By: Editorial Team | Posted: March 20, 2019 | Updated: April 22, 2023
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Our Longevity Explorers have been testing the Amazon Echo Show and exploring its capabilities.
With the ability to make phone calls and video calls on request, Alexa and the Amazon Echo Show have added important capabilities since our community of older adults (the Longevity Explorers) first explored Alexa back in 2017.
Learn what these “seniors” think is (or is not) useful about the Amazon Echo Show; what questions they have; and what they think needs improvement.
The bottom line: We think it has great potential for older adults as a tool to help enable more, and deeper, interaction with friends and family. But, there is plenty of room for improvement — especially in the area of “getting it set up”.
About Alexa and the Amazon Echo Show
Alexa is an artifical intelligence (AI) developed by Amazon, and made available in a family of hardware products with names like the Amazon Echo, the Amazon Echo Dot and recently the Amazon Echo Show.
This exploration is about the latest hardware product, the Amazon Echo Show (2nd generation), and the latest version of the artificial intelligence, Alexa — as explored by our community of older adults (the Longevity Explorers) in Q1 2019, and ongoing.
You can listen to audio recordings of the Longevity Explorers trying out and discussing Alexa and the Echo Show. See the individual audio recordings on the right side of the page (if viewing this on a large screen) or below (if viewing on a small screen e.g. a phone).
For a general introduction to the Amazon Echo, and what “seniors” think of these products, and what they use Alexa for, see Amazon Echo and Alexa for the Elderly.
Why Amazon Echo Show is Different from its Predecessors
The original Amazon Echo (on the right in the photo above) is a cylindrical piece of hardware with pretty good speakers and the artificial intelligence Alexa residing inside. In contrast, the new Amazon Echo Show has a quite different form factor, with a screen. It has excellent audio, and can be heard from across the room without any trouble at all.
The big difference to prior Echo products is the screen, and this makes possible some use cases that we think are important and exciting for older adults.
In addition, Alexa has gone through various “improvements” since we first explored how older adults like to interact with Alexa, and a particularly important new capability is the ability to initiate calls to people via a voice command.
These two new capabilities make it extremely easy to make calls (both phone calls and video calls) to friends and family.
Whereas in prior explorations, you could interact with Alexa, and she could do some things for you (turn on the lights, tell you the weather, collect a shopping list), now she can enable interactions with other people as well. In short …
Alexa has matured from an AI that can do simple tasks, and with whom you can interact, to an AI that ALSO helps you interact with other humans.
As we explain in more detail below, we think this new capability has great potential. And many of our explorers were excited about it.
Now Alexa can Call Your Friends for You
For some time now, Alexa has been able to “make a call” for you. When we first tried out that feature, it seemed it required you first to give Alexa your entire contact list, and we did not want to do that and thus ignored the feature.
We are pleased to discover that now, you can set up Alexa so that she only knows about specific contacts you enter into the Alexa App (you can still connect her to your entire contact list if you want to). So, as an example, you can enter your close family members and a handful of friends you want to be able to interact with via Alexa into the “Alexa contact list”. But you don’t have to give Alexa (and Amazon) access to all those business contacts and ex-friends that also reside in your personal contact list.
Getting these contacts set up initially is a bit of a pain (see “Issues” and “Setting Up” below). But, once you set everything up, making a call is extremely simple. You just say “Alexa, call John” and she initiates the call. See the video below for a demonstration.
Making a Call with Alexa: Demo
Depending on how you set things up, and what sort of technology your friend has, Alexa can initiate a call to your friend’s phone (or cell phone), or to your friend’s Amazon Echo, or to your friend’s Alexa App on her smartphone. And, if you have an Amazon Echo Show, and your friend has either the same product or an Alexa App and a smart phone, then the call is a video call.
(Notes: If you are listening to the audio of our explorer discussions, you will hear a discussion of whether you can or cannot call regular phones, and whether you can delete a contact once entered. After some additional research the answer is you can call regular phones in the USA, Canada, and Mexico (there are limits calling internationally and you cannot call 911 and there are some other limitations). And you can delete contacts.
Why Do I Care?
Why would I want Alexa’s help to make a call?
A number of the older adults in our discussions had this reaction initially. Then as we dug deeper into the topic, it became clear that there were a number of scenarios where actually this could be quite useful. Maybe even important.
Voice-activated Calls are “Easier” (in some scenarios)
Here are some situations where telling Alexa to “call John” might come in handy.
- You don’t have your address book handy to look up John’s phone number. Or you have your hands full (cooking for example) and want to give him a quick call.
- You have any one of a number of physical frailties that make it hard or inconvenient to get to the phone (mobility issues, tremor that makes dialing hard).
- Your friend has mild cognitive impairment, and finds it challenging to use the regular phone but has no issue with managing “Alexa, call John” commands. (We have not yet explored the extent to which this is a realistic scenario, but we think it holds promise).
Alexa Makes Video Calls “Easier”
While voice activated audio calls have benefits in some situations, in our opinion the really big benefits come when using a product like the Echo Show — so that the calls can be video calls rather than phone calls (audio only).
If you already use video calling frequently, and neither you nor the person you call have trouble managing whatever system you currently use for video calling, then maybe the Alexa version adds no great benefit.
But we find many people are intimidated by the current implementations of video calling — even such high quality and simple interfaces as are provided by Apple’s Facetime.
The big benefits of the Echo Show are that it makes video calling super simple. You just say “Call John” and the next thing you know, John’s face appears on the screen (so long as you set up your Alexa correctly in the first place).
There are some other noticeable benefits too. Because of the large display, and the way the camera is implemented, it seems to work quite well to hold a video call from across the room, or when there is a group at the other end of the call rather than a single person. And because the sound from the Echo Show can be rather loud, a group of older adults can hear rather well — even when the Echo Show is across the room.
Video Calls Can Make Interactions Richer
Some of our explorers hate the idea of a video call. Maybe you do too?
But other explorers find that seeing a person, while talking with them, opens up opportunities for deeper interaction. Here are some examples why, for some, this is a great interaction modality.
Somehow it seems easier to just “chit chat” when you are actually watching a person compared to a phone call — which can seem more like “time to transmit specific information”.
You can engage in activities together that go beyond conversation. Examples include:
- reading a story to your grandchild;
- showing something to your friend, such as the gift you just received, or the new dress you just acquired;
- letting your friend see where you are living, and getting more of a feel for each other’s day-to-day lives.
Isn’t This Just Like “Facetime” or “Skype”?
In a way it is. Alexa can initiate a video call if you have the Amazon Echo Show. And Skype and Facetime are two alternate ways to conduct video calls. Facetime expecially is extremely easy and very high quality, in our experience.
However several of our explorers who are regular users of Facetime or Skype made comments like this about the Echo Show:
I didn’t expect to be impressed at all, but the Echo Show seemed like a powerful tool for simple video calling.
The notable aspects that made this the case:
- An all-in-one design so you don’t need to worry about adding a camera to your computer.
- Much better for groups and at a distance compared to using your phone.
- Much louder than either my computer or my phone.
So, the big benefits are the simplicity, and the loud and clear audio, and maybe something about the way the camera is implemented that makes it still work well even if you are not right up against the product — and thus good for a group interaction.
Note: For completeness, we wanted to mention that you can also use an Echo Show to make a video call via the Skype App, rather than via the built in Alexa video calling capability. This is useful if you want to call someone who is on Skype but does not have the Alexa App. It’s a bit more complicated however.
Could Amazon Echo Show + Alexa Change Your Life?
We are always seeking ideas and products that can make the quality of life better for people as they age. Could Alexa and the Amazon Echo Show improve one’s life? Maybe.
Here are some scenarios in which we think this product has real potential, beyond just being a cool new entertainment gadget (which it is).
Want More (Deeper) Interactions with Remote Friends
For people who wish they could interact more (or in more depth) with friends or family who live at a distance, and don’t currently use video calling, we think the easy video calls enabled by Alexa and the Echo Show are well worth exploring. (See more about Alexa and Loneliness).
Have Trouble Getting Out and About
For people who have trouble getting out and about for various reasons, we think the ability to the following could make a big difference:
- easily make video calls (see above);
- easily get products delivered; and
- have a friendly AI to interact with.
And for people with mobility challenges, the ability to have Alexa answer the phone at a voice command, without you needing to run to the phone, or turn off the lights without you needing to get up, can be helpful.
For people with mild cognitive impairment, we are wondering if the voice-activated calling capability might make the difference between not calling their family, and being able to call them. We have not tested this idea yet, but hope to do so.
General “Aids to Life”
There is a long list of other things our explorers like about Alexa. Here is just a partial list:
- making shopping lists;
- asking about the weather;
- telling a joke;
- playing a specific piece of music, or a radio station;
- playing a video or TV program;
- reading a book;
- getting help in an emergency;
- remind me about ….
Room for Improvement
Overall many of our Longevity Explorers (not all) liked the combination of Alexa and the Echo Show. And some are passionate devotees of Alexa!
But, there are a number of things we don’t like. Or which could use some improvement. Or which raised questions or concerns.
We just touch on them below, as we did not feel this article was the right place for a detailed “improvement list”. We would be happy to discuss this in more detail with you, if your job is “improving Alexa” to make her more user friendly. 🙂
Drop-in Feature: Explorers Said “Thumbs Down” … Until COVID
Alexa has a “drop-in” feature that lets you “appear” on a friend’s Alexa and listen to them, talk to them, see them, and be seen by them.
Most of our explorers were unenthusiastic about this feature, especially when it came to other people “dropping in” on them.
Luckily this feature can be disabled. It can also be turned on for specific individuals only. This was all fine, but explorers worried that these controls were a bit hard to discover, and that one might accidentally have the drop-in feature enabled without wanting to.
The exception to the general lack of enthusiasm about “Drop-in” were a handful of explorers who already had several Alexas in their house. They commented that it was extremely useful to use it as an Intercom, and be able to Drop-in from one room to another to comunicate with a spouse or kid in another room.
UPDATE Dec. 2020: While the Longevity Explorers who initially explored this product were unenthusiastic about the “drop-in” feature, during the COVID pandemic we have received a lot of positive feedback about this drop in feature. Here is the scenario that attracted the positive comments.
The parent of an adult child is “locked away” in a senior living facility or their home, and the adult child can no longer visit. And the older adult is not able for whatever reason to use conventional video calling tools like Zoom or Facetime. In this scenario, people are setting up the Echo Show, and sending it to their parent, and sometimes taking advantage of the dropin feature in circumstances where the older adult can not operate the product alone. [See “Virtual Connections to the Tech-Challenged” for more on this scenario.]
Privacy & Security
There were a number of concerns about privacy and security.
First, people worry a lot about where all the audio and video ends up. And there is some skepticism about whether images or audio of you might end up in the hands of people you prefer don’t have them. The big issue here was just how much you could “trust” Amazon.
A related but different issue was how easy the Alexa interfaces might be for hackers to access. Could hackers get control of your Alexa and use it to spy on you? And what about the government? Could the NSA use Alexa to spy on you?
To realize the potential of Alexa for helping to make calls and video calls, you do need to set her up so she knows who your contacts are.
The good news is that you seem to have complete control over which contacts you give her, so long as you enter them one at a time. And you seem to be able to delete contacts.
However, the default mode of interaction seems to be for Alexa to ask for access to your entire address book. We were not enthusiastic at all about giving Amazon and Alexa this level of access. And there are a number of screens during the setup process, and times when using the app, where you have to be a bit careful to avoid accidentally granting full address book access.
It looks to us as though the designers decided they wanted to encourage this behavior. We would have been much happier if they had worked harder to ensure we only gave them the contacts we actually wanted to give them.
Finally, there is a peculiarity we don’t really understand. When you enter a contact who already has an Alexa, then that contact shows up in your contact list on the Echo Show and in the Alexa App. However, if you enter a contact who just has a phone (no Alexa), their contact does not seem to show up in your Alexa contact list.
The odd thing is that Alexa seems to know about this new contact. For example, we entered the name of an explorer, Nina, who had a cell phone but no Alexa product. Even though her contact info was nowhere to be seen on the Echo Show or in the Alexa App, when we said “Alexa please call Nina”, Alexa made a call to Nina’s cell phone.
Maybe we missed something. But this seems like a design flaw.
The vast majority of our explorers thought that setting up the Alexa and Amazon Echo Show in the first place was too hard. Opinions varied from “completely impossible” to “a bit tricky”. No one thought it was easy.
So long as the plan is to have someone else set Alexa up, maybe this is not a problem. Seems like room for improvement, though.
Listen to the Exploration Audio Recordings
To hear more details of the reactions from the Longevity Explorers, please listen to audio recordings of the explorations (on the right if you are on a big screen; below if you are on a phone).
For a general introduction to the Amazon Echo, and what “seniors” think of these products, and what they use Alexa for, see Amazon Echo and Alexa for the Elderly.
Visit Amazon’s Website to Learn More About (or Buy) the Echo Show
Here is the link to the Amazon Echo Show on Amazon’s website*
See More Explorer Insights
*Disclosure: The research and opinions in this article are those of the author, and may or may not reflect the official views of Tech-enhanced Life.
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