Amazon is building the anti-metaverse with “ambient intelligence”
In the short hour Amazon jam packs with product releases every fall, so it can be hard to see forest for the trees why the company might need to sell both a sleep-tracking alarm clock and, say, a robot.
But as Amazon figures out how to best offer “ambient intelligence” — products where computers and screen-driven interfaces give way to proactive information and natural voice interactions — filling every possible niche with his voice assistant Alexa may seem like a valid solution.
This year, Amazon has framed its products around reducing distractions and limiting screen time, but its most interesting announcement might be how it’s now subtly positioning itself against the industry’s current obsession with mixed reality and the metaverse.
What is “ambient intelligence”?
Ambient computing, or “ambient intelligence” as Amazon specifically refers to the thinking behind its products, is about making the computer “disappear.” This can happen in different ways, but Amazon has identified three main descriptors for its own “ambiently intelligent” devices. They are intuitive, proactive and personalized.
The thinking is this: technology should be intuitive to use or understand how to use it. It should be proactive about what information it shares with you and take action on its own so that you can limit your usage time. And technology needs to be personalized, know what it needs to know about you to be useful, and integrate into your life in a way that makes sense to you.
Talking to Alexa through an Echo speaker is often as simple as asking a question. Features like “Alexa Hunches” let you proactively know the status of your various smart home devices and can even take action on them – turning them off or changing their settings – without you having to ask. At Amazon’s event, Dave Limp, the company’s senior vice president of devices and services, said 90% of Alexa Routines (programmable collections of actions for smart home devices) are launched without a customer doesn’t say anything. This impressive stat requires some configuration on the part of the user, but it suggests that Amazon’s vision for a future with even less direct interaction with technology is achievable, if not already here for some people.
That’s very different from the vision of a company like Meta, which imagines a less intrusive computing future through augmented reality, but commits to a virtual reality present of wearing $1,000 screens on the face to go to work, hang out with friends, and have fun. The Meta Quest Pro headset might end up being totally impressive, but I can’t say spending all day inside it feels any more appealing than a world where my interactions with screens are limited by default.
As Limp pointedly commented in his closing remarks at the Amazon event, “the real world matters to customers.” Amazon’s products are an attempt to keep people planted here in the real world, solving things “behind the scenes” rather than dragging them to another screen. Digital Wellbeing features aside, most other companies are looking in a very different direction.
All eyes are on the next Internet
Meta isn’t the only one toying with virtual reality, augmented reality, and a future mobile internet that could connect them all. Google has made it clear that it will try to make AR glasses again, many also run companies have their own ideas about the metaverse, and Apple has pretty much announced plans to make AR and VR products for years with signs pointing to a possible January release of its own mixed reality headset. These plans only strengthen Amazon’s case.
But what isn’t on the surface of Amazon’s talk, but implicit in all of its new products, is what’s needed to make “ambient intelligence” work: lots of cameras, lots of microphones, and a ubiquitous Internet connection throughout your home.
Adding Eero mesh network expansion capabilities to the Echo Dot smart speakers is a smart way to make building your smart home easier and makes putting an Echo in every room that much more appealing. Easier networking was a mini event theme; Amazon also announced new Eero PoE 6 routers that can be powered over Ethernet and placed anywhere you can run a cable. Back on the side of the always-on microphone, the Fire TV Cube and Fire TV Omni QLED TVs give Alexa even better control of your media center.
“[Amazon’s] view of technology requires that you have a fundamentally different relationship with technology in your life…”
Amazon has privacy in mind for all of its new products, from simple things like shutters for the cameras on its Echo Show smart displays to end-to-end encryption for systems that actually process all the video and audio enterprise capture (Amazon also does on-device processing). But that doesn’t change the fact that the company’s view of technology demands that you have a fundamentally different relationship with the technology in your life, one where you’re constantly being watched rather than interacting with your computer or phone. when it suits you. That’s not to say that any of these metaverse ideas will require less oversight, but at least for now you can take the helmet off.
Increasingly, two visions of the future of how we will interact with technology and each other are emerging: one is to get even closer to the screens we already have and the other is to introduce as many proactive technology in the world around us. that we never really have to interact directly with computers. It’s hard to say if one will be better than the other or if either will come to fruition, but it looks like Amazon now knows it might be worth pitching as an alternative to the hype. of the metaverse.