SAN FRANCISCO – Amazon's Alexa digital assistant has a few games at its disposal, but there's no great way to interact with them. You can use your voice to navigate through choose-your-own adventure scenarios, but otherwise, Alexa's library is limited to simple fare like Bingo and Tic-Tac-Toe. A new accessory called the Echo Button ($20 for a two-pack) might change that – especially if your goal is to host a heated multiplayer match.
I saw a demo of the Echo Button at GDC 2018, and while I don't think it's going to displace Overwatch anytime soon, it's an interesting little gadget with some potential for fun and/or mischief. Here's how it works: You connect up to four Echo Buttons to an Alexa device via Bluetooth. You tell Alexa that you'd like to play a game, such as Trivial Pursuit or Don't Cut That Wire. Then, you press the button – or don't press it – when Alexa tells you. The button's LED light can display a variety of colors, adding a further complication.
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When I saw the Echo Buttons in action, four players were huddled around an Alexa speaker, one button in front of each one. They were playing a Wild West-style color-matching game. Alexa would randomize the colors on each button, and only when the colors all matched could players hit them. The first player to draw his or her gun (by hitting the Echo Button) would gain a point. Simple stuff, to be sure, but the Echo Button adds a physical component that Alexa games have never had before. It'd kill 15 minutes at a party, at the very least.
An Amazon representative informed me that timing and repetition games are decent fits for the Echo Button, but the gadget's real strength is when it comes to interrupting Alexa. If you want to stop Alexa in the middle of a sentence, you usually have to interrupt with some kind of cumbersome voice command, then hope that the program hears you and interprets you correctly – even if other people are shouting at the same time. This makes trivia games, like Jeopardy, extremely difficult to handle.
However, the Echo Button acts as a physical stimulus that can stop Alexa in the middle of a query, making trivia much simpler to manage. In fact, Jeopardy in particular has become so popular among Echo Button users, that Amazon has started including a subscription to the Alexa version of the game as part of its Amazon Prime package.
As for what the Echo Button might be able to do beyond multiplayer games, it's hard to say. An Amazon representative told me that Echo Buttons are mostly there to facilitate simple games, and the company doesn't really have any productivity or accessibility applications in mind yet. Furthermore, the types of games the Echo Button lends itself to seem limited, since it's just one button with a few different colors.
Still, if the Echo Button is only a party trick at present, it's at least a cheap one. If it winds up going the way of the Fire Phone and the Kindle DX, at least you can tell the grandkids that once upon a time, Amazon tried to make speakers into gaming machines.