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Amazon’s newest products expand its surveillance inside the home

Equipped with a touch screen, telescoping camera arm and wheels, the Astro is essentially a Ring camera and Echo Show built into a robot. (Video: Amazon, Photo: Amazon/Amazon)
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Amazon failed to make a viable smartphone, so it can’t compete with Google and Apple on their own turf. Instead, the company wants to dominate the home and is throwing everything against the wall to see what sticks, literally.

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On Tuesday, Amazon unveiled a 15-inch wall-mounted version of its Echo Show screen that watches and listens to your home, as well as a robot with friendly eyes that rolls around to watch and listen. A flying indoor drone for watching your home that it previewed last year will soon go on sale. And the company showed a number of other new products and services that all monitor you in some way to figure out what you want, when you want it and maybe if it’s something Amazon can sell you.

Have questions about Amazon's vision of the smart home? Ask the Help Desk.

At the company’s annual fall press event — held virtually for the second year in a row because of the coronavirus pandemic — executives stressed its commitment to privacy, pointing out that consumers can opt-in to some features.

“As I’ve said, privacy is foundational to everything we do, from adding new ways to ask Alexa about your privacy settings to providing more granular information about your household’s voice history,” said David Limp, Amazon’s senior vice president of devices and services. “We continue to give customers greater transparency over control of their data. Overall, we think privacy is a huge opportunity for invention.”

The event is something the company does every fall as a way to hype up new products ahead of the holidays and test the waters for its more out-there ideas. It’s also an opportunity to slowly increase customers’ tolerance for what’s normal. Every year, Amazon releases products that push increasingly invasive technology into people’s homes.

What started seven years ago with a microphone in a speaker has turned into a flying indoor surveillance drone and an autonomous robot with a telescoping camera in its “face.” The company framed the latest releases as technology to help with the burden of everyday life, solving problems like too much screen time, keeping track of an aging relative far away or leaving your fridge open. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

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At the heart of almost all its new products is some form of surveillance. Some of it is traditional, in the form of Ring cameras and security services meant to protect a home or family from crime or other danger.

To that end, the company revealed two new home security devices. The $249.99 Ring Alarm Pro is a home security system and Wi-Fi router that connects to smart locks, motion detectors and other security components. The company also released another video doorbell, this time under its Blink brand.

Amazon’s other Ring offerings pushed the idea that real security requires even more angles. Ring’s tiny flying drone — a kooky home security gadget first shown last year — will finally be able offer interior airborne views later this year, though would-be beta testers will need an invitation to purchase one. All these cameras create a new problem: too many feeds to watch and not enough time. Now users can pay $99 a month to have a third-party security company watch their home security video feeds for them.

The other side of Amazon’s surveillance ecosystem is meant to be helpful, heartwarming and even cuddly.

Astro is a robot that roams your home to keep an eye on things and maybe play with the kids. It’s essentially a Ring camera and Echo Show screen built into a robot. The camera on top can rise and act as a periscope for better views of far-off corners of your home. It’s the most experimental hardware of the bunch and will cost $1,000 for early adopters when it ships as early as this year, but eventually will go for $1,449. To ease concerns customers might have about a wandering security camera on wheels, Amazon included privacy features such as the ability to make certain rooms off limits.

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It’s one of many products Amazon pitched as helpful for families. The company wants to use AI to automate daily tasks and chores, perhaps even eventually purchases. The Echo Show 15-inch smart screen goes on a wall to organize your family, something Amazon said was difficult to do before. It’s essentially a giant smartphone home screen but with two notable opt-in features that might make some feel uneasy: a camera that can detect who is walking by and customize the screen, and microphones that can listen for specific household noises such as an open fridge beeping.

There’s was also the Amazon Glow, a bulky smart screen on a stand with a built-in projector to let kids make video calls, but avoid other less-desirable types of screen time. Amazon rolled out a partnership with Disney, a streaming competitor, to introduce a new voice assistant that includes Disney characters and is summoned with the command “Hey, Disney.”

The company also tried to follow in Apple’s footsteps, with a new streaming workout service.