The debut of the Always Home Cam proved that Amazon is still willing to fly in the face of convention as well as potential home intruders. However, as I noted when I wrote about the home security drone last month, Amazon's 2020 device launch provided a stark contrast to previous years' events when Alexa's steward pushed boundaries into novel products like clocks and eyeglasses. Some of these have had an extended gestation period similar to the Kickstarter projects they resemble in scope,
Indeed, Amazon recently began shipping Day 1 Editions of one of these products: The Echo Loop ring, a $130 black titanium chunk of an extremity accessory that connects to smartphones via Bluetooth. It allows users to issue Alexa commands by pressing a button prior to speaking closely into it as well as hear responses by holding its back up to one's ear. It can thus act as an impractical Bluetooth headset.
The Echo Loop is among the smallest and one of the few portable Alexa devices made by Amazon. It has a degree of water resistance but is not intended for use in the shower or while swimming. To get an optimal fit, would-be buyers are sent a set of four plastic mockups to try on different sizes prior to placing a final order. The device ships with a small charging stand that includes pogo pins that connect to counterparts on the inner backside of the ring, but the lack of visibility and the lightweight of the ring itself sometimes necessitates some fiddling for a proper connection.
The Echo Loop experience is in many ways the opposite of its cylindrical progenitor that catapulted Alexa into the zeitgeist. Whereas Echo speakers are a communal voice-activated fixed presence, the Loop is personal -- manually activated by a thumb press of the same hand -- and a near-constant presence. The Loop even forgoes the trademark blue activation light of virtually every Alexa device that has come before it, signaling instead with vibrations.
But the Loop is not just the most portable Echo, in some ways it is the best Echo since reluctance to ask about personal priorities can be a usage inhibitor in semi-public settings, particularly when one must shout across the room to ensure the Echo hears the request (as parodied in the video for the privacy-focused BuzzOff Echo microphone blocker). There's not even a need to address Alexa by name. Answers are equally discreet with a barely audible speaker on board that must be held close to the ear. The activation method also circumvents the need to rely on Alexa's inconsistent speaker identification.
Speaking of circumvention, Alexa's history has been one of trying to maneuver around the dominant default agents on iPhones and Android devices The Echo Loop could become particularly useful to this end given a smartwatch market where Apple is working aggressively to extend its lead with the Apple Watch SE. But Apple has also been exploring finger real estate for years now.
While there have been several models that feature Alexa, such as those from defunct hybrid watch pioneer Martian, the smart ring market is largely untapped. The company making the strongest push is Oura. It offers an attractive $300 marvel of wearable electronics focused on sleep tracking that faces strong competition from a range of devices, including smartwatches, mattress monitors, and headphones. It was, however, recently adopted by the NBA as an early warning tool to fight COVID-19. Circular, an Oura competitor that raised over $350,000 on Kickstarter, is still available for preorder. It also features a simple design that tracks activities and blood oxygen levels. While useful, such features would surely raise the price and reduce the battery longevity of the Echo Loop.
As it stands, the Echo Loop represents ideal functionality for a smart ring, packing maximum functionality into a minimal form factor without the need for a battery-consuming display. It represents Amazon's best effort to date to provide nearly hands-free access to Alexa on the go and thus circumvent the default assistants on iOS and Android (even though it also access to the Google Assistant).
However, while it is not overly conspicuous (especially compared to the more expensive Echo Frames), the Echo Loop has uninspired aesthetics for such a personal product. Amazon should follow up with a range of colors and designs if the device resonates in the market. There's potential for a version that takes better advantage of its visual proximity to offer proactive help and reminders. These could include an LED on the ring's face or vibration, followed up with a potentially more detailed audible explanation that would activate if it detected the ring was near the ear.
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