I think it's safe to say we could all use a hug these days. While I miss seeing my friends and family in person, I am grateful that at least we have the benefits of modern technology to stay connected during this unsettling time. Amazon's voice assistant Alexa and Echo speaker are doing their part with a new feature that lets you share a virtual hug with any of your Alexa contacts in the United States. How sweet is that? Simply say, “Alexa, send a hug” and Alexa will ask for your message recipient. Once confirmed, Alexa will send a virtual hug to your contact’s Alexa app and device. Within the Alexa app, you will see the message “Sending you a hug!" (with the hug emoji). If you have an Echo device, Alexa will alert you to your message and then say, “Sending you a hug!” As with most things these days, yes, that just made me tear up.
And that's not all Amazon is up to during this time of social distancing, toilet paper searching, and drive-by birthday parties. Have you heard about Kids-to-Kids Communication with FreeTime on Echo? This feature lets you create a personalized experience for your kids and choose what content they can access on their device. Now, using a FreeTime-enabled Echo device, kids can place calls and send messages to their friends and family on other FreeTime-enabled Echo devices. As safety is of utmost importance, parents must first approve friend requests or initiate friend requests on behalf of their child within the Alexa app. An approved friend will then show up in the child’s contact list and Alexa will walk the kids through the steps for sending a message. Love this so much.
For technologically-savvy grandparents, there's also the "Drop In" feature on Echo Show (the main difference between the Echo and Echo Show is that the latter features its own built-in touchscreen). When you "drop in," you'll be instantly starting a video call with one of your permitted contacts (each device must have the Drop In feature turned on and contacts on different Amazon accounts must first grant each other Drop In permissions). Now, since my mom spends most of our FaceTime conversations with me showing half her face (if I'm lucky) or her thumb over the screen, I'm not sure she's the best candidate for this product, but it is a cool feature nonetheless.
Alexa also offers a feature called Blueprints. According to their website, "Alexa Skill Blueprints are a new way for you to customize your Alexa experience by adding personalized Alexa skills and responses. This makes Alexa even more knowledgeable, delivering a delightful experience that is unique to you and your family." Among those personalized schools is a feature that allows you to create and send a personalized birthday, Father's Day or a "Thinking of you" card, complete with your own photos and audio messages, to friends and family with Alexa-enabled devices.
And while a virtual hug, card, or video chat will never be the same as giving your friends and family a big ol' hug in person, I appreciate the ability to still make some kind of meaningful connection with loved ones during this crazy time. It is so vitally important, and I appreciate Amazon creating products that can help us stay (virtually) in touch. With no clear end in sight, and for better or worse, I am clinging to the benefits of technology more than ever.