Amazon has rolled out Lex, a version of its Alexa speech-recognition service to let developers enable apps for voice, at a time when chip vendors, including Conexant, NXP and QuickLogic, are hopeful multiple OEMs will start shipping Alexa-like devices this year with their chips.

The news marks the latest foray in a battle of cloud computing giants using machine learning to attract users. It came the same day Facebook was encouraging developers at its annual conference to use new augmented reality capabilities powered by machine learning.

Analysts say Google has an opportunity to marry its superior search service with its Google Assistant, a voice service currently only available on its Pixel smartphones and a new model from LG. Apple is a wild card here with its Siri, an early entrant in the field.

Amazon’s Lex handles speech recognition and natural language processing as a web service. The company announced support from a handful of early preview users including a bank, an insurance company and a non-profit.

All three of South Korea’s telecom providers already offer voice assistants similar to Alexa based on their own voice services and a reference design from Conexant, including KT's GiGA Genie. “We expect to ship millions of units in Korea,” said Saleel Awsare, president of Conexant.

KT GiGA Genie (cr) Figure 1: KT's GiGA Genie

The company launched a reference design in December with software to link to the Alexa service. It already enables Microsoft’s Cortana on some Hewlett-Packard PCs and has had discussions with Google about its Assistant. “I believe in 2018 [voice assistants] will become the largest business for Conexant," said Awsare.

Conexant is working with a handful of OEMs for voice-enabled devices including a digital thermostat maker in Canada. Others want to add voice to set-top boxes, Wi-Fi extenders and even smart light bulbs, he said.

The company already sold nearly 500 of its voice developer kits at $299 each. It expects third-party products at or below the price of an Amazon Dot will hit the market this summer.

Amazon is believed to have sold as many as 7 million Alexa devices to date, mainly using audio chips from Texas Instruments. It claims it will enable 100 million systems for voice by 2020, largely through third-party products.

NXP, QuickLogic join the chorus

Conexant started investing in far-filed audio about five years ago, targeting voice controlled smart TVs from companies such as Sharp and Samsung.

"We had some design wins in China TVs, but no huge uptick until this big sleeper called the Echo,” said Awsare. "What was missing was cloud infrastructure."

For its part, NXP released last week a reference design for Alexa using its i.MX processor and a seven-microphone array similar to the one used in the original Amazon Echo. OEMs need to request an invitation from Amazon to preview the design.

QuickLogic is bullish about a market for using Alexa to add voice control to systems using the EOS sensor hub it started shipping in November. So far three smartphones, one wearable and one IoT device are using the chip.

“My peers at my customers say the next user experience is voice, it’s a paradigm shift we are just at the beginning of and they all see that happening whether it’s in the next six months or five years,” said Scott Haylock, a director of product marketing at QuickLogic.

NXP Alexa design kit (cr) Figure 2: NXP released its seven-mic Alexa design kit last week. (Source: NXP)

"Amazon made it quite easy" with its Alexa OEM program, Haylock said. "We work with the OEM to make sure the Android API they want to use integrates with the Alexa voice service…from getting an SDK to getting a demo working can be days."

To get ahead of Google and other rivals, Amazon initially offers Alexa free to OEMs and end users, said Richard Windsor, an analyst at Edison Investment Research.

“Amazon is offering a one-time credit of $100 as well as $100 per month towards any charges that they incur as a result of usage of their [Alexa-based] devices. This is likely to ensure that almost all developers of smart home devices will not have to pay anything to Amazon until they are generating so much usage that they are making plenty of money themselves,” Windsor wrote in a research report.

Although Google Home, its answer to Alexa, has sold less than a million units so far, “the Google Home experience is so superior to Alexa that we still see a risk of Amazon losing this race,” he wrote. “This is why it is still Google’s battle to lose but Amazon is clearly doing everything that it can to ensure that it is Alexa rather than Google that dominates the potentially extremely lucrative market for intelligent home automation,” he added.

First published by EE Times U.S.