Amazon Launches New Device to Watch You Dress

By Laura Stevens Features Dow Jones Newswires

Amazon.com Inc., seeking a bigger slice of the clothing market, is casting itself as a style adviser.

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The Seattle-based online retailer on Wednesday introduced the Echo Look, a new version of its artificial-intelligence powered speakers that includes a camera. The company said the $200 device, which is only available via an invitation for now, will enable consumers to take videos and photos of their outfits and compare them via algorithms.

But Amazon's plans are likely much broader than offering fashion advice, experts say. Potential applications range from becoming a virtual home-fitting room to a communications and security system for companies -- all ways to more deeply integrate the company into consumers' lives.

When the original Echo was first released in 2014, it was marketed as a "glorified MP3 player," said Werner Goertz, an analyst at technology research firm Gartner Inc. In the years since, Amazon has added thousands of new functions, from ordering pizza to turning on the lights.

The design of the Echo Look "opens it up to many more use cases beyond just fashion and apparel sales," he adds. An Amazon spokeswoman declined to comment on potential other uses for the device.

Still, consumers may have privacy concerns due to having a video camera in the home. Amazon's commercial shows the device in the bedroom as women try on outfits for a critique.

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"I think there would be some concerns to a large piece of the public" regarding an always-on device that could be recording video, said Mark Elfenbein, chief revenue officer at artificial intelligence firm Sentient Technologies, which works with retailers to personalize their e-commerce sites.

Amazon is in a broader race against other tech giants to create and install digital assistants in everything from cars to homes, including Alphabet Inc.'s Google and Apple Inc.'s Siri. Consumers can already use their voices to control lights, thermostats, garage doors and to order online.

The Seattle-based retailer has a head start, thanks in part to the early launch of its Echo speaker device, which is powered by artificial intelligence assistant Alexa. Morgan Stanley estimates the company sold more than 11 million devices through late last year. The Echo Look would be a natural next step for the evolution of Amazon's devices, experts said.

In addition, the company has been using its massive cloud business, Amazon Web Services, to make available a number of algorithms to customers that may help its digital assistant learn faster. That includes Amazon Rekognition, which uses technology to detect objects, scenes, faces and identify inappropriate content in images.

Amazon has also been looking to grab a bigger piece of the apparel market, creating its own private label brands and making inroads into fashion at the expense of department stores and some specialty retailers.

Initially, the Echo Look could help Amazon make a bigger splash on social media as consumers share photos of themselves, said Mr. Elfenbein. But eventually, it could lead to automating some aspects of online shopping, allowing Amazon to recommend clothing to purchase or virtually try on.

"This is where shopping is certainly moving to: [artificial intelligence] being able to recommend complete outfits," he said.

The device could have more value to companies for uses like building security or conference room calls, said Mr. Goertz, the analyst, adding it will likely be able to use Amazon's recently introduced videoconferencing service Chime.

For now, Amazon says that its device -- which appears largely targeted at female consumers -- can "help you look your best." Consumers can use it to take full-length photos or 360-degree videos via voice command, creating look books and allowing for image sharing. They can also submit side-by-side outfit choices to Amazon's new "Style Check" function, which uses a combination of machine-learning algorithms and advice from fashion specialists to offer a verdict on a look. The Echo Look incorporates a depth-sensing camera and LED lighting.

The company did offer one hint that the new Echo will continue to evolve.

"Alexa is built in the cloud and always getting smarter, and so will Echo Look," the video says.

Write to Laura Stevens at laura.stevens@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

April 26, 2017 15:54 ET (19:54 GMT)