SEATTLE—In a bid to control the smart home of the future,
is offering makers of electronics a small chip that would let people use their voice to command everything from microwaves and coffee machines to room fans and guitar amplifiers.
The online retail giant is hoping big manufacturers will sign up to incorporate the Alexa-enabled chips—which cost a few dollars each—in lower-end, everyday household devices.
The plan, if successful, could give Amazon an advantage over other tech companies such as
Google, Apple Inc. and
, which are all racing to use voice assistants to control everyday devices to promote their services, as well as glean consumer data.
The announcement came Thursday at a press event in Amazon’s new Spheres building, where executives revealed a flurry of new Echo speaker devices and other electronics powered by its Alexa voice assistant. The products, which included a $50 Echo for cars and a new home security system, shows Amazon’s intention to put Alexa at the center of people’s lives. It also unveiled a raft of improvements to Alexa, highlighting capabilities that allow it to whisper and hold conversations.
Amazon’s effort to turn Alexa into the home’s central operating system is full of challenges. For decades, the vision of a Jetsons-like connected smart home to remotely open the garage, turn on the porch lights and fire up the oven has been slowed by gadgets that are too expensive, too difficult to configure and are incompatible with other products.
Amazon is looking to unite a scattered industry where many manufacturers have chosen to develop their own connected devices and rent space in the cloud to power them. The company must prove it can push Alexa into the mainstream beyond its Echo speaker devices, and lure more than just the early adopters who outfit their homes with smart devices.
“The response we’re seeing from customers is indicating that there are now many cases where voice is a simpler interface,” such as using a light switch, said Daniel Rausch, vice president of smart home, in an interview. It is “as basic as coming home with your hands full of groceries and being able to turn on the lights. No one likes to walk through a dark house.”
To demonstrate its technology, Amazon has incorporated a circuit board and a button to access Alexa into its private-label microwave. Amazon said customers could either press the button or use an Echo speaker—which connects via Wi-Fi—to command the microwave to do things like defrost a half-pound of chicken, or set it up to automatically to reorder a favorite type of popcorn on Amazon.
“What this microwave does is keep track of how many times you cook popcorn and make sure you never run out,” Mr. Rausch said.
Online voice assistants like Amazon’s Alexa are threatening the decades-old high-exposure marketing model for consumer goods. WSJ’s Saabira Chaudhuri explains why if brands aren’t first in voice search, they will neither be seen nor heard.
Amazon’s ambitions in the smart home follow efforts by other companies to entice manufacturers to connect with their own voice assistants through software, rather than create all the hardware themselves.
Apple a few years ago launched the HomeKit for manufacturers to connect their home accessories to the Siri voice assistant, but it has struggled to win widespread adoption in part due to high security, privacy and programming standards. Google Home has made more progress, in part due to the company’s purchase of home-automation product maker Nest Labs in 2014.
With its new smart-home hardware add-on, called the “Alexa Connect Kit,” Amazon is initially allowing a string of partners to test it, including consumer product makers
and Procter & Gamble Co. Companies can start applying immediately to participate in the preview program, and it will expand more broadly at a later, undisclosed date.
Mr. Rausch said Amazon designed the modules to be easily incorporated into any device. The green printed circuit boards—roughly as big as a quarter—contain a chip and a WiFi antenna, and will be available for purchase from a third-party manufacturer. Mr. Rausch said they work with any device that has a microcontroller, essentially a very basic computer that helps power certain functions like timers and clocks, including those in some blenders, coffee makers and fans. The manufacturers would need to write some simple code to program the chips for each device, he said.
Amazon says it has made the setup for Echo users automatic, eliminating the sometimes cumbersome steps to connect things like smart lightbulbs with apps or networks before they work. Once the device is plugged in, it can search for and connect to WiFi via other Amazon-connected devices in the home.
Many buyers of smart-home devices are like Nanette Hernandez, a college student living in Plainfield, Ill., who bought a home-automation system through
a few years ago. She uses the security cameras, but hasn’t managed to figure out how to program the thermostat or lights. A smart garage-door opener is still in the box.
“It would probably be amazing, but I just don’t know how to do it,” Ms. Hernandez said.
Tyler McPheeters, a Chicago-based technology consultant, said he has installed lights, shades and other smart devices throughout his home and looks for products that are compatible with Apple’s HomeKit or Echo devices. “We try to find things that work with stuff we already have so it’s not one app for one thing, and one app for another thing,” the 37-year-old said.
Whichever tech giant is able to weave its way into the most devices will have a leg up on the competition, said Carolina Milanesi, a consumer tech analyst with Creative Strategies. “The more entry points, the more you’re getting that consumer and that home deeper in your ecosystem,” she said.
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