Looking to stay ahead of competitors in the smart home appliance game, online retail giant Amazon is expected to announce a new touch-screen version of its popular voice-first Echo device as early as Tuesday, a report said.
Citing sources familiar with Amazon's plans, The Wall Street Journal on Monday said the company will reveal an Echo variant boasting a 7-inch touch screen with support for internet-based telephone and video calls. Like other Echo hardware, Amazon's Alexa voice assistant will be at the heart of the system.
Rumors of a touch-screen Echo device gathered steam last week images of the purported product popped up on Amazon's servers. Available only for a brief period, the low-resolution photo revealed a wedge-shaped device with a large screen positioned above an elongated speaker. A small opening above the display appears to hold a camera, which might be used to power features similar to the Echo Look, a voice-capable camera accessory that uses machine learning to rate user outfits.
The leaked images jibe with today's report, which says the touch screen Echo will support some of the same functionality as the recently released Look.
In internal beta testing for "a few months," the unnamed device is expected to carry a retail price of over $200. That would place the touch screen model at the top of Amazon's Echo lineup, above the Echo flagship speaker, which is currently on sale for $149, and the $199 Look.
According to sources, Amazon is planning to announce the device as early as Tuesday before shipments begin in June, the report said.
Alongside the new Echo model, Amazon is expected to announce telephone services for existing Echo devices in the coming weeks, the report said. Sources claim calling features will be internet based and could roll out in stages, the first being intercom functionality between two Echo devices in a single home or with other Echo owners.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Apple is also rumored to launch a voice assistant device for the home as soon as next month. The Siri-based appliance is said to sport an Echo-like cylindrical design similar to the Mac Pro, but with high-end audio components, a custom A-series CPU and a communications suite featuring AirPlay and Apple's W1 Bluetooth chip.
Whether Apple's voice assistant speaker will boast a touch screen is unknown, but SVP of Worldwide Marketing Phil Schiller made the case for implementing screens into voice-driven assistants in a recent interview. Aside from a few specific scenarios, such as driving, voice assistants often benefit from some form of visual interaction, Schiller said.
"So there's many moments where a voice assistant is really beneficial, but that doesn't mean you'd never want a screen," he said. "So the idea of not having a screen, I don't think suits many situations."
Apple will be facing stiff competition if and when it decides to release a Siri-based home appliance. The home voice assistant segment is currently dominated by Amazon's Echo offerings, which allow users to control smart home hardware, perform basic internet queries and order products from Amazon.com. Google's offering, Google Home, presents similar functionality, while Microsoft's newly announced Invoke "smartspeaker" adds voice calling over Skype to the mix.