Amazon is packing two more celebrities into its Alexa digital assistant.
Starting today, you can have Alexa speak in the voices of Shaquille O’Neal or Melissa McCarthy, replacing Alexa’s default female voice. Owners of Alexa devices can ask Shaq or McCarthy to tell them the weather, play songs, tell jokes, read poems or stories, and more (like asking Shaq to rap or soliciting a funny story from McCarthy).
The O’Neal and McCarthy voices for Alexa are available to customers in the U.S. for $4.99 each. For Amazon, the deals are designed to add another selling point to its family of Echo smart speakers and other Alexa-enabled devices as well as generating some incremental revenue.
“I just wanted to add my personality to the Alexa experience,” O’Neal told Variety. “I think the fans are gonna love it. They’re going to see a unique side of me.”
O’Neal and McCarthy join Alexa’s original celeb voice option: Samuel L. Jackson, whose trademark four-letter patter made him the top-selling digital purchase on Amazon.com the day it launched in the fall of 2019 for an introductory price of 99 cents. Amazon subsequently quintupled the amount of explicit phrases for Jackson’s Alexa voice option, based on customer demand, and later raised the price to $4.99.
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Shaq, reflecting on the popularity of Samuel L. Jackson’s voice on Alexa, said, “I don’t have an explicit version, but it’s pretty close.”
Training Alexa to speak in O’Neal’s voice took about 60 hours total over three months, according to Amazon. (Amazon built a recording studio in Shaq’s house for the project.) “It was like reading out of the dictionary,” said O’Neal. “It’s the most difficult thing I’ve ever done.” Some days, the ex-NBA star spent up to eight hours recording words, phrases and sentences.
Shaq said he added his own flavor to the recordings, occasionally ad-libbing. “I had to Shaq-en up the phrases,” he said. “Some of the things they sent me were too corporate — it wasn’t the way I talk.”
McCarthy, in a statement provided by Amazon, commented: “That’s right folks, get ready for the vocal stylings of this nasal Midwestern gal! I am so excited to join the Alexa family. It’s been such a fun experience working on this project. I hope you all enjoy all my dad jokes! Fun fact — if you hear a slide whistle, it’s my personal one that I brought with me to the recording studio!”
Also Thursday, Amazon added a new male-sounding voice option (listen at this link) that you can use instead of Alexa’s original female voice. And it added a new wake word, “Ziggy,” available with either voice option, alongside existing wake words including “Alexa,” “computer,” “Echo” and “Amazon.”
Amazon released a few sound clips of the new celebs’ vocals. In an intro clip, Shaq explains what he can do in a rap (“Ask me for the weather, got the forecast on lock / And if you need a timer, I set the shot clock”). Here’s a joke from O’Neal: “How did the center find out he was getting benched? He got tipped off!”
McCarthy says in her Alexa intro, “I wish I had an exotic name like Svetlana or Giselle. But you can call me Melissa.” In another clip, she says: “Hey, remember when you said to set that alarm for you? Um — this is the alarm going off. So, you’ve been alarmed.”
Besides the trio of celeb voices that can become how your Alexa speaks, users can load “skills” (basically, apps for Alexa devices) that feature famous voices ranging from Baby Groot to Gordon Ramsay.
“Customers have had a lot of fun with the Samuel L. Jackson experience on Alexa, and when customers love something, we look for ways to give them more of it,” said Toni Reid, VP of Alexa experience and Echo devices at Amazon. “We’re thrilled to add two new celebrity personalities to Alexa and had a great time working with Shaquille O’Neal and Melissa McCarthy on this project. We can’t wait to see what customers think.”
Meanwhile, Google also has tinkered with bringing celebrity voices to the Google Assistant. Currently, you can have Issa Rae be the voice of your Google Assistant; John Legend’s voice had previously been an option but it’s no longer available.