AH Tech Talk: Amazon Echo's AR Roots And Development

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Amazon's Echo speaker is a triumph, to say the least. The sales numbers are outrageous and developers, both in Amazon's halls and elsewhere, are making the thing smarter and more capable with each passing day. It would be a huge understatement to say that the thing is a success. It will come as no surprise, then, to learn that the Echo is the result of so much blood, sweat and tears that, by now, most of the original development team left Amazon for one reason or another. What you may be surprised to hear, however, is that the Echo, in its current form, is a happy accident.

Our story begins with Amazon's Lab126, a drawing board named after the alphabet to symbolize the possibilities therein. Project A was the original Kindle. Project B was the Fire Phone, which didn't reveal itself as a spectacular failure until well into Echo's development cycle. Project C, however, was kept about as secret as a huge project from a huge company could be. Patent applications were done by Washington lawyers under the identity of Rawles LLC, a company not found on any LinkedIn profiles or Glassdoor reviews, which cropped up just two weeks before Amazon began filing patents for Project C.

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The few patents that made their way to being easily viewable implied a cohesive augmented reality experience throughout a user's home. Cameras would follow a user through their home, along with a display, all of which could be interacted with through gestures or speaking. Eventually, the idea met its fate and development came to a standstill. By the time this happened, Project D, known then as the Amazon Flash, was in full swing.

In its original incarnation, the Echo wasn't much more than a simple smart Bluetooth speaker. It could play music and listen for its trigger word to wake up, much like the current Echo. However, there were doubts as to its capabilities that led to stunted development in the early years. For all intents and purposes, the Echo was stuck in development limbo for a good three years or so, constantly undergoing changes and tweaks. Folks from speech recognition outfit Nuance were brought on, two speech recognition startups were bought up and entire think tanks tried dreaming up use cases and interaction scenarios for the nascent product.

In what was called a "forehead-slapping moment", Amazon head honcho Jeff Bezos one day caught wind that an engineer had, on a whim, rigged up an Echo to control a TV streaming box. This prompted a flurry of new ideas that centered on the Echo as the centerpiece of a smart home. Suddenly, integration with new protocols, pushes for third party development and brainstorming new and interesting ways for customers to interact with the device were becoming daily occurrences. The Echo learned how to talk to control the lights, play soft music and order food while reading its user the latest New York Times Bestseller out loud. Even after commercial release, the role of the Echo continued to expand through updates that added in things like IFTTT integration.

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The original team working on the Echo mostly all either left or went to other teams within Amazon, citing a wide variety of reasons. Some were satisfied with a job well done and didn't want anything to do with the Echo, while others were done with Amazon's notoriously brutal work environment and yet more were, in the wake of the Echo's success, accepting cushier job offers from rivals. That same success, however, is what's driving more talent to Amazon, amid words of an entirely new platform, future-proofing pushes and a search for innovative ideas. Just about everybody from fresh college grads to disgruntled employees of other tech giants began flocking to Amazon in droves and still are. After the Kindle began to lose its luster, the Fire Phone flopped entirely and the Fire line of tablets began to suffer the same fate as the classic Kindles, the Echo, along with the wildly successful Amazon Fire TV platform, are giving Amazon a brand new identity in consumers' minds.