parents, which makes it easier for parents to keep watch on their communication.

Upcoming Features

Facebook is also testing a new feature that lets users check in on credible local news. The section is called ‘Today In,’ and it is made up of local topics and content, according to Recode. It’s currently being tested in 6 cities, but eventually they hope to bring it to more cities and let users keep up with other cities they don’t currently live in.

The content will include local topics and news, all coming together through machine-learning software. The news content will only include articles from places their News Partnerships team has verified. This is so that users can feel more confident in the credibility of what they’re seeing.

It’s unclear when this feature might come to other cities. Until then, we can wait and see how it goes over in the current test cities.

YouTube No Longer Available on Fire TV

YouTube No Longer Available on Fire TV

If you use Fire TV, you may have noticed you no longer have access to YouTube. The Verge reports that YouTube has now been deactivated on the device.

Fire TV is Amazon’s streaming device offering. It’s a small device that plugs into a TV and allows users to stream channels or use apps and Alexa skills. With a separate Alexa device or with the voice remote, users can control their TV by voice. Back in July, Business Insider noted that Amazon Fire TV had 35.8 million monthly users. Now all of those users will have to use a browser to watch YouTube on their TVs.

The removal of YouTube from Fire TV stems from an issue going all the way back to September. At that point, Google suddenly took YouTube off of Amazon’s Echo Show device. After the removal, Google said that they had never fully worked out the pairing before YouTube was made available on the Echo Show. Google said the version of YouTube on the Show created “a broken user experience,” likely referring to the fact that many key features were missing in this version of YouTube. Eventually, YouTube reappeared on the device.

Then earlier this month, Google pulled YouTube from the Echo Show once again. TechCrunch reports that Google didn’t know YouTube was being reactivated on the device. Google wasn’t involved in the process of creating this version of the YouTube app either, and they say it violates their Terms of Service. Once they pulled it from the Echo Show, they announced they would be removing it from Fire TV, as well. The original claim was that it would be removed on January 1st, 2018.

Instead, it was pulled on December 28th, days before it was meant to be removed. The Verge notes that we don’t yet know who took it down early. In any case, Fire TV users hoping for one last hurrah with the voice-controlled version of YouTube have now missed their shot. There don’t seem to be any current plans for reactivating YouTube on Amazon’s devices.

Spotify Voice Commands Coming for Google Assistant

Spotify Voice Commands Coming for Google Assistant

Spotify is making itself even more easily accessible by allowing voice commands through Google Assistant. Spotify, the popular music streaming service, has been in the news recently for other good reasons, including its recently added Spotify Student Hulu Bundle. Spotify is now upping its game with additional voice control features. Previously, Spotify could be controlled through certain devices, like Google Home and Amazon Echo. With Google Home, users could link their Spotify account through Google home and use the “OK Google” command to play music, change the volume, ask what was being played, and more. With Amazon Echo, users could add their Spotify account in the Alexa app and ask Alexa to play certain songs or playlists, control the volume, and more. Without these devices, it was less simple to access Spotify with just a voice.

Spotify’s recent announcement is exciting for everyone who likes to listen to music hands-free. Now that Spotify will be controlled through Google Assistant, its voice features will be accessible to more people than ever. The feature will be coming out over the next couple of weeks and will work through Google Assistant on any Android device that supports it. Google Assistant on Android devices uses the same kind of commands as Google Home. You’ll be able to link your Spotify account through Google Assistant and make it the default music service, then start your commands with “OK Google” to get the music playing. You’ll be able to ask for music, start playlists, change the volume, and more. Best of all, this is available to both Free and Premium Spotify members, so you don’t even have to sign up for a paid plan to use it.

The expansion of their voice control ability is great news for people who want to multi-task or aren’t able to keep their device handy while listening to music. For instance, someone using a Bluetooth speaker will be able to leave their device on the coffee table while they clean, changing songs without having to turn off the vacuum or stop washing dishes. It will add an extra bit of convenience for those who don’t want to have to keep their phone nearby while they rock out. Keep an eye out for Spotify voice control to hit your Google Assistant soon.

9 Alexa Skills You Should Enable

9 Alexa Skills You Should Enable

If you have an Echo, Echo Dot, Kindle, Echo Show, or any other Alexa-capable device, you probably already know that there are a lot of different ways you can take advantage of Alexa’s capabilities. With products like the Echo Dot making Alexa more and more easily available, and with the recent rumors about the upcoming Fire TV devices, it’s a good time to look into some of the fun, interesting, and downright useful skills that can be enabled on your Alexa devices. Alexa can answer some basic questions and say (or sing) a lot of funny things, but these skills will make you even more happy to have Alexa as your friend.

Bird Song

Bird Song lets you ask to hear certain birds, ask for a random bird, and ask to play a game to identify bird songs. Bird Song currently has 4.7 out of 5 stars in the Alexa app.

Curiosity

Curiosity offers interesting pieces of information on many different subjects. Asking Alexa to “open Curiosity” prompts the skill to offer two random categories you can choose from. After you answer, Curiosity will tell you something interesting about that subject. Curiosity currently has 4 out of 5 stars in the Alexa app.

Ingredient Sub

Ingredient Sub helps people in the kitchen by providing helpful tips for ingredient replacements. If you get halfway through a recipe and suddenly realize you’re out of eggs, you can ask Ingredient Sub, “What can I substitute for eggs?” Ingredient Sub will list options you can choose from. Ingredient Sub currently has 3.7 out of 5 stars in the Alexa app.

Jeopardy!

Jeopardy! is just what one might expect, and it’s a lot of fun. Every weekday, the Jeopardy! skill provides an extra clue from each of the day’s different categories. The skill is complete with the sounds you know from watching the show. The skill lets you know how you did that day, and it also tells you how you’ve fared over the week. Jeopardy! currently has 3.4 out of 5 stars in the Alexa app.

Meditation Timer

Meditation Timer offers three different soothing sounds that are helpful for meditation. After you open the skill, you can tell Meditation Timer how long you would like to meditate. A gong will sound, and one of the three sounds will begin to play. If you want to switch to a different sound, you can say, “Play next.” The three available sounds are forest, rain, and surf. Meditation Timer currently has 4.1 out of 5 stars in the Alexa app.

NASA Mars

NASA Mars gives you a chance to find out what’s going on with Mars and listen to rover updates. You can ask general questions about Mars, and you can ask what the rover is currently up to. NASA Mars currently has 4.4 out of 5 stars in the Alexa app.

Radio Mystery Theater

Radio Mystery Theater is one of many skills created by Appbly.com. This particular skill lets you listen to CBS Radio Mystery Theater dramas from back in the day. There are many episodes to choose from, so you’ll have plenty of entertainment. (You might also check out other similar skills like Radio Dimension X and Radio Suspense.) Radio Mystery Theater currently has 4.2 out of 5 stars in the Alexa app.

Weather Sky

Weather Sky is a great way to get more out of your weather reports. Weather Sky can give you a very detailed report for your current location or any other location in the US. You can also ask for past and future weather information, and a fun little addition is the ability to “change the weather” by asking for weather like rain or wind (unfortunately, it does not yet have the capability to actually change the weather, just play some sounds, but I can only assume the technology will get there someday). Weather Sky currently has 3.8 out of 5 stars in the Alexa app.

Yes Sire

Yes Sire is an intriguing and fun adventure game you can play just by enabling the skill. You play as a medieval lord who is given a series of questions that determine your success throughout the game. You have to think carefully about your choices when presented with different scenarios. If you are careful in your strategy, you will do well, but if you aren’t paying close enough attention, you won’t last long in the game. Yes Sire currently has 4.9 out of 5 stars in the Alexa App.

…and much more

There are also plenty of specific skills run by different companies that let you do things like check your credit card balance (skills like Amex and Capital One, among others), call a ride (Lyft and Uber), and order food (like Domino’s or Starbucks Reorder). You can also often find your own local news station available to add to your news briefing. Whatever your interests, there’s a growing number of skills available.