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Sony's In-Ear Assistant is Almost Ready For Your Commands

BERLIN — Sony has already made it clear that it plans to unleash an army of Xperia accessories on the world that will be able to do everything from alerting you to messages to turning your tabletop into an interactive screen. And at least one of those accessories is about to move from concept to reality in short order.

Sony says Xperia Ear, a tiny earpiece that pairs with your Xperia phone, will start shipping globally in November. There's no price yet for this accessory, which frees you from staring at your phone's screen by reading messages and alerting you to appointments. Xperia Ear also lets you go hands-free, letting you dictate messages or respond with a nod or shake of your head.

Xperia Ear first debuted alongside other Sony concept devices at Mobile World Congress in February. Two of those ideas — Xperia Projector and the Amazon Echo-esque Xperia Agent — remain in the concept stage, though both are much further along now than when I saw them six months ago.

It's Xperia Ear that's the furthest along, though, what with a November release date looming. The idea behind the add-on remains the same from what Sony showcased at Mobile World Congress: Xperia Ear can read text messages, give traffic and weather updates, notify you of missed calls and upcoming calendar events, and even rattle off news headlines from a selected provider. You tell Xperia Ear what to do with voice commands, or you can tap the device to cycle through actions.

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The earpiece has four hours of battery life. A carrying case doubles as a charger, so if you're running low on power, you can put the Xperia Ear inside the case to add some extra juice.

Xperia Ear has learned a new trick since February: it now responds to nods and shakes of your head. In a demo at Sony's booth at the IFA trade show here, Xperia Ear asked me if I wanted to respond to a text message inviting me to lunch. I nodded yes, and the voice assistant than read a canned reply — presumably one I'd configure beforehand — and asked if that's the message I want to send.

I enjoy the audio feedback Xperia Ear provides to let you know it registered your head's movement — a high note for a nod and a lower note for a shake. I found myself nodding my head a little more vigorously than I would like to get Xperia Ear to acknowledge my wishes; shaking my head didn't require as much movement. (Maybe Xperia Ear is used to hearing "no" for an answer.) It's not necessarily a ground-breaking accessory, but it could be a nice way of freeing up your hands, depending on what its price turns out to be.

Sony's other Xperia concepts have also done some growing since their February debuts. Take Xperia Projector, which looks a little leaner than it did a few months ago. The original concept remains: the projector beams messages, photos and other information onto a smooth surface like a wall, tabletop or floor. You'll be able to interact with that information with taps, as Xperia Projector can also recognize your finger movements.

Sony says that the projector runs on Android. That's a key development, as it means developers will be able to convert their apps to run on the virtual screen beamed by the Xperia Projector. In one demo, I played a game of Fruit Ninja, slicing and dicing fruit by dragging my finger across a table.

Xperia Projector will provide more than fun and games. Other concepts shown off by Sony include beaming cooking instructions right onto your kitchen counter for easy reference, teleconferencing with far-flung relatives and posting photos for the rest of your family to admire. Sony also showcased a pilot program with Yahoo Japan that would let you shop online from the comfort of your wall.

Xperia Agent, a robot-shaped personal assistant, has always struck me as Sony's answer to Amazon's Alexa-powered Echo speaker. And the latest tricks Xperia Agent has learned since February strengthen that comparison. In demos, Xperia Assistant interacted with a Nestle coffee maker to brew me a cup when I asked for it; another demo featured Sony's assistant controlling devices around a living room. That's on top of the other capabilities — alerting you to text messages and announcing upcoming appointments, for instance — that Sony was touting back in February.

Where Xperia Agent could stand out from Echo and Alexa is with personality. The top of the assistant features a round orb with little slits of light that approximate eyes. When you ask Xperia Agent to play back music, it will start bopping along with you. Whether that's corny or clever — I lean toward the former — it certainly gives the Xperia Agent a distinct character.

Sony's not saying when the Xperia Projector or Agent might join Xperia Ear as products with a shipping date. The reps I talked to at IFA stressed that these remained works in progress. In the case of Xperia Agent, though, Sony can't afford to wait too long. Amazon's Alexa is already in front of all rivals, and Google's about to jump into the fray with its Google Home speaker. Waiting until 2017 or later could reduce Sony's personal assistant to just another voice in the crowd.