Alexa, what’s that famous quote from “Snakes on a Plane”?
Samuel L. Jackson inked a deal with Amazon to provide first celebrity voice option for Alexa, its cloud-based digital assistant. According to the ecommerce giant, it will add more celebrity guest voices for the platform starting in 2020. The Jackson “voice pack” for Alexa will be available later this year for the special intro price of 99 cents — and users can select either clean and explicit modes.
Jackson’s baritone is coming to Alexa thanks to a new Neural Text-to-Speech technology developed by Amazon, announced at the company’s Amazon Devices event in Seattle Wednesday. That’s designed to make Alexa’s default female voice more human-sounding, with more emotive and expressive speech. It also lets Alexa replicate speech inflections of real people, too — meaning Jackson’s voice on Alexa will be synthesized, rather than delivered as pre-recorded words or phrases.
To get started, after installing the Jackson voice pack, Alexa users just say, “Alexa, introduce me to Samuel L. Jackson,” then choose whether they want him to use explicit language or not. Some example commands Amazon offered: “Alexa, ask Samuel L. Jackson where he is from”; “Alexa, ask Sam to wake me up at 7 a.m.”; and “Alexa, ask Sam Jackson to sing happy birthday.” (The company said the celebrity voice packs will not be able to help with shopping, lists, reminders or skills.)
In the past, Alexa has featured celeb voices — such as morning greetings from Chelsea Handler or a duet with Ed Sheeran — but those required pre-recorded audio.
At the event, Amazon showed off Discovery’s forthcoming Food Network Kitchen subscription service, with a demo featuring Bobby Flay. The new service, slated to launch in the U.S. in October for $6.99 per month, will use Alexa as its exclusive voice service under a three-year pact. The Alexa integration allows subscribers to find and browse thousands of recipes, live cooking shows, and other videos — as well as tell the voice assistant to skip to the next step in a recipe if their hands are full while cooking.
Amazon also announced a multilingual mode for Alexa, aimed at households with bilingual speakers. Initially, in the U.S., it will support both English and Spanish, while Canadian customers can choose both English and French and in India you can select English and Hindi.
Among other new features, Alexa will now be able to let customers auto-delete their spoken commands, which is designed to quell users’ worry about privacy (especially after reports that Amazon employs thousands of people to listen to Alexa recordings as part of trying to improve the accuracy of its speech recognition). Later this year, Amazon is launching FreeTime on Alexa for the Echo Show family of devices, which will restrict kids to age-appropriate videos and let parents set a white-list of people their children are allowed to call or send messages to, as well as set bedtime limits and block explicit songs.
In addition, General Motors announced that it will integrate Alexa into its vehicle brands starting next year, with upgrades available starting with 2018 models, that will let drivers control navigation and in-car entertainment systems as well as linked smartphones. GM joins automakers including Toyota, BMW and Ford that have signed on to support Alexa.
Of course, Amazon unveiled a slew of new hardware, including: a new 8-inch Echo Show 8, priced at $129; a new version of the $99 Echo that the company says provides better sound quality; a $59 version of the puck-shaped Echo Dot With Clock that includes a display for showing the time, temperature or other info; and the $199 Echo Studio, which provides 3D audio via Dolby Atmos, a higher-end speaker aimed at competing with premium products in the category like Apple’s HomePod, Google’s Home Max and Sonos One.
Amazon also announced the $129 Echo Buds, the company’s first headphones, confirming prior reports. The wireless earbuds are a fully Alexa-enabled device and feature Bose’s noise-cancellation technology. And it showed off two other Alexa-based products that will have limited availability when they begin shipping later in 2019: Echo Frames, smartglasses that will available for a special price of $179.99 (and can be outfitted with prescription lenses), and the Echo Loop smart ring ($99.99).
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