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Amazon Echo Frames -- here's what you didn't know about Amazon's new smart glasses

We dive into the fine print about privacy, phone calls and how they'll fit.

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Amazon Echo Frames let you talk to Alexa wherever you go, but have no camera or HUD.

James Martin/AppaEconomicDevelopment

Amazon announced a heap of devices last month, including five new Echo smart speakers, more Ring smart home security, new Alexa commands and a "smart ring" it's calling Echo Loop. But the new Echo Frames smart glasses ($180) with always-on Alexa voice control are what's drawing the most attention from gadget lovers and privacy advocates alike.

Echo Frames put Amazon's digital Alexa assistant on your body in a way that's different than the more anticipated earbuds route Amazon announced with the new Echo Buds ($130 or £120). Earbuds, after all, aren't usually worn all day the way glasses are. By bringing Alexa to your face, Amazon is making sure the digital assistant can answer questions, set and announce reminders and operate your smart home gadgets all day long.

The Echo Frames raise a host of questions about what they do, who they're for, whether you can customize them and even how to buy them -- it's not as easy as a trip to the electronics store or adding them to your Amazon shopping cart. Here's what we know so far.

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Why did Amazon make Echo Frames?

Wearables are a potentially huge technology sector, but so far only smartwatches and fitness trackers have really taken off. Several companies, notably Google and even Amazon itself, have already introduced smart glasses to the market (think Google Glass), but they've hardly gone mainstream. 

At $180, the Echo Frames offer you the ability to take Alexa and its extensive collection of skills with you wherever you go, at a relatively inexpensive price. If successful, the new device could help further expand Amazon's influence outside of the home, something that Google's been able to do in phones with Google Assistant, but which Amazon hasn't yet achieved. 

This is what Echo Frames do

Echo Frames are a pair of connected glasses that let you speak commands and hear Alexa's replies, hands-free. You can also use them to listen to audio streams. Like when you're walking down the street with your hands full, you can ask Alexa to kick-start the air conditioning at home or to play a podcast.

At 1.1 ounces (31 grams), the Echo Frames aren't any heavier than regular glasses, although the temple pieces look wider than average.

You can control some features by swiping along the earpiece. Microphones, which can be shut off by double-tapping an action button on the temple, listen for commands, then four beamforming micro speakers aimed at your ears let you -- and only you -- hear Alexa's response.

Echo Frames only work with Android phones for now

Amazon also touts the Echo Frames as an accessory to your Android phone, allowing you to hear alerts and interact with Google Assistant through your glasses. Currently, Echo Frames lack iOS support, and Amazon is keeping tight-lipped about whether or not they'll work with iPhones ($699 at Amazon) in the future.

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The Frames launch with Android compatibility only, with no word yet about whether iOS will be supported in the future.

James Martin/AppaEconomicDevelopment

You can use prescription lenses in Echo Frames

During the launch presentation, Dave Limp, Amazon's senior vice president of devices and services, noted that his demonstration pair had been fitted with his own prescription lenses.

According to Amazon, your optometrist will be able to fit lenses to your Echo Frames as well as adjust their fit just like any other pair of prescription eyeglasses. Amazon even has a printable card with information to help your eye doctor out

If you have vision insurance with out-of-network coverage, you may be eligible for a reimbursement. Amazon has more information about reimbursements on its website.

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Aside from being slightly thicker than most glasses, Amazon Echo Frames aren't obviously hiding a computer.

Amazon

Echo Frames don't have a head-up display

Unlike the Google Glass, the Echo Frames don't function as a personal HUD. That is, they won't project information like turn-by-turn navigation or AR interlays on the world around you onto the lenses in front of your eyes. There is a small blue light that lights up to let you know Alexa is listening, but that's its only function. Echo Frames are there solely there to pair with your phone and talk to Alexa.

The Echo Frames make phone calls

Echo Frames allow you to call anyone in your contacts using your voice. For this feature to work, however, you must share your contact list with Amazon. 

Echo Frames don't have a camera

Echo Frames lack any kind of camera anywhere on them, so you won't have to worry about people who wear them taking photos or video of you.

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The physical buttons and charging port on Amazon Echo Frames are hidden beneath the temple, out of sight from people around you.

Amazon

You'll need Amazon's chargers to power up Echo Frames

The Frames fully charge in about 75 minutes through a proprietary USB to four-prong magnetic connector. Amazon says Frames should last "all day" on a full charge with "intermittent usage," which Amazon defines as 40 Alexa interactions, 45 minutes of audio playback, 20 minutes of phone calls and 90 notifications over a 14-hour period at 60% volume. If binge-listening is your thing, Amazon expects you'll get about three hours of continuous audio playback at 60% volume. 

Here's how Echo Frames are listening to you

Echo Frames function much like other Amazon Echo ($70 at Amazon) devices, in that Alexa is always listening for the wake word (usually "Alexa" but can also be set to "Computer," "Echo" or "Amazon"). Once triggered, Frames start recording your voice, then send that audio to Amazon servers, where it is processed into a command, which is sent back to Frames. 

How to know when Frames are recording you

When Alexa is triggered on Echo Frames, you'll hear a chime and see a small blue status light inside the Frames indicating Alexa is listening. 

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What we know about Amazon keeping copies of those recordings

Just like with other Amazon Echo devices, Amazon saves all your interactions with Alexa, including audio recordings. According to Amazon, "an extremely small fraction of voice recordings are manually reviewed," meaning human beings sometimes listen to them for product development purposes. 

In an era of mounting consumer privacy controversies, Amazon has tried to stay ahead of customers' concerns by creating a portal for Alexa users to control how their personal data is collected, saved and used. There, you can choose to not let Amazon collect or review your data at all, or you can set recordings to automatically delete after three or 18 months. 

You need to request an invitation to buy Echo Frames

Amazon hasn't shared all the details, like shipping dates or holiday availability, but we do know that you'll need an invitation, which you can request for the Echo Frames here. (This is also how the company is managing the rollout of its Amazon Echo Auto device for cars and Echo Loop.)  

Once you get your email invitation, you'll be given a code that's good for 30 days and that you'll need to complete your order at Amazon. We also know that the Echo Frames and Echo Loop will sell in limited quantities.

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Here's how to know if they'll fit

Right now, the Echo Frames are only available in one color -- black with tortoise temple tips -- and one size: 54 by 18 by 145 mm. Amazon has a nifty little popup on the Echo Frames product page to help customers determine if Frames will fit their face.

You should expect more devices like these

Part of the reason for the invitation system is that the wearables fall into a new class of products that Amazon calls Day 1 Editions, which includes the Echo Loop. Amazon says these are finished products, but with limited availability, meaning they aren't going to be widely available in stores. However, Amazon stressed that Day 1 Editions are not beta releases, but fully developed, ready-for-primetime gadgets.

Catch up on Amazon's other announcements, including a new 8-inch Echo Show smart display, a color-changing Echo Glow night-light for kids and the smart wireless Echo Buds earbuds designed in conjunction with Bose. It also refreshed the original Amazon Echo speaker for 2019, unveiled an upgraded the Echo Dot with an LED clock, and debuted a studio-class speaker called Echo Studio. Here's the complete list of every new product and service Amazon announced, as well as all the new Alexa features

Originally published last month.

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