Amazon Echo might look like a cylindrical Bluetooth speaker, and it is in part. The device has built-in omnidirectional speakers that play music and other audio. But it does so much more than that. Like smartphones with voice-recognition capabilities, Echo is yet another step toward the voice-controlled computers of science fiction we've been seeing in television and movies for decades.
You can ask the gadget to play music, tell you the weather forecast, add to your to-do list, read you your schedule or the news, and much more. If you have compatible smart-home devices, you can tell Echo to dim the lights or turn appliances on or off. By design, you interact with the device hands-free so that you don't have to stop everything and fumble with your phone or get to a computer (although you do need to access an app or website to configure some of its settings). Want to listen to some Beethoven while you fix your hair, set some mood lighting and heat up the smart oven in the other room? The Echo's for you.
Echo connects to the Internet via your home WiFi network. It's always on and listening for the magic word to wake it up. Once it hears that, the device gathers the voice commands that follow and sends them to a natural voice recognition service in the cloud called Alexa Voice Service, which interprets them and sends back the appropriate response. The device has an array of microphones that can pick up your voice from across the room, even over music and other environmental noise.
Amazon is adding more services to the Echo all the time and has made the Alexa cloud service available for use by third-party developers, opening it up to lots of future possibilities.