The 8 features Amazon and Google must add to the Echo and Home

The Amazon Echo and Google Home are amazing devices and both have advantages over the other. In my home, we use the Amazon Echo and have them around the house and outside. I have the original in the living room, a Dot in bedrooms, my office and outside, a Tap in my woodworking workshop and Spots in the kids’ room (with tape over the camera). They’re great devices but far from perfect. They’re missing several key features and the Google Home is missing the same things, too.

I polled the TechCrunch staff. The following are the features we would like to see in the next generation of these devices.

IR Blaster

Right now, it’s possible to have the Echo and Home control a TV, but only through 3rd party devices. If the Echo or Home had a top-mounted 360-degree IR Blaster, the smart speakers could natively control TVs, entertainment systems, and heating and cooling units.

Echo and Homes are naturally placed out in the open, making the devices well suited to control devices sporting an infrared port. Saying “turn on the TV” or “turn on the AC” could trigger the Echo to broadcast the IR codes from the Echo to the TV or wall-mounted AV unit.

This would require Amazon and Google to integrate a complete universal remote scheme into the Echo and Home. That’s not a small task. Companies such as Logitech’s Harmony, Universal Remote Control and others are dedicated to ensuring their remotes are compatible with everything on the market. It seems like an endless battle of discovering new IR codes, but one I wish Amazon and Google would tackle. I would like to be able to control my electric fireplace and powered window shades with my Echo without any hassle.

A dedicated app for music and the smart home

The current Home and Alexa apps are bloated and unusable for daily use. I suspect that’s by design, as it forces the users to use the speaker for most tasks. The Echo and Home deserve better.

Right now, Amazon and Google seemingly want users to use voice to set up these devices. And that’s fine to a point. If a user is going to use these speakers for listening to Spotify or controlling a set of Hue lights, the current app and voice setup works fine. But if a user wants an Echo to control a handful of smart home devices from different vendors, a dedicated app for the smart home ecosystem should be available — bonus points if there’s a desktop app for even more complex systems.

Look at Sonos. The Sonos One is a fantastic speaker and arguably the best sounding multi-room speaker system. Even though Alexa is built into the speaker, the Sonos app is still useful as it would be for the Echo and Home, too. A dedicated music app would let Echo and Home users more easily browse music sources and select tracks and control playback on different devices.

The smart speakers can be the center of complex smart home ecosystems and deserve a competent companion app for setup and maintenance.

Logitech’s Harmony app is a good example here as well. This desktop app allows users to set up multiple universal remotes. The same should be available for Echo and Home devices. For example, my kids have their own Spotify accounts and do not need voice access to my Vivint home security system or the Hue bulbs in the living room. I want a way to more easily customize the Echo devices throughout the home. Setting up such a system is currently not possible and would be clunky and tiresome to do through a mobile app unless it’s dedicated to the purpose.

Mesh networking

Devices such as Eero and Netgear’s Orbi line are popular because they easily flood an area with wi-fi that’s faster and more reliable than wi-fi broadcasted by a single access point. Mesh networking should be included in the Google Home or Amazon Echo.

These devices are designed to be placed out in the open and in common spaces, which is also the best placement for wi-fi routers. Including a mesh networking extender in these devices would increase their appeal and encourage owners to buy more while also improving the owner’s wi-fi. Everyone wins.

Buying Eero seems like the logical play for Amazon or Google. The company already makes one of the best mesh networking products on the market. The products are well designed and packaged in small enclosures. Even if Google or Amazon doesn’t build the mesh networking bits directly into the speaker, it could be included in the speaker’s wall power supply allowing both companies to quickly implement it across its product lines and offer it as a logical add-on as a secondary purchase.

3.5mm optical output

I have several Dots hooked up to full audio systems thanks to the 3.5mm output. But it’s just two-channel analog, which is fine for NPR but I want more.

For several generations, the MacBook Pro rocked an optical output through the 3.5mm jack. I suspect it wasn’t widely used, which led to Apple cancelling it on the latest generation. It would be lovely if the Echo and Home had this option, too.

Right now, the digital connection would not make a large difference in the quality of the audio since the device streams at a relatively low bit-rate. But if either Google or Amazon decide to pursue higher quality audio like offered from Tidal, this would be a must-have addition to the hardware.

Outdoor edition

I spend a good amount of time outside in the summer and managed to install an Echo Dot on my deck. The Dot is not meant to be installed outside, and though my setup has survived a year outside, it would be great to have an all-weather Echo that was much more robust and weather resistant.

Here’s how I installed an Echo Dot on my deck. Mount one of these electrical boxes in a location that would keep the Echo Dot out of the rain. Pop out one of the sides of the box and fit the Dot inside the box. The Dot should be exposed and facing down. Plug in the power cable and 3.5mm cable through the hole in the side and run the audio to an amp like this to power a set of outside speakers. I used asphalt shingles to cover the topside of both devices to protect them from water dripping off the deck. This setup has so far survived a Michigan summer and winter.

I live outside a city and have always had speakers outside. From my Dot’s location under the deck, it still manages to pick up my voice allowing control of Spotify and my smart home while I’m around my yard. It’s a great experience and I wish Amazon or Google made a version of its smart speakers so more people could take their voice assistants outside.

Improved privacy

There’s an inherent creepiness with having devices always listening throughout your home. An early bug caused the Google Home Mini to record everything and sending the recordings back to Google. Consumers should have more options in how Amazon and Google handle the recorded data.

There should be an option to allow the user to opt out of sending recordings back to Amazon or Google even if concessions have to be made. If needed give the user the option of opting out of several features or let the user decide if the recordings should be deleted after a few days or weeks.

Consumers are soon going to be looking for this sort of control as the topic grows in intensity following Facebook’s blunder and it would be wise for Google and Amazon to get ahead of consumers’ expectations.

A new portable speaker

I use a Tap in my workshop and it does a fine job. But the cloth covering gets dirty. And I discovered it’s not durable after dropping it once. What’s worse, if the always-listening mode is activated, the speaker must be put back on its dock after 12 hours or the battery completely dies.

The Tap was one of the first Amazon Echo devices. Originally users had to hit a button to activate Alexa, but the company added voice activation after it launched. It’s a handy speaker but it’s due for an upgrade.

A portable Echo or Home needs to be all-weather, durable and easily cleanable. It needs to have a dock and built-in micro-USB port, and it must have voice activated control — bonus points if it can lock out unknown voices.

Improved accessibility features

Voice assistant devices are making technology more accessible than ever but there are still features that should be added. There are lots of people who have speech impairments who can hear perfectly well, but an Alexa Echo or Google Home won’t recognize their speech accurately at all.

Apple added this ability to Siri. Users can text it queries. The option is available on iOS 11 under the accessibility menu. The Google Home and Amazon Echo should have the same feature.

Users should be able to send text queries to Echo via their mobile phone (from within the Alexa app via a free form text-styled chatbot) and still listen to the response and still take advantage of all the skills and smart home integration. From a technical point of view, it would be trivial since it wouldn’t need any voice to text translation and it would increase the appeal of the device to a new market of shoppers.

Motion sensors

There are several cases where an included motion sensor would improve the user experience of a voice assistant.

A morning alarm could increase in intensity if motion isn’t detected — or likewise, it could be deactivated by sensing a set amount of motion. Motion detectors could also act as light switches, switching on lights if motion is detected and then switching off lights if motion is no longer detected. But there’s more, automatic lowering of volume if motion is not detected, additional sensors for alarms, and detecting users for HVAC systems.

This is the first look at Uber’s air taxi concept

Uber sees a future where users can request a flying uber. And it’s what, as CEO Dara Khosrowshahi calls it, a big, bold bet. He says in an interview with CBS This Morning that big bold bets are what built Uber.

“We want to create the network around those vehicles so regular people can take these taxis in the air for longer distances when they want to avoid traffic at affordable prices,” said Khosrowshahi.

The goal is for the flying taxis to be driverless and hold four riders per vehicle to keep the cost lower for the passengers. Users would haul the air taxi from an app and then meet it at an uber rooftop facility. According to the CBS interview, Uber says the taxis will be relatively quiet thanks to multiple props and electric motors.

The company plans to launch trials as early as 2020.

Uber is set to unveil more details about its air taxi today and tomorrow at its Uber Elevate conference.

Netgear put a cable modem in latest Orbi wifi router

Generations ago, the internet spoke of an old saying that involved a man exhibiting excitement about hearing of a person’s love of an object, so he did favor, and put that something inside of something else. That’s what Netgear did here. Netgear heard people like the internet so much that the company put an internet modem inside a wifi router.

The Orbi WiFi System with Built-in Cable Modem is just that. It’s an Orbi wifi router with a DOCSIS® 3.0 cable modem built in. In theory this setup would make for easier setup and troubleshooting of internet issues while providing the home with great wifi.

I have an Orbi system in my house and it’s wonderful. The system does a far better job at covering my home with wifi than my previous single router setup. Including the cable modem in the setup, though, just makes sense and other networking companies would be smart to follow Netgear’s lead. Naturally, there’s a danger in including a cable modem in a router as one piece could become obsolete before the other but I would argue that most consumers upgrade their equipment every few years anyway.

This convinence comes at a cost. The router with built-in Orbi networking costs $299 and a system with an Orbi extender costs $399.

Volvo cars and trucks can now share real-time traffic information

Starting in Norway and Sweden, vehicles from Volvo cars and Volvo trucks are now able to share traffic information through Volvo’s Connected Cloud. Let’s say car A runs into a road hazard. Car A will then upload that information to the Volvo Connected Cloud where it will broadcast the information to Volvo Cars and Trucks warning Truck B, which is carrying a load of chickens, to avoid the road hazard.

It’s important to note Volvo cars and trucks are independent vehicle manufacturers though they clearly share some DNA. This is an extension of the Volvo Connected Cloud that the auto maker launched in 2016.

Right now the service is only available in Sweden and Norway, where Volvo cars and trucks make up a significant amount of the vehicles.

Vehicle to vehicle communication is among a growing market to improve data presentation to the driver, and in the future, autonomous vehicles. This collaboration these Volvo brands is a big step towards the future. That said, there’s an argument to be made that Volvo could open source the platform and lure other manufacturers aboard so we can all get our chickens delivered in time no matter what sort truck is driving. 

Nintendo is releasing a mobile RPG this summer

The maker of Shadowverse and Granblue Fantasy is teaming up with Nintendo for a new mobile RPG. Called Dragalia Lost, the Japanese-style action RPG will be a free-to-play game though likely loaded with Loot Box-style mechanics that will result in a financial windfall for Nintendo and developer Cygames.

The trailer doesn’t reveal many details about the game’s story. I assume from the title that someone called Dragalia is lost and a team of unlikely heros will have to fight monsters along their journey to find this Dragalia. I guess.

Nintendo turned to Cygames to make this new title instead of retooling Zelda or Xenoblade for the mobile screen. The game reportedly use Cygame’s system that randomly unlocks characters and upgrades. It’s like loot boxes but not called loot boxes. This is how the game will make money as players are encouraged to pay to buy more unlocks.

As part of the deal, Nintendo is acquiring 5-percent of Cygrames. Nintendo also has a stake in mobile phone platform maker DeNA, which also holds 25-percent of Cygrames showing how Nintendo is slowing spreading throughout the mobile game world.

Here’s when Ford will stop making most of its cars

Over coming years Ford intends to stop selling most of its cars in North America. This plan would leave just the Mustang and upcoming Focus Active as the only traditional car it sells while crossovers, SUVs and trucks make up the rest of its lineup. The news was abruptly revealed in Ford’s latest quarterly financial release and left many questions and here’s the answer to at least one of them.

The Focus, Taurus and Fiesta will be the first to go. Ford will end production on the Focus in May 2018, the Taurus in March 2019 and the Fiesta in May 2019. The mid-size Fusion will stick around a bit longer.

As for the upcoming Focus Active, as of right now, the vehicle will be assembled in China and imported to the United States.

Ford’s CEO laid out a cost reduction plan in late 2017. This plan calls for Ford to cut operating costs by $14 billion. The culling of sedans and small cars saves Ford around $5 billion.

“We’re going to feed the healthy parts of our business and deal decisively with the areas that destroy value,” Hackett said. “It’s been easy to identify what’s wrong and what we need to do about it. The hand-wringing maybe that has been around in our business is gone. We’re starting to understand what we need to do and making clear decisions there.”

The company’s financials are seemingly improving, too. Revenue increased 7 percent to $42 billion over 2017 levels with Ford making $1.7 billion in the first quarter of 2018, an increase of 9 percent.

“Everything is on the table,” said Bob Shanks, Ford chief financial officer. “We can exit products [and] markets. We will do that. That work has really gained traction. We have looked at every single part of the business. It’s a very complex endeavor. We are determined to turn this business around right throughout the whole company. There’s more work that’s underway.”

It’s likely jobs will be lost from the reduction of cars but most production lines will also be retooled for new vehicles. Ford is going all in on crossovers and SUVs, which will have to be built somewhere.

This is a real life Transformer

The J-deite RIDE transformers from a vehicle to a robot just like the Megazord from Voltron. Specific information about the creation is a bit sketchy but the YouTube channel states it’s an electric vehicle and shows the driver and passenger staying in their seat as it changes forms. It can even walk.

The whole process seems automated and takes just a few minutes. Sure, if this was a Michael Bay movie, this transformer wouldn’t stand a chance against the Jaegers that can change form in seconds. But this is real life and so I’m still impressed.

Leaked iPhone pics show glass back and headphone jack

The headphone jack could still have a future in an iPhone. These leaked pics show an iPhone SE 2 with a glass back and headphone jack. Like the current iPhone SE, the design seems to be a take on the classic iPhone 5. I dig it.

The leak also states the upcoming device sports wireless charging, which puts it inline with the iPhone 8 and iPhone X.

Rumors have long stated that Apple was working on an updated iPhone SE. The original was released in March 16 and updated a year later with improved specs. With a 4-inch screen, the iPhone SE is the smallest iPhone Apple offers and also the cheapest.

WWDC in early June is the next major Apple event and could play host for the launch of this phone. Last month, around the iPhone SE’s birthday, Apple held a special event in a Chicago school to launch an education-focused iPad. It’s logical that Apple pushed the launch of this new iPhone SE to WWDC to give the iPad event breathing room.

While Apple cut the headphone jack from its flagship devices, the SE looks to retain the connection. It makes sense. The low-cost iPhone is key for Apple in growing markets across the world where the last two models helped grow iOS’s market penetration. This is Apple’s low-cost offering and thus suggests Apple doesn’t expect buyers to also spring for its wireless earbuds.

If released at WWDC or later in the year, the iPhone SE looks to serve consumers who enjoy smaller phones with headphone jacks. That’s me.

Ford to stop selling every car in North America but the Mustang and Focus Active

Ford today announced its intention to phase out most cars it sells in North America. According to its latest financial release, the auto giant will “will transition to two vehicles” being the Mustang and an unannounced vehicle, the Focus Active. Ford sees 90 percent of its North America portfolio in trucks, utilities and commercial vehicles. Citing a reduction in consumer demand and product profitability, Ford is in turn not investing into the next generation sedan. The Taurus is no more.

The press release also talks about a new type of vehicle though it sounds like a crossover. This so-called white space vehicle will “combine the best attributes of cars and utilities, such as higher ride height, space and versatility.”

Currently, Ford sells six sedans and coupes in North America with the Fiesta, Focus, Fusion, C-Max, Mustang and Taurus. This lineup hits multiple segments from the compact Fiest to the mid-size Focus, C-Max and Fusion to the full-size Taurus. The Mustang stands alone as the lone coupe.

It’s likely Lincoln’s sedan’s will also disappear though this was not explicitly stated in today’s press release. Lincoln currently sells the mid-size MKZ and full-size Continental — both share platforms with Ford counterparts. If Ford is phasing out development of sedan platforms, Lincoln will likely suffer, too.

This reduction in traditional cars was a long time coming. North America consumers have increasing turned to crossovers, trucks and SUVs over sedans and small cars. A trip to any parking lot will likely produce more evidence to this movement. There are several factors involved from more fuel efficient and better equipped trucks and SUVs along with improved safety ratings and ride qualities of these vehicles.

Ford also today reaffirmed its commitment to bringing hybrid-electric powertrains to the F-150, Mustang, Explorer, Escape and upcoming Bronco.

Breaking…

This is Volkswagen’s ludicrous electric Pikes Peak racer

Volkswagen is entering the yearly race up Pikes Peak with a lightweight custom racer. Called the I.D R Pikes Peak, two electric engines are good for 680 hp and 479 lb-ft of torque. The whole package weighs less then 2,500 lbs and VW says the vehicle is good for a 0-60 time of 2.25 seconds. That makes this car faster off line than a Formula 1 or Formula E car — and just slightly faster than a Model S launching in Ludicrous mode.

VW says the racer was developed as an exercise in balancing weight and electrical energy capacity. This racer uses lithium-ion batteries and the dual electric motors act as generators during breaking, allowing the vehicle to recapture lost energy and feed it back into the batteries.

The Pikes Peak race has long been used as test bed for vehicle manufacturers. The race is a tough 4,720 vertical-foot climb up a winding path with 156 corners. A modified Peugeot 208 set the current record in 2013 of 8 minutes and thirteen seconds yet in 2016 a custom electric vehicle from Latvia came close to the record with a time of 8:57.118. The driver, Rhys Millen, says the run could have been up to 30 seconds quicker but half of the vehicle’s powertrain failed halfway through the climb. This car, a eO PP100, had 1,190 kilowatts (1,600 hp) torque 2520 Nm, with a weight of 1200 kg.

Volkswagen’s attempt is to best the electric record with a vehicle significantly less powerful and twice as heavy.

As for the comparison against the Tesla Model S, while the 0-60 speeds are similar on paper (2.25 seconds verse 2.3 seconds), it’s not fair to compare the two in real world testing. In order to get the Tesla to hit 60 mph in 2.3 seconds, which is possible, specific conditions have to be meet and it can only hit that speed off the line. The vehicle’s software also limits the amount of time the Model S is able to launch at this speed. Meanwhile, the VW racer is likely able to accelerate at such velocity coming off corners again and again — racing tires help, too.

Often, if racing up a mountain or around a road track, the ability to recover from dips in speed is where races are won, and with 156 corners, there are plenty of opportunities for Volkswagen to recover from dips.