Boom! Amazon Makes Voice a Whole Lot Bigger

Amazon just extended its influence on how everyday people live.

Today Amazon announced the launch of Alexa Blueprints, which makes it possible for anyone to create their own Alexa skills and responses with the popular voice assistant – and no coding is required.

In doing so, Amazon has found a way to build on its lead in the smart speaker category, where Amazon is crushing its competitors with a 70-percent market share through its Echo product powered by Alexa. But Alexa is more than the heart of the Echo. Alexa is helping to change the way people live through voice-based experiences.

Not long ago, the idea of using our voices to play music, organize recipes, manage our smart homes, and order pizzas seemed far-fetched in a world dominated by text-based searches and commands. But Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft have been steadily developing assistants intended to get people to use our voices to manage machines. Now nearly half of Americans use voice assistants on their mobile phones alone. By 2022, 55 percent of Americans will have installed a voice-powered smart speaker in their homes.

Amazon is leading the way in the adoption of voice. Alexa is the most widely used voice assistant and enjoys higher rates of engagement than competitors such as Apple’s Siri. In fact, Alexa is the heart of a rapidly evolving network that relies on voice commands to manage our lives. Home base consists of the Alexa-powered Echo smart speaker, which reside principally in our homes. Since launching Echo in 2014, Amazon has sold an estimated 20 million Echo units on its way to achieving a commanding lead in the market for smart speakers.

But Jeff Bezos wants Alexa to go beyond our living room. It’s already well known that automobile manufacturers are incorporating Alexa into their vehicles, and Amazon recently launched an offering to extend Alexa into the workplace. At CES 2018, businesses showcased a number of products integrating Alexa – ranging from smart glasses to bathroom fixtures.

These applications of Alexa do something important: make people more comfortable with the voice interface. As Bezos told Billboard, “Alexa is primarily about identifying tasks in the household that would be improved by voice.”

But Amazon needs Alexa to perform more skills for the assistant to become the common fabric of our lives. According to Amazon, Alexa performs 25,000 skills including checking your bank account balance and cooking thanks to interfaces with  third parties. And with Blueprints, Amazon puts the tools of production into the hands of the owners. By empowering end users to create personalized Alexa skills and responses without needing how to code, Amazon has created a compelling way to accelerate the uptake of Alexa. Now anyone can create their own content and customize the product to do what we want. The Amazon website offers a number of suggestions such as helping the babysitter find things in your home, mastering subjects with your own voice-based flash cards, and creating stories.

Making tools more accessible is a common approach employed by technology companies such as Apple and Google. Apple, of course, made smartphone adoption explode by opening up the iPhone to third-party app developers. More recently, Apple released ARKit for developers to launch augmented reality products. Google has taken an even more democratic approach over the years by releasing tools that you don’t need to be a developer to use, such as Google Analytics. Google is now ambitiously trying to make virtual reality more popular by launching tools to create VR experiences.

Apple and Google face bigger challenges making AR and VR more mainstream although Apple less so because AR is easier and less costly to adopt. On the other hand, voice-based experiences are becoming more intelligent and accessible. Plus, it’s far less expensive for people to use voice assistants especially as they become more embedded in products we own already.

With Blueprints, Amazon is widening its lead in the marketplace for voice assistants by changing how we live. Amazon is now Amazon Everywhere.

 

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6 Reasons Why Jack White is the Lord of Vinyl

In 2017, sales of vinyl records rose for the 12th straight year. Although vinyl records still account for only 8.5 percent of total album sales, their 14.32 units sold in 2017 represent the most since Nielsen began tracking record sales electronically in 1991. But the numbers don’t tell the entire story of vinyl’s resurgence. Buying vinyl is about enjoying the packaging – unwrapping the album, studying the album cover art, holding the disc, and collecting different formats, such as multi-colored discs and alternative covers. And few people appreciate vinyl as like Jack White does.

The man who led the garage rock revival has built a life around a celebration of all things analog, including the glory of vinyl records. If you’ve seen the guitar-god documentary It Might Get Loud, you understand White’s passion for the authenticity of analog music: in one of the movie’s more revealing scenes, he constructs a guitar out of found parts including a Coke bottle and plays it. His passion for the simplicity of analog music has manifested itself in some striking and sometimes curious ways. As 2018 Record Store Day approaches, let us count six of them:

1) His new album, Boarding House Reachhad the fourth-biggest sales week for a vinyl album since Nielsen began to measure vinyl sales in 1991. His 2014 album Lazaretto holds the record for the biggest one-week sales performance of a vinyl album.

2) He has released a trove of rare and eccentric vinyl, including 100 copies of a single that was stitched into furniture he upholstered.

3) In 2016, he launched the first phonographic record to play in outer space. A recording of “A Glorious Dawn” by composer John Boswell along with audio from Carl Sagan was launched in a balloon 94,000 of feet above the earth, where a “space-proof” turntable played the recording for more than an hour. Continue reading

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Artists Don’t Believe in Accidents

Artists create beauty from accidents.

One morning in Chicago’s Union Station, I found myself with a few spare moments before the work day began. I felt like watching some James Brown for inspiration and searched YouTube until I came across a 1974 performance of “The Payback” in Zaire. The performance did not disappoint. After a rousing welcome from an enthusiastic emcee (“This man will make your liver quiver!”), the Godfather of Soul entered the stage, slowly and deliberately like a lion in command of his kingdom. James Brown removed his overcoat to reveal a muscular body threatening to pop out of a powder blue and black jumpsuit. He then became a whirling force of nature. He did the splits – twice, in rapid succession. He twirled. He thrust his hips. He caressed the microphone, alternatively grunting, screaming and singing “The Payback.”

About 2 minutes and 20 seconds into the performance, he did something that happened so fast that I almost missed the moment: as he sang “I don’t know karate, but I know Ka-Razor,” he dropped his torso down to do yet another fluid leg split, and the tall microphone stand in front of him toppled over, landing on his right shoulder. As his legs Continue reading

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Led Zeppelin Invades Record Store Day

They come from the land of the ice and snow, invading Record Store Day April 21 like land-grabbing Visigoths of Yore: Led Zeppelin recently announced its first-ever Record Store Day release, a 7-inch single consisting of unheard mixes of “Rock and Roll” and “Friends.” Both mixes, produced by Jimmy Page, have elevated Record Store Day from a celebration of vinyl to a homecoming as the band emerges from the mists of Avalon to celebrate its 50th Anniversary.

“Rock and Roll” is the better known of the two songs, with its rousing opening drums and anthemic power. But “Friends” has always intrigued me more than “Rock and Roll.”

Whereas “Rock and Roll” is powerful a call to arms, “Friends” is a more subtle, evocative song that rewards repeated listening. The second song on Led Zeppelin III, “Friends” captures the mystery, adventure, and musical versatility that has always set Led Zeppelin apart from hard rock bands such as Deep Purple. The song, employing strings and bongo drums, a folk acoustic turn from Jimmy Page, and a piercing Robert Plant vocal, imparts a distinct Middle Eastern vibe that is even more pronounced in the stunning live version that Page and Plant recorded with an Egyptian orchestra in 1994.

A version recorded with the Bombay Orchestra was released as part of the deluxe edition of Coda in 2015, which features a more dissolute vocal from Plant.

When you experience “Friends” in its three most popular versions — the original, the Coda reissue, and the collaboration with the Egyptian orchestra — you can hear the foundation that Led Zeppelin was building for “Kashmir,” five years later. “Friends” stands alone as psychedelic, cross-cultural masterpiece.

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Why #DeleteFacebook Is Dead

Facebook has big problems. But #DeleteFacebook isn’t one of them.

With a quarterly earnings announcement only days away, Facebook has weathered a slew of negative news mostly related to the company’s failure to respect the personal data of its 2.2 billion monthly users around the world. The Congressional appearance of CEO Mark Zuckerberg April 11-12 received mixed reviews. His prepared testimony, which laid out steps Facebook is taking to better protect user data, will probably not be compelling enough to prevent governmental regulation.

Adding to Facebook’s woes, Nielsen recently issued a report that Facebook users are spending less time on the platform, which, to be fair to Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg had predicted would happen earlier this year. Along with declining numbers, of course, is the rise of the #DeleteFacebook movement. According to a study by Tech.pinions, as many as 9 percent of Americans surveyed say they deleted their Facebook accounts, joining high-profile people such as Elon Musk and Steve Wozniak.

But I don’t think #DeleteFacebook is a threat to Facebook. Here’s why:

  • Most importantly: we need our Facebook friends. I already know of friends who said they were going to delete Facebook and even did so — but returned because they couldn’t bear being away from their network of Facebook friends. I know of users who were tempted to leave but ended up simply changing their privacy settings. The Facebook community (myself included) views Facebook from two different lenses: Facebook the business (viewed suspiciously) and Facebook the community — in other words, our friends and groups, where we share, listen, and connect, true to the company’s mission.
  • Deleting Facebook is difficult and not just because we’re attached to our Facebook friends. It’s literally difficult to untangle Facebook from all apps and sites we either log into with Facebook or give permission to interact with our data. Frankly, Facebook is too much of a utility for living our lives beyond the platform.

In a compelling April 14 column for the New York Times, “I Can’t Jump Ship from Facebook Yet,” Kathleen O’Brien, the parent of a 7-year-old with autism, summed up Continue reading

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Google Gamifies Google Maps

On March 14, Google announced a new tool that makes it possible for developers to turn real-world Google Maps locations into fantasy settings via augmented reality. A new API will transform your local coffee shop or noodle hangout into “a medieval fantasy, a bubble gum candy land, or a zombie-infested post-apocalyptic city,” in the words of Clementine Jacoby, product manager, Google Maps APIs, who wrote about the new feature in a blog post announcing the API.

What this announcement means is that Google Maps locations can be transformed into locations for experiences such as scavenger hunts, adventures, and Pokémon GO-style games. As Jacoby wrote, “With Google Maps’ real-time updates and rich location data, developers can find the best places for playing games, no matter where their players are.”

The gamification of Google Maps is more than a cool story – it’s a glimpse at the future. Google Maps will always be an essential utility for wayfinding. But as the wild success of Pokémon GO demonstrated, technologies such as augmented reality are uncovering another use for location-based information: entertainment. Continue reading

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Into the Mystic with Robert Plant

I have seen Robert Plant in concert six times throughout his adventurous solo career. As I watched Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters with my family February 20 at The Riviera Theatre, I thought of the lyrics to the Traffic song “Dear Mr. Fantasy”:

“Dear Mr. Fantasy play us a tune
Something to make us all happy
Do anything, take us out of this gloom

Sing a song, play guitar, make it snappy”

I sat in the upper recesses of the dark, crowded Riviera Theater alone, as my family and I could not find seats together. To pass the time waiting for the golden lion to take the stage, I got lost in my mobile phone, foolishly getting immersed in the news of the day. It’s harder and harder to go to a concert and block out the ugly realities that define modern-day American society. We live at a time when school children practice active shooter drills and adults fear they cannot afford the cost of growing old. Shutting off the stream of depressing headlines is not always easy in the digital age.

But the moment Robert Plant stepped onstage, I was pulled out of the darkness and transported to another time and place. For watching Robert Plant is like being with a beguiling Elizabethan minstrel who charms the audience with charisma, swagger, and song.

Tuesday night belonged to the fiddle, the dobro, the bendir, the tambourine, and to Plant’s voice, willowy and sweet, tinged with huskiness. He brought us into the mystic, with songs in the tradition of blues and folk such as “The May Queen,” “Little Maggie,” “Fixin’ to Die,” “Gallows Pole,” and “That’s the Way.” He played music of the earth, which he has described as music that grows organically from a mélange of sources, such as folk, world music, and blues. As he shook his mane, glorious and golden, he would not have been out of place playing in the streets of a Renaissance Faire.

He moved about the stage as if he were born there, a shaman comfortable in his own space, nodding with encouragement to his fellow Sensational Space Shifters, such as when guitarist Skin Tyson performed an extended flamenco guitar workout during “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You.” For a brief moment, he seemed to gyrate in sync with fiddle player Seth Lakeman and guitarists Billy Fuller and Justin Adams, almost like snakes entwined. He and the Sensational Space Shifters made the stage their own world, emanating shafts of across the dark auditorium.

I sang. I cried. I laughed. I forgot where I was as I willingly joined Robert Plant’s brotherhood of song for a night.

Robert Plant is more than a musician. He is a magician who casts a spell of song to take us out of this gloom. He scatters songs into the air like flower petals for us to catch, hold, and savor, before they flutter back to earth to be reborn.

Here are more posts I’ve written about Robert Plant:

The Golden Shaman: Robert Plant’s Journey,” September 25, 2015.

Are You Willing to Fly Blind? Career Advice from Robert Plant,” September 2, 2010.

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Amazon: One Industry to Rule Them All?

For once, Amazon is playing catch-up.

The great disruptor is just another player in the entertainment space. Amazon Studios, its TV and movie arm, is still looking for a blockbuster like Game of Thrones to compete in an elite league defined by HBO, Hulu, and Netflix. Amazon Music is a follower behind Spotify and Apple Music.

But recently Amazon has made some moves in a bid to transform itself from a follower into a leader. Let’s take a closer look. Continue reading

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Virtual Reality Helps U.S. Athletes Train to Win Olympic Gold

When U.S. Alpine skier Mikaela Shiffrin won a Winter Olympics gold medal in the giant slalom race February 15, she also achieved a victory for virtual reality.

She is among the members of the U.S. Ski & Snowboard team who have used a virtual reality (VR) training regime from STRIVR Labs to prepare for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang County, South Korea, according to the team.

The team’s deployment of VR training, reported widely, also shines the spotlight on VR’s potential to improve performance in sectors ranging from sports to retail. Continue reading

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Blessed Are the Change Agents

Years ago, an agency asked me to define its target buyer as part of a brand repositioning. My client wanted to do business with companies eager to innovate. I recommended that my client stop thinking of its buyer in terms of a formal title such as CMO and instead seek out a persona I referred to as the change agent — which I described as a leader who is in a position to effect behavioral change needed for a business to grow and innovate. Find the change agents, I reasoned, and you find the wellsprings of innovation inside a company.

So I read with interest a new report from Brian Solis, The Digital Change Agent’s Manifesto. It turns out that over the past few years, Brian has been interviewing about 30 change agents (with a focus on digital change agents) to better understand them – and to provide a road map for change agents to flourish.

A Revelation

Brian’s report is a revelation. Here is a report that helps businesses identify change agents inside their own organization and set them up for success. His report is also a rallying cry for people who believe they are change agents or on the path to becoming one. Brian maps out the attributes of a change agents, calls out stumbling blocks to success, and identifies 10 mandates for change agents to prosper. Although he focuses on digital change agents — because of the distinct challenges and opportunities digital presents — the report is a manifesto for change agents of any type.

Why You Should Read Brian’s Report

Business leaders should read Brian’s report for one simple reason: at a time when digital disruption has become the norm, companies that can find and support change agents more quickly than their competitors will possess a distinct advantage. Companies that fail to nurture and support change agents will lose these visionaries to someone else who can. And change agents don’t exactly walk around wearing “Ask Me about Change” buttons.  In fact, they might be flying beneath the radar screen, by choice. Brian’s report will help a C-level executive find and uplift them.

Continue reading

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