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Amazon’s new voice-activated Echo reopens the online world to Minneapolis author with multiple sclerosis

MINNEAPOLIS -- Playing a song on your smartphone or computer is such a simple and easy thing for most people. All it takes is a few taps. But not for Kate Wolfe-Jenson. The Minneapolis writer has seen her body slowly but relentlessly degenerate b...

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Kate Wolfe-Jenson gives voice commands to her Amazon Echo, a cylindrical, microphone-rigged, internet-connected device which can call up news, access internet-stored music, add items to a to-do list, set timers and more entirely with voice commands. The device has been a godsend for Wolfe-Jenson of Minneapolis, who has MS. The blue light on top goes on when the device is voice-activated. (Pioneer Press: Scott Takushi)

MINNEAPOLIS -- Playing a song on your smartphone or computer is such a simple and easy thing for most people. All it takes is a few taps.

But not for Kate Wolfe-Jenson. The Minneapolis writer has seen her body slowly but relentlessly degenerate because of multiple sclerosis and typically needs help to get a favorite melody from her Web-archived music catalog to play. Other take-for-granted computer functions were similarly unattainable.

But then her Echo arrived, and everything changed.

The recently released Amazon.com device, a dark-colored cylinder with a blue-light-ringed upper edge, takes voice commands and carries out corresponding tasks. Despite some major limitations, it has been hailed by tech critics as one of the best examples of voice-controlled consumer hardware.

Wolfe-Jenson, for instance, asks her Echo to read her the weather. She can verbally set audible timers for her meditation sessions. She can dictate items for a shopping list that her husband, Ralph Jenson, will pull up in text form on his phone on the go.

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She can ask her Echo to tell her a joke.

“My life has been a series of losses, things I used to be able to do but can’t,” said Wolfe-Jenson, the author of two books with a third in progress via her PC voice-dictation software.

“(The disease) makes my life seem like it is shrinking. This gizmo has opened it up wider again. I keep grinning at it every time I figure out something it can do.”

Regaining access to her vast music library might be the biggest deal of all.

“Next time you want to hear a piece of music, ask someone else to play it for you,” Wolfe-Jenson. “Repeat that for 10 years ... then do it yourself. Wowza-happy-joy-miracle! The phrase ‘improved quality of life’ is a pale insufficiency.”

Exclusive sales

The Echo costs $199, but members of Amazon’s Prime service get a $100 discount for a limited time.

But given the Echo’s potential to change lives, it is a bit difficult to obtain. The online retailer did not simply offer up the device for sale. In an unusual move likely intended to amplify attention and to manufacture demand, the company invited interested parties to apply for limited quantities of the device.

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“By invitation only,” Amazon.com specifies. “If selected, you will receive an email with an invitation to purchase in the coming weeks.”

Google once took this limited-quantity, invitation-only tack with its Glass computerized eyewear, which stirred up excitement at the time but has not made the product a hit. In fact, Google seems to be burying that once highly hyped product.

So is the Echo worth the trouble? Others who have obtained units give the device mixed reviews.

Robert Nesterowich, a New Brighton information-technology worker, said he likes the device and finds it handy for setting timers for brewing tea. But he keeps running into limitations.

He tried checking a flight-arrival time on the Echo, for example, but it did not know what to do with the flight number.

The Echo doesn’t understand Spanish, either, which is a problem because his wife, Milena Saqui Salces, is from Mexico and her accented English trips it up.

“To me, it is a little useless,” said Saqui Salces. But she said, “I am the non-techie in the house.”

She does like being able to ask for a public radio news report, but she said that when she requests a dirty joke “it gives you a joke about trash.”

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Alex McBride, a St. Paul litigation consultant, said he uses his Echo every day. It’s nice for setting morning alarms, and “every morning I ask for the weather and turn on some kind of music,” he said. He vastly prefers it over his microwave oven for use as a kitchen timer, too, and it’s his primary home speaker.

“I would definitely miss it if I didn’t have it (anymore),” McBride said.

McBride recently introduced the device to a family member who had suffered a severe stroke, and he said “she was super enamored with it.”

“She can enunciate well enough to have it play various Carly Simon songs,” he said.

Some limitations

Wolfe-Jenson, for all her joy with the Echo, said the device can be hit-or-miss at times.

“I’d forgotten how much I missed music until I got it back,” she said, “but it’s frustrating when I have a piece of music in mind and I can’t make the Echo understand what I want. I know it’s there, but I just can’t get to it.

“If I say, ‘Bach cello suites,’ it shouldn’t just play me one movement from one suite. It should play all movements of all the suites until I tell it to stop.”

She wishes the device’s audio-newscasting capabilities were more sophisticated, allowing her to dig deeper into news topics that interest her. And the Echo’s consistent inability to find information on the Web “is common enough that it’s worth firing up the computer and getting to Google,” she said.

It’s on that PC that she does her writing using Dragon NaturallySpeaking software, a reminder that for all its helpfulness the Echo isn’t the answer to everything for those with limited mobility and a need for voice control.

Amazon has solicited feedback from users and said it will send regular updates to existing Echo devices to augment their capabilities over time.

For now, Wolfe-Jenson said, “I am too currently enamored with the device to be very critical. I have wonderful helpers, but I’m an introvert and I like spending much of my time alone. It’s a joyous luxury to be in charge of my entertainment and information gathering.”

The Pioneer Press is a media partner of Forum News Service.

Related Topics: TECHNOLOGYAMAZONECHO
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