How Dotty Can the Dot Get

In less than two weeks, the new Echo Dot will start to ship and it will move people closer to the age of ubiquitous computing. 12-packs of Echos will bring the price down to $41 / each. What piece of consumer electronics hasn’t come down in price six months after it’s release? Perhaps around April 2017, there will be Dots going for $30 — either directly from Amazon or being sold as used after the first wave of overzealous purchases has faded. With the new Dot, it’s now affordable for most consumers to place them throughout the house to be within Echo range at all times.

What’s the extreme of this over the next one or two years? By “how dotty” I mean how cheap and how small can a voice interactive device get so that it could be potentially be put into any device or object, or maybe even the wallpaper. There are a few factors that will affect this:

Microphones. Right now, the Dot uses the same microphone array as the regular Echo with 7 mics and quite a bit of processing power. We’ve seen two mic arrays with comparable performance, but maybe there’s processing that could happen on a single mic? For linear or circular arrays, there is minimum spacing that’s required between the mics. That could be 4" or more.

ASRs. ASR engines are being used more for far field applications, so it’s possible that the requirement for more than one mic might disappear. Also, if a lower quality of audio can be sent to the ASR, then it means the onboard processor doesn’t need to be as powerful.

Power. If house-wide or even 1-meter distance wireless power becomes available, then these devices can become much smaller or be placed on bookshelves or embedded everywhere. As it stands now, a coin cell battery could work for a device that has an embedded trigger and then connects to WiFi to send the audio to a cloud service for processing. However, it’s likely this could only stretch usage to a month or two without needing to change the battery or recharge the device.

Speakers. There is definitely an association between size and performance with speakers. I don’t think anyone buying the Echo Dot is expecting to hold a listening party around it. That said, even to audible hear a response could take a minimally sized speaker. This speaker would consume power and also need speaker electronics. As an alternative, sending BT audio to another device, chirping a sound (R2D2 style), or flashing some acknowledgement could be an alternative to keep cost and size down.

Ergonomics. If it’s an always listening device, there’s likely a requirement for a mute button. There might also be a need for volume control. Beyond a certain smallness, it becomes difficult to physically access controls.

Ultimately, we may see devices like the Echo Dot come out that are designed to not appear as objects — to hide in the walls or ceilings or light fixtures. The real power will be in designing applications that will take advantage of ubiquitous access to computing.

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