New chip to let headphones respond to Amazon's Alexa by name

By Stephen Nellis

By Stephen Nellis

(Reuters) - Knowles Corp, a major supplier of microphones to Apple's iPhone and many other smart devices, on Tuesday released a new chip that will allow battery-powered wireless headphones to respond to Amazon's Alexa voice assistant by saying the assistant's name.

Previously, users of most Alexa-enabled headphones have had to press a button on the side of the headphones to awaken the assistant.

Consumers have become accustomed to calling out names for popular voice assistants, such as Amazon.com Inc's Alexa, Apple Inc's Siri or Google Inc's Google Assistant.

But in order to detect the wake word, these so-called smart home devices must use electricity to keep a microphone and what is known as a digital signal processor running at all times to listen for the assistant's name.

That has made it difficult to engineer voice activation into small devices such as wireless earbuds with limited battery life.

Apple's $160 AirPods wireless earbuds made their debut in 2016, but the company did not introduce the ability to wake its voice assistant by saying "Hey, Siri" until March, when the second generation of the device was released.

Samsung Electronics Co Ltd in April introduced a limited set of voice commands for its Galaxy Buds and its Bixby voice assistant. Headphones using Google's Assistant still do not have the capability.

Knowles has designed a power-efficient chip that integrates a microphone and digital signal processor, along with a so-called reference design that will let third-party headphone makers easily place the Alexa assistant into their products.

"It turned out to be a little more complicated than we thought, but we did it," Mike Polacek, president of the intelligent audio business unit at Knowles, told Reuters in an interview.

Knowles said that electronics makers Anker and LinkPlay plan to use the chips and Alexa design to bring voice-activated versions - as opposed to push-button versions - of Alexa to their headphones.

Bose Corp plans to release headphones later this month with voice-activated Alexa, but Knowles declined to comment on whether Bose is using its chip.

In a statement, Priya Abani, director of Amazon's Alexa Voice Service unit, said the Knowles designs are intended to "help developers save time and money building new devices for Alexa."


(Reporting by Stephen Nellis in San Francisco, editing by G Crosse)