2016 Tech Impact Awards: User Interface

Winner: Amazon.com; Silver Award: Skype Translator

Seattle | Employees: 245,200 (worldwide)
It might be called Echo, but its voice is named Alexa. The smooth-talking avatar not only makes Amazon’s innovative web-connected, cylinder-shaped speaker easy to control, she even tells jokes. And what’s especially impressive about Alexa is her ability to understand voice commands from speakers with varying accents. The original inspiration for the Echo, says Toni Reid, director of product for Amazon Echo devices and Alexa, was the computer in Star Trek. “We wanted to create a computer in the cloud that’s controlled entirely by your voice. You could ask it things, ask it to do things for you, find things for you and it’s easy to converse with in a natural way,” says Reid. “We’re a ways off from that, but that was our vision.” While Alexa can’t compose a symphony for you or brew you a pot of tea, Earl Grey, you can tell her to not only play Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, you can also tell her to set timers, add items to your shopping list, recite biographical information about Abraham Lincoln or reorder items you’ve bought on Amazon.com. If you have certain connected smart home devices, you can also use Alexa to turn the lights on or off. Alexa’s voice-recognition system, already regarded by many as superior to Apple’s Siri system, will continue to improve as usage expands. Reid says “tens of thousands of developers” are building skills for Alexa to allow customers to order things like an Uber pickup or Domino’s delivery.

Skype Translator
Location: Redmond | Employees: N/A
Since its preview launch last year, Microsoft’s real-time language translator for Skype has gotten many tongues wagging with comparisons to Star Trek. The ability to converse in any of seven different languages — English, French, German, Italian, Mandarin, Portuguese and Spanish — with immediate voice-to-voice translation is an impressive innovation, and the recent addition of Arabic shrinks global gaps even more. Even more interchange is possible by instant message, with 50 languages supported. Can Klingon be far behind?

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