Amazon is upgrading its popular Echo smart speaker, adding features — including a screen that supports video chats and video phone calls — that may make the digital personal assistant more attractive to older consumers and those who care for them.
The newest iteration of Echo, called the Echo Show, sports a seven-inch screen that lets users make and receive Wi-Fi video calls with others who own the device or who have the Amazon Alexa app installed on their smartphone.
There’s also a feature called drop-in, which allows preselected users to video in to another person’s device at any time. Users will create a list of people who have permission to do such video drop-ins to their device, and any unexpected video calls using the feature will be preceded by a 10-second “frosted glass” image in order to, theoretically at least, avoid popping in on embarrassing situations.
Though some reports have referred to drop-ins as “slightly unsettling,” for friends and family members who could use it to check in on faraway (or even just across town) older relatives and loved ones who live by themselves, the feature, if implemented and used correctly, could be hugely useful.
Echo Show will be officially released June 28 and is available now for preorder. It’s priced at $229; for a limited time you can buy two for $360. In addition to video calls, its screen allows users to call up video news briefings and YouTube and Amazon Prime videos using just voice commands.
The new screen will also display your daily calendar entries and answers to questions posed by the users, such as driving directions or movie showtimes, that may be easier to follow by reading rather than listening. And the device, like its predecessors, offers games, news and information, smart home integration and — since it’s tied in to your Amazon account — the ability to place your Amazon orders using only your voice.
Since Amazon launched Echo, the smart speaker market has gotten more crowded. Google debuted Google Home last year, and there are rumors that Apple has plans to release a Siri Speaker soon.
But Echo Show, with its video chat capabilities, keeps Amazon a bit ahead of the game. And it’s not the only recent enhancement that has broadened the appeal and reach of the Amazon Echo. The device received little fanfare upon its initial release in late 2014 but proved surprisingly popular: The Echo Dot, a mini, hockey puck-sized version of the original cylindrical speaker, was one of the most-sought-out tech devices during the 2016 holiday shopping season.
Last month, Amazon also introduced the Echo Look, which includes a built-in camera that photographs a user’s outfit and offers fashion advice. And this week, Amazon unveiled its new Alexa-enabled Element 4K smart television, which also features the Amazon Fire TV streaming services baked right in.