Amazon unveils a new Fire TV Cube, soundbar, and over a dozen Fire TV Edition products – gpgmail


At the big European tech trade show, IFA 2019, Amazon today announced over 20 new Fire TV-branded devices, including a next-generation Fire TV Cube, Fire TV Edition soundbar from Anker — its first foray into Fire TV Edition audio products — and 15 new Fire TV Edition products, including the first OLED Fire TV Edition smart TVs.

The announcement represents a significant expansion of Amazon’s Fire TV hardware line and integrations at a time when Roku has gained a lead over Amazon in the U.S., in terms of connected-TV market share, while Fire TV has been claiming the top spot in some European markets and an international lead over Roku.

The company today said its Fire TV devices now have over 37 million monthly active users globally, which is ahead of the 30.5 million Roku reported in Q2. Both companies offer products that may be used by more than one person in a household, of course, but each household only gets counted as one user (or account) as long as they’ve streamed through the platform in the past month. It’s a relatively fair comparison, in other words.

Of the new devices, the new Fire TV Cube is one of the more interesting additions to the lineup as it represents the second generation, and a big upgrade, over the existing product. The device offers a hands-free Fire TV experience, and has become the testing ground for many Fire TV software enhancements before they roll out to the wider product lineup.

The updated Fire TV Cube now includes a faster, “hexa-core” processor that’s twice as powerful as the one that shipped in the first generation device. It provides “instant access” to Dolby Vision and 4K Ultra HD content, Amazon claims, at up to 60 frames per second. The new Cube also includes on-device processing with Local Voice Control, which lets you more quickly execute some of your common voice commands like “Alexa, go home,” or “Alexa, scroll right,” for example. These commands will now execute up to 4 times faster, says Amazon.

The Fire TV Cube will also ship with far-field voice recognition capabilities with 8 microphones and technology that helps to suppress noise, reverberation, content currently playing, and even competing speech so Alexa better hears your voice commands even when the TV is on in a room full of people.

Customers will be able to control their compatible TV, soundbar, A/V receiver, cable or satellite box, as well as other smart home devices by way of the device’s support of multi-directional infrared technology, cloud-based protocols, and HDMI CEC, combined with Alexa. 

“Fire TV Cube was the first hands-free streaming media player powered by Alexa, and since launching last year we have gathered a wealth of feedback from customers about how they use voice in the living room,” said Marc Whitten, Vice President of Amazon Fire TV, in a statement. “Over the past year, we have continued to expand and advance the Fire TV Cube experience based on this feedback with dozens of new features including Multi-Room Music, Follow-Up Mode, and Alexa Communications. These key learnings carried over and guided the development of the second-generation Fire TV Cube, and we are excited to introduce this new-and-improved experience to customers around the world,” he said.

The new Fire TV Cube is available for pre-order in the U.S. for $119.99, in Canada for $149.99, the United Kingdom for £109.99, Germany for €119.99, and Japan for ¥14980.  It ships on Oct. 10 in all markets except Japan, where it ships on Nov. 5, instead. And it will be sold in a package with Ring Video Doorbell 2 for $249.99 (or $69 off).

Fire TV Cube Couch

Amazon’s Fire TV Edition lineup is expanding, too. This is the licensed version of the Fire TV OS available to other manufacturers for use in their own products.

The company announced more than 15 new products from brands including Skyworth, Arcelik, TPV, Compal, and others.

In partnership with Dixons Carphone, Amazon is teaming up to launch JVC – Fire TV Edition Smart 4K Ultra HD HDR LED TVs, which are the first Fire TV Edition products in the U.K. They’ll be sold by Currys PC World and online at Amazon.co.uk and are priced at £349 and up.

With IMTRON, a company of MediaMarktSaturn Retail Group, Amazon is launching a lineup of Fire TV Edition smart TVs under the private label ok. These will be available in Germany and Austria, as will the 11 Fire TV Edition smart TVs from Grundig including the first OLED Fire TV Edition television ( available in 55” and 65” models, starting at €1,299.99 for hands-free; or starting at €1,199.99 if not; pictured below). 

Grundig OLED Fire TV Edition display

Other more affordable Grundig Fire TV Edition products will be sold on Amazon.de in 32″, 40″, 43″, 49″, 55″, and 65″ variations, starting at €239.99. They’ll also come to retailers including MediaMarkt, Saturn, Euronics, Expert, EP:, Medimax, and others.

In the U.S., Amazon and Best Buy announced the first 65-inch Toshiba – Fire TV Edition smart TV with Dolby Vision, which will be available for customers in the United States next month for $599.

Finally, following Roku’s lead into home audio, Amazon also announced the first expansion of Fire TV Edition beyond the TV itself with the launch of the Nebula Soundbar from Anker. (Roku also today launched its own wireless soundbar).

The new device supports 4K Ultra HD, a unified smart TV user interface, near-field Alexa voice control, Dolby Vision pass-through, and more. It can also be added to a multi-room speaker group through the Alexa app, and comes with a 90-day trial to Amazon Music Unlimited. 

Nebula Soundbar – Fire TV Edition 4

It’s available for pre-order today for $229.99 in the United States, $269.99 in Canada, £179.99 in the United Kingdom, and €209.99 in Germany. It will begin shipping on November 21.

The expansion of Fire TV Edition-branded products is also meant to challenge Roku on the success of its Roku TV-branded television sets, which are similarly manufactured by partners but run the Roku OS.

In the U.S., Roku OS is the No. 1 licensed TV OS in the U.S. and now powers more than 1 in 3 smart TVs. Amazon is today is clearly answering that challenge by focusing on the international markets with a suite of new partners for Fire TV Edition.

 


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Google Falls to Third in Smart Speakers Behind Baidu and Amazon


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Amazon’s original Echo speaker seemed like something no one would want when it launched in 2014. That feels like ages ago because consumers are now happily gobbling up smart speakers with always-on voice assistant features. After rising to the number two spot behind Amazon, Google has now seen its market share drop as China’s Baidu grows by leaps and bounds. Meanwhile, Amazon has continued advancing. 

The smart speaker market is potentially worth billions of dollars, but it also pumps up interest in other smart home devices like cameras, locks, and sensors with which the speakers can communicate. Amazon has moved aggressively to acquire smart home companies like Eero, Ring, Blink, and more. As for Google, it has a full lineup of Nest thermostats, cameras, and other devices that play nicely with Google Home speakers out of the box. Plus, everyone using an Android phone already has Assistant. 

In the most recent quarter, Amazon saw sales of smart speakers with Alexa grow by 61.1 percent. That leaves Amazon with 25.4 percent of the market. Google is down almost 20 percent year-over-year, leaving it with 16.7 percent of the smart speaker market. That’s just low enough that Baidu managed to slide into second place with 17.3 percent. It had barely started selling speakersSEEAMAZON_ET_135 See Amazon ET commerce in 2018, so its Q2 2019 growth is an incredible 3,700 percent. 

The Amazon Echo Plus.

Baidu sells speakers in China where Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa do not operate, and there’s clearly pent-up demand. Baidu’s speakers run the company’s DuerOS assistant that is geared toward Chinese users. It has also worked to get DuerOS into as many form factors as possible. There are Echo-like speakers, ceiling-mounted lights, displays, and more. Amazon has also been cranking out new speakers — it released updated versions of the Echo Show smart display and several Echo speakers in the last year. 

Google has been chugging along with the same Home-branded speakers for a few years now. The original 2016 Google Home is still the heart of Google’s product lineup along with the budget Home Mini and premium Home Max. However, the Home doesn’t have as much power as newer Amazon devices like the Echo Plus. It’s probably time for Google to refresh its speaker lineup if it wants to stay competitive with Amazon.

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The BBC is developing a voice assistant, code named ‘Beeb’ – gpgmail


The BBC — aka, the British Broadcasting Corporation, aka the Beeb, aka Auntie — is getting into the voice assistant game.

The Guardian reports the plan to launch an Alexa rival, which has been given the working title ‘Beeb’, and will apparently be light on features given the Corp’s relatively slender developer resources vs major global tech giants.

The BBC’s own news site says the digital voice assistant will launch next year without any proprietary hardware to house it. Instead the corporation is designing the software to work on “all smart speakers, TVs and mobiles”.

Why is a publicly funded broadcaster ploughing money into developing an AI when the market is replete with commercial offerings — from Amazon’s Alexa to Google’s Assistant, Apple’s Siri and Samsung’s Bixby to name a few? The intent is to “experiment with new programmes, features and experiences without someone else’s permission to build it in a certain way”, a BBC spokesperson told BBC news.

The corporation is apparently asking its own staff to contribute voice data to help train the AI to understand the country’s smorgasbord of regional accents.

“Much like we did with BBC iPlayer, we want to make sure everyone can benefit from this new technology, and bring people exciting new content, programmes and services — in a trusted, easy-to-use way,” the spokesperson added. “This marks another step in ensuring public service values can be protected in a voice-enabled future.”

While at first glance the move looks reactionary and defensive, set against the years of dev already ploughed into cutting edge commercial voice AIs, the BBC has something those tech giant rivals lack: Not just regional British accents on tap — but easy access to a massive news and entertainment archive to draw on to design voice assistants that could serve up beloved personalities as a service.

Imagine being able to summon the voice of Tom Baker, aka Doctor Who, to tell you what the (cosmic) weather’s like — or have the Dad’s Army cast of characters chip in to read out your to-do list. Or get a summary of the last episode of The Archers from a familiar Ambridge resident.

Or what about being able to instruct ‘Beeb’ to play some suitably soothing or dramatic sound effects to entertain your kids?

On one level a voice AI is just a novel delivery mechanism. The BBC looks to have spotted that — and certainly does not lack for rich audio content that could be repackaged to reach its audience on verbal command and extend its power to entertain and delight.

When it comes to rich content, the same cannot be said of the tech giants who have pioneered voice AIs.

There have been some attempts to force humor (AIs that crack bad jokes) and/or shoehorn in character — largely flat-footed. As well as some ethically dubious attempts to pass off robot voices as real. All of which is to be expected, given they’re tech companies not entertainers. Dev not media is their DNA.

The BBC is coming at the voice assistant concept from the other way round: Viewing it as a modern mouthpiece for piping out more of its programming.

So while Beeb can’t hope to compete at the same technology feature level as Alexa and all the rest, the BBC could nonetheless show the tech giants a trick or two about how to win friends and influence people.

At the very least it should give their robotic voices some much needed creative competition.

It’s just a shame the Beeb didn’t tickle us further by christening its proto AI ‘Auntie’. A crisper two syllable trigger word would be hard to utter…




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Bose’s new portable home speaker sports Alexa and Google Assistant – gpgmail


Bose’s portable speaker offerings have tended toward the cheaper end of the spectrum — bringing colorful competition for companies like JBL. With the dryly named Portable Home Speaker, however, the company looks to split the difference between portable and premium. And it’s certainly priced for the latter.

The $349 speaker looks to something of a high end take on the dearly departed Amazon Tap. It’s pretty small for the price, with a large handle up top so it can be moved from room to room, accordingly.

Bose continues to take the diplomatic approach, using built in mics for both Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa. There’s also AirPlay 2 and Spotify Connect functionality built in, covering pretty much all of its bases outside of Bixby — that means, sadly, that it might not be able to talk to your fridge.

There are a handful of physical buttons up top, as well, including the every important mic-off. The device has an IPX4 water rating, which means it will handle some splashing or light rain, but don’t dunk the thing. It’s also pretty clear from the press materials that the speaker’s not designed to live outdoors, though the occasional picnic table should be fine.

The Portable Home Speaker arrives in stores on September 19. It’s already got plenty of competition, of course, and Sonos is set to add to the list with its own bluetooth speaker rumored to be in the works.


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Amazon’s lead EU data regulator is asking questions about Alexa privacy – gpgmail


Amazon’s lead data regulator in Europe, Luxembourg’s National Commission for Data Protection, has raised privacy concerns about its use of manual human reviews of Alexa AI voice assistant recordings.

A spokesman for the regulator confirmed in an email to gpgmail it is discussing the matter with Amazon, adding: “At this stage, we cannot comment further about this case as we are bound by the obligation of professional secrecy.” The development was reported earlier by Reuters.

We’ve reached out to Amazon for comment.

Amazon’s Alexa voice AI, which is embedded in a wide array of hardware — from the company’s own brand Echo smart speaker line to an assortment of third party devices (such as this talkative refrigerator or this oddball table lamp) — listens pervasively for a trigger word which activates a recording function, enabling it to stream audio data to the cloud for processing and storage.

However trigger-word activated voice AIs have been shown to be prone to accidental activation. While a device may be being used in a multi-person household. So there’s always a risk of these devices recording any audio in their vicinity, not just intentional voice queries…

In a nutshell, the AIs’ inability to distinguish between intentional interactions and stuff they overhear means they are natively prone to eavesdropping — hence the major privacy concerns.

These concerns have been dialled up by recent revelations that tech giants — including Amazon, Apple and Google — use human workers to manually review a proportion of audio snippets captured by their voice AIs, typically for quality purposes. Such as to try to improve the performance of voice recognition across different accents or environments. But that means actual humans are listening to what might be highly sensitive personal data.

Earlier this week Amazon quietly added an option to the settings of the Alexa smartphone app to allow users to opt out of their audio snippets being added to a pool that may be manually reviewed by people doing quality control work for Amazon — having not previously informed Alexa users of its human review program.

The policy shift followed rising attention on the privacy of voice AI users — especially in Europe.

Last month thousands of recordings of users of Google’s AI assistant were leaked to the Belgian media which was able to identify some of the people in the clips.

A data protection watchdog in Germany subsequently ordered Google to halt manual reviews of audio snippets.

Google responded by suspending human reviews across Europe. While its lead data watchdog in Europe, the Irish DPC, told us it’s “examining” the issue.

Separately, in recent days, Apple has also suspended human reviews of Siri snippets — doing so globally, in its case — after a contractor raised privacy concerns in the UK press over what Apple contractors are privy to when reviewing Siri audio.

The Hamburg data protection agency which intervened to halt human reviews of Google Assistant snippets urged its fellow EU privacy watchdogs to prioritize checks on other providers of language assistance systems — and “implement appropriate measures” — naming both Apple and Amazon.

In the case of Amazon, scrutiny from European watchdogs looks to be fast dialling up.

At the time of writing it is the only one of the three tech giants not to have suspended human reviews of voice AI snippets, either regionally or globally.

In a statement provided to the press at the time it changed Alexa settings to offer users an opt-out from the chance of their audio being manually reviewed, Amazon said:

We take customer privacy seriously and continuously review our practices and procedures. For Alexa, we already offer customers the ability to opt-out of having their voice recordings used to help develop new Alexa features. The voice recordings from customers who use this opt-out are also excluded from our supervised learning workflows that involve manual review of an extremely small sample of Alexa requests. We’ll also be updating information we provide to customers to make our practices more clear.


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Amazon quietly adds ‘no human review’ option to Alexa settings as voice AIs face privacy scrutiny – gpgmail


Amazon has tweaked the settings for its Alexa voice AI to allow users to opt out of their voice recordings being manually reviewed by the company’s human workers.

The policy shift took effect Friday, according to Bloomberg, which reports that Alexa users will now find an option in the settings menu of the Alexa smartphone app to disable human review of their clips.

The Alexa T&C did not previously inform users of the possibility that audio recordings captured by the service might be manually reviewed by actual humans. (Amazon still doesn’t appear to provide this disclosure on its main website either.)

But the Alexa app now includes a disclaimer in the settings menu that flags the fact human ears may in fact be listening, per the report.

This disclosure appears only to surface if users go digging into the settings menu.

Bloomberg says users must tap ‘Settings’ > ‘Alexa Privacy’ > ‘Manage How Your Data Improves Alexa’ before they see the following text: “With this setting on, your voice recordings may be used to develop new features and manually reviewed to help improve our services. Only an extremely small fraction of voice recordings are manually reviewed.”

The policy tweak comes as regulators are dialling up attention on the privacy risks posed by voice AI technologies.

This week it emerged that Google was ordered by a German data protection watchdog to halt manual reviews of audio snippets generated by its voice AI, after thousands of recordings were leaked to the Belgian media last month which was able to identify some of the people in the clips.

Google has suspended reviews across the whole of Europe while it liaises with EU privacy regulators.

In a statement on its website the Hamburg privacy watchdog raised concerns about other operators of voice AIs, urging EU regulators to make checks on providers such as Amazon and Apple — and “implement appropriate measures”.

Coincidentally (or not) Apple also suspended human reviews of Siri snippets this week — globally, in its case — following privacy concerns raised by a recent UK media report. The Guardian newspaper quoted a whistleblower claiming contractors regularly hearing confidential personal data captured by Siri.

While Google and Apple have entirely suspended human reviews of audio snippets (at least temporarily), Amazon has not gone so far.

Nor does it automatically opt users out. The policy change just lets users disable reviews — which requires consumers to both understand the risk and act to safeguard their privacy.

Amazon’s disclosure of the existence of human reviews is also currently buried deep in the settings, rather than being actively conveyed to users.

It’s not clear whether any of this will wash with regulators in Europe. 

Bloomberg reports that Amazon declined to comment on whether it had been contacted by regulators about the Alexa recordings review program, saying only: “We take customer privacy seriously and continuously review our practices and procedures We’ll also be updating information we provide to customers to make our practices more clear.”

We reached out to Amazon with questions but at the time of writing a spokesperson was not available.


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Amazon says U.S. government demands for customer data went up – gpgmail


Amazon said the U.S. government asked more data from the company during the first-half of 2019 than on the previous six-month period.

The latest figures landed in the company’s transparency report, published quietly on its website late Wednesday, said the number of subpoenas it received went up by 14% and search warrants went up by close to 35%.

That includes data collected from its Amazon Echo voice assistant service, its Kindle and Fire tablets, and its home security devices.

Amazon turned over some or all data in about four out of five cases, the figures show.

But the number of other legal demands Amazon received were down slightly.

The company’s cloud business, Amazon Web Services — which makes up the bulk of Amazon’s annual operating income — also reported separately a 77% increase in the number of subpoenas it received for cloud-stored customer data, but a decline in received search warrants.

Per reporting rules set out by the Justice Department, Amazon said it received between 0 and 249 national security requests, for both consumer and cloud services.

Amazon was one of the last major tech companies to issue a transparency report, despite mounting pressure from privacy advocates. The company eventually buckled, releasing its first set of figures several days after whistleblower Edward Snowden leaked highly classified documents which revealed mass surveillance by the U.S. National Security Agency and its global intelligence counterparts.

The company said at the time and continued to maintain until recently that it “never participated” in the NSA’s so-called PRISM program, which allowed the government to obtain data from Apple, Google, Microsoft, and several other tech companies.

But gpgmail noticed that Amazon removed that wording from its transparency report pages several weeks ago.

When reached, an Amazon spokesperson said that the change was “simply because it was a somewhat dated reference.”


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