GE added Amazon’s popular voice assistant to its appliances.
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Amazon’s popular Alexa personal assistant can already order you a pizza or call an Uber to take you to a restaurant. Now, she can help you cook dinner at home.
Thanks to some help from engineers at GE, Alexa has learned how to preheat an oven, set cook timers, and tell you when your laundry will be dry—all using voice recognition. It's the first full suite of appliances that Alexa can control.
“Voice is something that’s been on our radar for quite a long time, because we saw the value of having an extra hand in the kitchen,” said Bill Gardner, Program Manager for Alexa Integration at GE Appliances. For instance, Alexa lets you change the temperature on the oven even if you've got your hands full. You can also check on the dryer without walking down to the laundry room, or tell the fridge to cool down while you're filling it with groceries.
The integration is what Amazon calls a “skill”—a set of tasks that Alexa has been trained to complete. The skill is named Geneva—chosen because it's easy for Alexa to understand—and it works thanks to the Wi-Fi connectivity that’s already built into over 70 models of GE ovens, ranges, refrigerators, washers, dryers, dishwashers, and water heaters that are currently on sale.
“Because we had infrastructure and an ecosystem, we came up with the capability very rapidly,” said Gardner. In fact, it took his team only a few months to develop Geneva—a capacity Gardner says will allow GE to add compatibility for the next must-have smart home accessory—whatever it may be—shortly after it debuts.
To use Geneva, your appliances must be connected to a Wi-Fi network, and you must have an Alexa-compatible device—such as an Amazon Echo, Dot, or third-party device like a Triby. Geneva can understand over 42 billion commands as long as the user tells Alexa to “ask Geneva” to perform a task first.
In other words, if you’re in the middle of cooking and need to preheat the oven to 350ºF, you don’t have to touch the oven’s controls. Just say, “Alexa, tell Geneva to preheat the oven to 350,” and Alexa will take care of the rest.
For safety's sake, you can’t control a broiler, a rangetop burner, or anything else you need to be physically present for. But if you’re driving an Alexa-equipped vehicle and have the nagging suspicion that you left the oven on, you can ask Geneva to turn it off.
We had the opportunity to try Geneva out on a connected kitchen suite, and found that it felt natural—not quite as easy as talking to a person, but close. Responses were quick, and nearly all prompts worked with natural speech. A few skills felt a little silly—we can’t imagine any situation where one would need to know exactly how many dish detergent pods are under the sink—but most functions seemed thoughtfully chosen.
Most importantly, Alexa integration is a huge departure from most other smart major appliances we’ve tested, which often require the user to change the way they interact with a product. Instead of forcing users to use an app or a touchscreen, Alexa frees up your hands by relying on voice control.
Because of how Alexa is set up, users won’t have to worry about software updates or outdated-looking interfaces. Indeed, engineers are already looking a new skills to teach Geneva, including recipes and multi-part commands.
“We’re not there yet, but you can see where we’re going,” Gardner said.