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A Closer Look at the Amazon Fire TV Cube

A Closer Look at the Amazon Fire TV Cube

The Amazon Fire TV Cube allows users to control power, adjust volume, and even change channels on a cable box using voice commands.  That’s right; no more fumbling for a remote to switch channels while you’re busy making dinner in the kitchen.  Much has been written about the Fire TV Cube’s microphones, which are sophisticated enough to pick up your voice from far away.

Innovative microphone technology

How it works

Fire TV Cube

The microphone technology is called far-field, and there eight of them inside the device.  It’s innovative technology worth looking at more in-depth.  After all, it is one of the main selling points of the device.  The device itself, which functions as a fusion of the Echo smart speaker and the Fire TV media streamer, is aimed at providing users with a hands-free experience.  While the concept itself is hardly new, the integration here with two of the most popular devices in American living rooms feels fresh.

Amazon understands the importance of far-field microphone technology.  Most of the time, these devices will be placed right next to the TV set, which will be blaring audio while in use.  The microphone technology needs to be able to discern, or pickup, voice commands over this noise.  Voice-activated devices, like this one, utilize acoustic sensors and digital signal processing chips to achieve speech recognition

Arrangement and beamforming

Fire TV Cube

Echo microphones are arranged in a hexagonal layout.

The microphone array is there to reduce the impact of sound reverberation and noise.  The trend of modern devices, like the Fire TV Cube or the iPhone, is to increase the number of microphones within the device to better pickup and discern voice commands.  There is also a science behind the arrangement of the speakers within the device.  For instance, Echo microphones are arranged in a hexagonal layout, with one microphone at each vertex and one in the middle.  Beamforming, also known as spatial filtering, allows the microphones to identify the source of the voice command and simultaneously cancel out the noise coming from other directions.

The microphones in the Fire TV Cube are, which are not 360-degree microphones, all face forward towards the front of the device.  This arrangement serves two purposes: first, it allows your voice to be heard over the noise of the TV, which will likely be situated behind or above the device.  Second, it allows the device to be used in the same room as another Echo device.  The device can detect whether commands are intended for it or another device in the same room.

Echo Spatial Perception

Echo Spatial Perception (ESP) is used to determine which device is closest to the user and which device the user is facing.  The Fire TV Cube is designed to respond to voice commands issued while facing the device, regardless of how close you are to it.  If you are in a room with the Fire TV Cube and another Echo device, the Fire TV Cube will respond to your commands when you turn to face it.  You could be standing right next to the other device and the Fire TV Cube could be all the way across the room, but it will still respond to you.  Having all the microphones facing the front of the device allows the ESP to determine if you are facing the device or not, and consequently, whether to respond to the command or not.

Placement of the device becomes very important when using the Fire TV Cube.  The technology isn’t perfect.  Far-field voice pickup performance inevitably degrades the farther away you get from the device.  Captured audio quality is influenced by background noise, reflections and diffusions of audio against the walls of the room, and acoustic echoing inside the device.  These things result in the Fire TV Cube being unable to determine the direction of voice commands and a lower signal-to-noise ratio (SNR).

Troubleshooting: things to keep in mind

Product reviews indicate that sometimes there are issues with the device picking up voice commands.  Good rules of thumb for using the device include moving other Echo devices to different rooms and making sure the device is placed in an ideal location to pick up your voice when facing it.  These measures will ensure optimized performance of your Fire TV Cube.

Something else to be aware of is that “deeper” searches into TV programming and streaming content take longer when using voice commands.  A large part of the solution to this problem is making sure you are using the right commands, but there is something to be said for the speed and efficiency of using traditional remote controls for navigating channels.  That’s why the Fire TV Cube comes with a remote control.  Rather than shout commands frustratedly at your device, you can just pick up the remote and do it the old-fashioned way.  It’s good to have this flexibility.

Final Thoughts

There’s plenty to recommend the Fire TV Cube, despite a few technical issues.  The device offers a lot of content, including Amazon Prime, Netflix, Hulu, and other streaming apps.  It’s worth noting that, as with other Amazon Fire devices, Google’s apps simply aren’t there.  Apps like YouTube, Google Play Movies & TV, and Google Music are only accessible through web browsers.

At its best, the Fire TV Cube, which retails for $119.99, provides a hands-free experience that controls your entire home theater.  You can watch content in superb 4K UHD, turn on and watch TV without having to touch the remote, and do the other things that Alexa offers, like pull up the weather and calendar information and control smart home devices like the lights and thermostat.  The device is a tantalizing glimpse of the future of home entertainment setups, where your vocalized wish is Alexa’s command.  Ask and you shall receive.

Find out more about how the Fire TV Cube can integrate with your home entertainment system.


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