Amazon surprised the tech world Thursday with the launch of Echo, a cylindrical device the size of a whiskey bottle that lets you ask questions, order it to play music, spell words or add items to your grocery list. Unfortunately for those of us who believe voice commands are an essential way to communicate with a smart home, amazon is using an invite-only process to distribute the Echo I signed up, and as an Amazon Prime member will only pay $100 for the $199.99 device, but who knows if I’ll get picked to try it out.
But in the meantime I have a device that does much the same thing. It’s called Ubi, and it’s a $299 connected speaker that offers many of the same functions as Amazon shows off in its advertisement as well as hooks into If This Then that and an open development environment. I last played with the Ubi in the spring, where it was a bit of an iffy experience. Sometimes it worked and other times it offered completely random and often hilarious responses.
In my home Ubi became a joke as we tried to get it to respond to our questions only to be met with something completely different. I’m happy to say that several updates later Ubi is much better at deciphering what I’m asking and delivering more value. But it’s still an experience that requires a user to interact with Ubi like it’s a computer rather than speaking normally, unlike how the Amazon Echo is protrayed.
While Amazon’s Echo is only shown right now in an advertisement (which you would expect to be show optimal conditions) I’ve taken many of the same questions that the family asks Amazon’s Echo and asked them of Ubi so you can get a sense of how it sounds. Play the audio file below to hear how Ubi and I interact, or you can continue reading the review for an overview.
In general Ubi takes about two or three seconds to respond to her “wake up” command and then another few seconds to take actions. If I’m directing an action over IFTTT it takes longer. For example, when I asked Ubi “Turn living room lights on” via an IFTTT recipe, it takes 7 seconds for the lights to flip on. That feels like an eternity. I would expect that over time Amazon might build in options that let you control your connected devices, although for now it appears to have its eyes on something a bit more tied to Amazon’s retail operation — letting you add things to your shopping list.
That’s a pretty handy feature as is the ability to talk to the Amazon echo from anywhere in the room. Ubi definitely suffers if you get too far away from it and the speaker quality is pretty low. So when you ask Ubi to play Katy Perry’s Firework as my daughter does, it doesn’t sound great. I’m sure Amazon’s product will sound better.
Ubi does have a fun intercom feature that lets you call any Ubi from an app running on Android phones, which means I can open the app, hit a button and the Ubi speaker in my kitchen will repeat what I’ve said. I used it to scare my daughter while I was testing this. Ultimately though you have no way to know if your message was heard or if Ubi is talking to an empty room. Although with the aid of an IP camera that could change.
All in all, for $299 Ubi is an expensive toy for the tech set who want to play with voice as a UI. When the Echo hits homes I’ll be on the lookout to see how it fares with the speech recognition and natural language processing as well as how reactive the experience is. Those long pauses with Ubi are horribly awkward.