Al Navarro, CCO & Co-Founder

When I was growing up in the 1970s, I remember reading Dick Tracy comic strips where the characters used a “2-way wrist radio.” It seemed so far-fetched at the time, but of course, in 2018 we’ve got cellular-enabled watches that can do a lot more than let you talk to someone. The future we once envisioned in fiction is now fact.

One great example of this is the proliferation of voice activated virtual assistants (VAs) like Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, and Google’s Assistant. When friends and family members who were earlier tech adopters than I am started to get smart speakers with this technology, I dismissed the devices as gimmicks. Like, why would I ever need to ask an inanimate object for the weather report when I can just look on my phone?

Although I’ve been an iPhone user for years, I’ve never used its Siri VA for anything more than novelty purposes. Again, if I can find out the hours of a restaurant with a few thumb touches and finger swipes, why should I want to?

Eventually, and initially to serve mainly as a wireless speaker for our kitchen/dining room area, I bought an Alexa-enabled Sonos One. As part of the Sonos ecosystem, it allows me to play music from a wide variety of sources — either streamed from online or from our digitized CD (remember, I’m old) archive.

Even to my audiosnob ears (have you seen my office hi-fi?) the Sonos One sounds pretty darn good when playing music. But it’s the Alexa assistant part that I think I find the most remarkable.

If you’ve never interacted with one of these virtual assistants, here’s how Alexa works: You simply start off a command or question with “Alexa,” which toggles the speaker into active listening mode. For example, “Alexa, what’s the weather tonight?” Or “Alexa, play WHYY.”

The latter is a command I find myself saying somewhat regularly. WHYY is a public radio station and media entity that serves the Philadelphia area. It airs national NPR shows like “Fresh Air” and “This American Life,” along with regional programs and news. More often than not I’ll say, “Alexa, play WHYY,” as I’m getting ready to make dinner.

Why do this instead of using my phone to toggle that station and select the correct Sonos speaker? Because, quite simply, it’s just easier to use the voice commands. Maybe my hands are dirty from handling food, or I’m running between the pantry and the fridge for ingredients. The bottom line is that I use Alexa because it’s helpful. And it works.

Well, mostly. Sometimes it won’t understand my questions or instructions. And other times a song I want to hear isn’t available because I either don’t have the right subscription or the artist hasn’t given rights to a service yet. And of course, there was that time that Alexa laughed at me.

We also use Alexa to curate playlists for us. By simply saying “Alexa, play Ella Fitzgerald” or “Alexa, play Chet Baker,” we’ll get a nice dinner-friendly mix of tunes without having to find a playlist or select songs. And if we don’t like a particular song, we can just ask the VA to skip. Want to know what the name of the song that’s playing is? Just ask. It’s truly amazing.

Several companies are also using this technology to help enable shopping. That Amazon is doing this should be no surprise. But did you know that you can also order a pizza from Domino’s using Alexa devices (among others)?  You can even track your pizza as it gets delivered.

Of course, there are many who are not big fans of VA-enabled smart speakers. Most of the detractors cite privacy concerns, similar to those of the author of this Gizomodo piece.

But all in all, I think the Sonos One has been a great addition to our household. The future is now.


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