Amazon’s $999 dog-like robot is getting smarter

By Samantha Murphy Kelly, CNN Business

Amazon on Wednesday unveiled a collection of product updates that tie together its vast suite of services and help ensure it remains at the center of peoples’ lives and homes.

Nearly a year after Amazon (AMZN) was met with criticism over its controversial vision for the future of home security, the company is doubling down on new features for Astro, its dog-like robot, to help it better patrol the household when the owners are away. Amazon (AMZN) also announced a new sleep-tracking device as well as an updated Alexa-powered Fire TV that knows when you’re in the room, among a number of other products.

The new updates, announced at an invite-only press event, come a week after the company introduced four new Fire HD 8 tablet models and appear aimed at drumming up excitement for its products ahead of the all-important holiday shopping season.

Amazon, like other tech companies, must convince customers to upgrade or buy new gadgets at a time when fears are mounting about a possible global recession. At the same time, Amazon must also confront shifting comfort levels with its growing reach into the lives of consumers and how closely its household products may be tracking them.

Last month, Amazon agreed to buy iRobot, the company behind the popular automated Roomba vacuums, in a $1.7 billion deal that quickly raised concerns. The Federal Trade Commission is now probing the deal after more than two dozen groups wrote to the agency alleging the acquisition could help Amazon “entrench their monopoly power in the digital economy.”

Amazon did not mention the Roomba at Wednesday’s event, but Amazon clearly remains committed to investing to make every home a little more of an Amazon home.

Here’s a look at what the company announced:

Astro updates

Amazon is rolling out its first major software update to Astro, an autonomous 20-pound dog-like robot with large, cartoon-y eyes on its tablet face, and a cup holder. The robot – not unlike an Alexa on wheels – uses voice-recognition software, cameras, artificial intelligence, mapping technology and voice- and face-recognition sensors as it zooms from room to room, capturing live video and learning your habits.

Soon Astro will be able to detect cats and dogs in the home, take short video clips of what they’re up to when owners aren’t around and watch and talk to them in real time. Amazon is also adding the ability to monitor if windows or doors are left open, building on what the company said users have been already doing, such as checking to see if the stove was left on.

Amazon's Astro robot now detects pets' faces

Amazon is also opening Astro up to the developer community by offering tools that enable them to build software or specific commands for the robotic pup. And Astro will now work with a real-time subscription service from Amazon’s smart-doorbell company, Ring, to provide security monitoring to small and medium-sized businesses.

The company emphasized that Astro was conceived with security and privacy as a priority, with data processed on the device itself and the ability to restrict where Astro can go in the home.

Astro is currently available for $999, which includes a six-month free trial of Ring Protect Pro. (Pricing will later jump to $1,499.)

Smarter TVs

Amazon unveiled a new series of Fire TV Omni QLED models – the first Fire TV to ship with Dolby Vision IQ.

Through adaptive technology, the 4K TVs know when you walk into a room and leave, so it can save on power and turn off when needed. It also features a gallery of 1,500 curated pictures that can be displayed when not in use – a concept similar to Samsung’s existing Frame TVs.

Its deeper integration with Alexa could be a true standout: with its built-in microphones, users can access widgets such as sticky notes, the calendar, the weather or dim the lights by talking directly to the TV. A 65-inch model costs $799 and 75-inch version costs $1,099.

Amazon is also rolling out a premium remote, called Alexa Voice Remote Pro, that includes a feature to make it easier to find when the remote gets misplaced.

Halo Rise

Amazon is expanding its suite of Halo wellness products beyond wearables into sleep tracking. The new Halo Rise sits on the nightstand and monitors the sleeping and breathing patterns of the person closest. It also tracks humidity and light in the room, and presents a natural light to wake up to as an alternative to an alarm.

The device, which uses sensor tech and machine learning to approach sleep, works even if the person is turned in the other direction, or covered in pillows and blankets, as it can detect micro-movements, according to the company.

Amazon said it developed the product to offer consumers more choices around sleep tracking, noting many people don’t like sleeping with a wearable device and that batteries often turn off mid-sleep cycle.

Halo Rise is $139.99 and includes a six-month Halo membership, which provides workouts, insights and tools for health tracking.

Kindle Scribe

Fifteen years after launching the Kindle, Amazon is introducing a higher-end version that also serves as a writing device.

With a 10.2-inch HD display and its first-ever Kindle pen, the Kindle Scribe allows users to write to-do lists, journal entries and review documents imported from their phone. Amazon said it will partner with Microsoft to support its suite of products on the Kindle Scribe early next year.

Kindle Scribe

The new Kindle supports USB-C charging and has a battery designed to last for months. The device starts at $339 with a pen and 16 GB of storage and costs $369 for a premium pen and 32 GB. (The company did not go into specifics on the premium pen.) In comparison, a basic Kindle starts at $99, while its higher-end Kindle Oasis is $249.

New Echo speakers

Amazon updated its Echo Dot speaker lineup. The new devices feature twice the bass, updated processors and can serve as a Wi-Fi extender for the company’s Eero mesh system. Amazon is also rolling out a software update to its high-end Echo Studio speaker to include new spatial audio processing and improve sound quality. The speaker, which is $199, now comes in white.

The company is also taking another shot at getting Alexa into the car. Its Echo Auto device ($54.99) is now smaller, sleeker and can be more easily mounted in a vehicle. The gadget is intended to let users send hands-free messages, listen to music and podcasts, access navigation and seamlessly sift from the car to another device when you get home.

A smarter Echo Show 15

Amazon also announced a number of software updates coming to its existing Echo Show 15, a device the company said is especially popular in the kitchen.

The upgrade includes free access to Fire TV and a much more personal Alexa. The voice assistant can now rattle off a morning routine for each person in the home, including providing calendar updates, playing specific music and highlighting traffic reports for commuters.

Other new features include receiving alerts for weather forecast changes; the ability to record video messages that can be displayed on the Echo Show screen or via the Alexa app; asking Alexa to dim the lights up to 24 hours in the future; and receiving updates about when a Whole Foods Market curbside pickup order is ready. The updates will roll out in the coming months.

The Echo Show is also getting an interactive storytelling feature that lets kids pick from a handful of themes, such as an undersea or outer space adventure, and characters like an octopus or an astronaut, to create a story that is immediately animated on the gadget’s display and told by Alexa. The story is generated using a number of AI models that determine elements including the script and music, making it different each time.

“Amazon has invested in embedding more intelligence in its Alexa devices for awhile now and the ability to extend that capability into greater system-wide intelligence is significant,” said Jonathan Collins, a research director at market research firm ABI Research. “New functionality, including its Routines feature, could help make Amazon smart home systems more intelligent, responsive and helpful, and more tightly integrated with other Amazon offerings from grocery shopping and beyond.”

CNN Business’ Rachel Metz contributed to this report

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