Amazon announced a raft of new features for its Alexa-enabled devices, including a partnership with LEGO, an expansion of its FreeTime software, new Alexa education skills and a new kid communication function.
Alexa is adding the ability for kids to place calls and send messages to each other using FreeTime-enabled Echo devices. Parents must invite and accept contacts for their kids to be able to chat. FreeTime is the kid-friendly software on Amazon tablets and voice-activated devices that provides users with access to audio books, radio stations, games and activities. It also includes a Parent Dashboard with activity reviews and restriction capabilities.
Additionally, the Echo Show—a voice-assistant enabled device that is both a speaker and a camera—is adding FreeTime. This will allow kids to watch videos, make video calls with approved family and friends, take photos and sing along with on-screen lyrics (all of which is managed through the Parent Dashboard).
Other tech companies have tried rolling out messaging apps for kids, including Facebook, which put out Messenger for Kids in late 2017 to allow under-13s to interact with parent-approved contacts. Earlier this year it was found that, due to a technical error, Facebook was letting thousands of kids join chats with unauthorized users. Amazon has been hit with its own fair share of troubles in the kids space with several consumer groups asking the FTC to investigate its Echo Dot Kids Edition. The company was then was hit with two lawsuits claiming Alexa records kids without their consent.
In other announcements for its Alexa devices, Amazon is also adding a function to its voice assistant where users can say “Alexa, pause the Wi-Fi” and it will block access on enabled devices.
While there are several Alexa skills for kids, including ones developed by Sesame and Nickelodeon, now the tech giant is launching Alexa education skills to allow parents and high school students to ask for information on homework and school. This will be integrated with Kickboard, Blackboard, Canvas, Coursera and ParentSquare.
Finally, LEGO and Amazon have teamed up for the Mindstorms Voice Challenge, which sees 13- to 17-year-olds build a construction and accompanying voice-based activity. Whoever comes up with the best creation will win US$5,000 and two LEGO Mindstorms sets.