Amazon Unveils Next Gen Echo Products

Amazon Unveils Next Gen Echo Products


Recently, Amazon unveiled a plethora of new Echo products. From a true smart home hub to buttons that will come in handy during your next family game night, here is everything that Amazon unveiled at their September 27th event, and what it means for the future of the smart home.


Amazon has officially retired their original Echo smart speaker (RIP: 2014-2017) and replaced it with a second generation version at $99. The first update to the world’s most popular smart speaker sees a shorter, more compact design and a dedicated bass tweeter. The new Echo will come in six different styles: Charcoal, Heather, and Sandstone fabric or Walnut, Oak, and Silver finish. More importantly, Amazon is promoting an Echo “three-pack” for multi-room audio. The company first announced multi-room audio capabilities back in August, but have only started to heavily promote the feature with the unveiling of the new Echo smart speaker. There hasn’t been much testing yet of the new multi-room feature, so the jury is still out on whether or not Echo provides a synchronous, reliable performance across all devices throughout the home. Unlike Blackfire RED framework enabled smart devices, the Echo can not support multi-channel or low-latency for audio/video lip sync.


Additionally, the Echo is now able to make calls throughout North America. Amazon clearly wants the Echo to replace your home phone, and to help push the idea, they’ve also introduced the Echo Connect – a device that is tied to your existing home phone number that allows you to make landline calls through Alexa.


Amazon also rolled out the Echo Plus, which looks more like the original Echo than the Echo 2.0. The Echo Plus is the first one specifically designed to be used as a true smart home hub. With it, you can control compatible smart lights, locks, and thermostats. The Echo Plus also uses Zigbee so it’s compatible with more smart devices on the market. The Echo Plus has updated voice-recognition so you can talk to it from further away or in noisy settings, and more advanced speakers. Price-wise, the Echo Plus is comparable to the original Echo, at $149.


Amazon also introduced the Echo Spot, a sort of smart alarm clock with a 2.5-inch screen, that can be placed anywhere in the house and can be used for more than just an alarm in the mornings. The Echo Spot can make video calls and can play music through it’s own speakers or connect to external ones via cable or Bluetooth. The Echo Spot can do pretty much anything the Echo can do, but it’s much more compact and it has a screen. But this isn’t the first (and only) Echo product with a screen: Amazon released the Echo Show earlier this year to not overly positive reviews. Now, it seems that they’ve simplified and improved their interface for the Echo Spot. And at $130 for this little gadget, they needed to.


Lastly, Amazon introduced Echo Buttons: little discs that connect to your Echo device that you can use to play trivia games with your friends and family (with Alexa as the game-show host). The Echo Buttons light up in cool colors and can be purchased in pairs for $20.


So what does this mean for the the smart home of the future? Well, for one thing, Amazon has, once again, positioned itself to be the leader of smart home technology. However, they’ve got some serious competition. Google has also unveiled a whole new suite of products (which we will discuss in a later blog post) that may give Amazon a run for their money. As more and more smart home devices are gaining in popularity, it’ll be interesting to watch how manufacturers choose to align their brands and products with either Alexa or Google Assistant (or perhaps both). The war rages on!

A Clear Path for Voice Control

A Clear Path for Voice Control


Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past year, you know that voice controlled Smart Home technology is taking over the tech industry and consumer electronics scene. This past January, the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) was chock-full of stainless steel refrigerators and high tech washing machines, all with Amazon’s voice-activated AI software, Alexa, built in. CES 2017 was dubbed by some as “The Year of the Amazon Takeover,” however, Amazon isn’t the only tech giant to venture into the realm of voice-activation: Google launched the Google Home smart speaker in late 2016, exactly two years after the Amazon Echo speaker (featuring Alexa) made its debut. Even later to the party, Microsoft just announced partnerships with HP and Harman Kardon to support Cortana (Microsoft’s version of Siri) in their speakers. Speaking of Siri, Apple just announced a Siri-enabled smart speaker, called HomePod, which will be available this December.


These “smart” speakers have proven themselves to be cool technology, but, for the most part, were  trading more on novelty value than utility. Until recently, Amazon’s Alexa enabled Dot and Echo speakers excelled at only three things: purchasing items off Amazon; playing music from a long list of streaming services or Internet radio stations; and pranking your roommate by setting it’s alarm for 3:00 am, 3:10 am, 3:20 am, and 3:30 am. A pretty solid list of features, sure, but it’s by no means the “Smart Home of the Future” we were promised.


That’s why CES 2017’s “Amazon Takeover” was actually a pretty significant breakthrough for Smart Home enthusiasts. Until recently, Smart Home gadgets such as smart thermostats and security systems were seen as standalone items. What Amazon is attempting to do this year (and succeeding at it, thus far) is to position its Alexa voice-activated speakers as the Smart Home’s “Central Hub,” from which, all of the individual smart devices in your home can connect, and be controlled. (Hence, the influx of gadgets and appliances with Alexa capabilities.)


And this isn’t an unwelcomed shift: according to new market data from Parks Associates, 55% of U.S. broadband households want to use their voice to control their Smart Home and entertainment devices. Moreover, they expect products to work together through “their entertainment systems, including automated voice assistant products like the Amazon Echo and Google Home.”


Additionally, at their annual “CONNECTIONS: The Premier Connected Home Conference,” Parks Associates announced a comprehensive IoT forecast that predicts 442 million connected consumer devices (entertainment, mobile, health, and smart home) will be sold in the U.S. in 2020. The fastest growing category in IoT, and the top trend of 2017, is, unsurprisingly, speakers with voice control (like the Amazon Alexa and Google Home), with a CAGR of 78.3% in 2015-2020. According to Elizabeth Parks, SVP, Parks Associates: “Parks Associates research shows U.S. consumers will buy more than 2.3 billion connected devices between 2015 and 2020, and they are showing strong preferences for voice as the interface for their devices. Companies in the smart home, entertainment, and connected car ecosystems are pursuing partnerships that can add voice control to a variety of solutions in the connected home.”


But developing Alexa or Google Home enabled smart products is only the first step. In order to achieve true, whole home connectivity, these products need to be able to work wirelessly through a reliable platform to communicate with each other. The truth is, Smart Home technology in its current form doesn’t lend itself to whole home, or even multi-room systems. Conventional WiFi uses TCP (Transmission Control Protocol) which was designed in the 1960’s for transferring files down wired Ethernet lines, not connecting Smart Home products or streaming real-time wireless audio (or video) throughout the home. (For more on why your WiFi sucks, read my last blog, titled “Why your WiFi sucks and what you can do about it”).


Here’s an interesting tidbit from Rob Conant, CEO, Cirrent: “Wi-Fi is by far the dominant technology for connected products – the vast majority of broadband homes have Wi-Fi. However, historically it has been too complex to get headless products connected to Wi-Fi. Nearly 40% of the negative reviews of smart home products are the result of connectivity and setup issues. Making it easy for end users to connect products is critical to the success of the industry.”


But the dream of a whole-home, voice-controlled, Smart Home isn’t impossible: using low-latency and high-accuracy sync, Blackfire has developed a software solution that successfully integrates voice AI into a multi-room system. We call it Blackfire Real-time Entertainment Distribution (RED), the industry’s only wireless streaming software framework built from the ground up to overcome the limitations commonly associated with conventional wireless products, truly enabling a whole-home voice-control system. Blackfire RED delivers high-performance multichannel, multipoint and multi-room 5.1 audio wireless streaming across multiple devices over standard Wi-Fi, so you can tell Alexa or your Google Home in your living room to read out a recipe to you when you are in the kitchen, or to play music from Spotify Connect in the bedroom.


As demand for voice-activated smart devices continues to grow and home audio manufacturers develop products to meet the demand, Blackfire will be the key to enhanced performance for today’s consumers and Smart Home dwellers of the future.

Virtually Real Part II: Fixing VR in 2017

Virtually Real Part II: Fixing VR in 2017


Last week I shared my thoughts on the significant progress Virtual Reality (VR) has made towards mass adoption. This week, I’ll discuss the commercial and technical problems that I see facing VR technology.


Right now, at the very early stages of VR, we are experiencing a “chicken and egg” conundrum that is ultimately slowing down the industry’s growth and market reach: game developers don’t want to commit millions in launching a “first gen” title (that is bound to be superseded within a few months of launch) until the hardware installed base is bigger; and the hardware volumes won’t ramp up until there is a killer, interactive, multi-user game title made exclusively for Virtual Reality that will  attract mainstream users like a “World of Warcraft” or “Halo”.


To compound the situation,  manufacturers are figuratively shooting themselves in the foot by deliberately making incompatible hardware, forcing game studios to develop for each platform and deterring consumers from purchasing VR systems altogether. The nascent VR industry won’t survive a Betamax/VHS -style platform fight because this time around, the technology is too expensive and too intrusive in the home. Setting up a full-room VR system is a pretty big commitment at this stage, and consumers don’t want to spend upwards of thousands of dollars on a system for Christmas only to have the technology immediately superseded.


Technical hurdles abound for room-scale VR systems in these early stages, but none more so than mobility. The best VR experience still requires a physical connection between the Head Mounted Display (HMD) and its host PC or game console. The fact that they are tethered to an external processor not only hinders the user’s ability to move freely and engage in a true immersive VR experience, but it also creates a fairly annoying weight that’s left dangling from the back of the user’s head and neck.


Concepts for wireless HMDs that can compete with the powerful, tethered room-scale systems currently on the market are slowly beginning to take shape, but solving the latency problem is still a major issue for engineers looking to cut the cord.


The virtual environment must sync with the users head and body movements, or else risk motion sickness and a disjointed experience. In fact a latency of 20 milliseconds is the point most people start to experience nausea.


Achieving this perfect sync requires wireless technology that not only achieves extremely low latency, but also a connection that is lossless, synchronous, and can support high quality sound and video without jamming up the rest of the user’s network. The solution itself must also have an extended range, especially if, in the near future, users and manufacturers want to experiment with multiroom setups.


Virtual Reality, once fully developed and widely adopted, will not only change the way we interact with art, with the world, and with each other, it’ll change standard methods of education (students will be able to take extensive field trips or practice dangerous surgeries, from the safety of a classroom), travel, social networking, shopping, and beyond.

Having worked with VR technology investors and developers over the years, I am particularly excited about the potential of Blackfire’s WiFi protocol to help overcome some of these issues, and create an even more immersive VR without wires.

Blackfire Research Announces Industry’s First WiFi Surround Sound Solution for Smart TVs and Set Top Boxes

Blackfire Research Announces Industry’s First WiFi Surround Sound Solution for Smart TVs and Set Top Boxes


Blackfire ImmersionXD delivers a low-latency, multi-channel audio solution for TV and set top box manufacturers

SAN FRANCISCO – December 27, 2016 – Blackfire Research, the leading developer of wireless solutions for home entertainment, today announced the availability of Blackfire ImmersionXD – the industry’s first low-latency WiFi surround sound software solution for television and set top box (STB) manufacturers. Blackfire ImmersionXD (IXD) enables smart TVs and set top boxes to deliver the ultimate home theater experience.

Built on patented technology, Blackfire IXD streams stereo, multichannel 5.1 or 7.1 audio from the TV or STB – including OTT streaming services and connected devices such as BluRay disc players. Blackfire IXD also supports multiroom media streaming, transforming the smart TV or set top box into a whole home media center.

“Instead of creating yet another proprietary wireless network in your living room, we use a standard WiFi network”, said Ravi Rajapakse, Founder and CEO of Blackfire Research.  “By utilizing standard WiFi together with our patented technology, Blackfire IXD mitigates network interference and delivers exceptional performance and improved reliability.”   

The Blackfire IXD solution includes software integrated into the Smart TV or set top box motherboard and Blackfire IXD enabled speakers.  Blackfire IXD reference modules and speakers are available.

Blackfire IXD will be available for demonstration from January 5-8, 2017 during the CES Show in Las Vegas.  Contact Blackfire Research for more information at

About Blackfire Research

Blackfire Research ( develops wireless software and hardware solutions for high-performance, wireless home entertainment systems. Blackfire Research is built on patented Internet Protocol technologies designed to wirelessly stream media to multiple devices simultaneously over standard Wi-Fi. Through partnerships with global, industry leaders, Blackfire creates products that allow movie, TV, and music lovers to wirelessly build the home entertainment experience they desire.


Media Contact:
Stephen Lambright