Echo for Kids, Retro Voice Assistants, and a Second Snap

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Welcome to Gadget Dreams and Nightmares, the column that tries to shake off the ghastly prospect of dating on Facebook to focus on something far more interesting: gadget announcements!

This time we’ll take a look at an Amazon Echo for kids, an updated Oculus, a retro-styled smart speaker, and Snapchat’s latest spectacles.

As ever, these are not reviews, and you should not invest too much in the ratings: They serve only to let you know how much I would be interested in trying each item.

Tiny Echo

Amazon is trying to rope in younger members of the family to use its Alexa voice assistant with the release of a smart speaker for kids.

The Echo Dot Kids Edition (pictured above) has a rubber case protecting a standard Echo Dot and a two-year, no-questions-asked replacement policy. It includes a one-year membership for FreeTime Unlimited, Amazon’s subscription service for kids’ books, videos, games, education apps and Alexa skills.

FreeTime Unlimited has parental controls and optimizes the Alexa experience with kids in mind. It nixes functions not suited for kids, like e-commerce and news, while allowing parents to set time limits and block explicit songs from playing on Amazon Music. Moms and dads also can use Alexa to send positive feedback when a child says “please” to ask for something.

What sells this for me (well, it would if I had a kid in an appropriate age range to use this, at least) is that this FreeTime version of Alexa has been tuned to recognize the higher pitch of kids’ voices. It recognizes mispronunciations too, including “Awexa.” That’s beyond adorable.

On the downside, it might end up training your offspring to learn how to take command of your own Echo, letting them interrupt what you’re viewing or listening to, or cause havoc with your connected lighting system. There may be trouble ahead.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Awexas

Tomorrow’s Radio Alarm Clock

Staying with voice assistants for a moment, the Como Audio Amico speaker system offers a touch of ’80s design. I enjoy its aesthetic, and it includes plenty of modern features like Bluetooth, music streaming, and with the latest version, Google Assistant.

The SpeakEasy packs in a tweeter and 3-inch woofer. A rear port helps increase the bass by letting sound filter out. It comes in wood, black and white finishes. There’s an optional battery to turn the SpeakEasy into a portable speaker.

It’s kinda quaint, as it seems a little anachronistic to pack a voice assistant into a speaker that would have fit in Thomas Magnum’s home 30 years ago. I enjoy the aesthetic, though, and the walnut finish would work nicely with my new furniture.

Rating: 4 out of 5 LED Clockfaces in 2018

Optical Acuity

Just after releasing a standalone virtual reality headset, Facebook has presented a look into the future, showcasing an Oculus prototype that offers a wider field of view.

Codenamed “Half Dome,” it includes a new feature for a VR headset: lenses that move closer to and further from the wearer’s face. This varifocal feature is designed to provide better focus on objects held close to your eyes while in a VR experience. So, if you pick up an in-world book, you might be able to read the text more clearly.

It’s not clear if Half Dome uses eye-tracking tech or can figure out the relative location of an in-game item to make the lenses move, but that feature should help eliminate some of the vision blips that distort a virtual experience and pull one out of the, um, reality. I’m just hoping that when I hold a phone inches from my face in VR, my eyes adjust as quickly as they do in real life.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Is This Reals?

Snap This Off

Snap, the company behind Snapchat, for some reason still thinks people want to walk around with cameras on their faces.

The Spectacles 2 have a slimmer frame and more lens color options than the first model. The camera is not as pronounced, and it is water-resistant, handy for those quick in-the-pool videos. Those who need actual medically necessary spectacles can add prescription lenses to the frames as well.

I’m still stumped as to why anyone would be racing out to wear sunglasses with cameras in them, but the prescription lenses and water-resistant features are handy. Adding a second microphone to more clearly record people other than the wearer is smart too.

I think it’s fairly clear that I have little interest in trying these, but I at least have to commend Snap for continually trying to diversify its sources of revenue. It might have to, now that Instagram has eaten its lunch.

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