Amazon has a health-oriented wearable in the works that has the potential to use voice recognition technology to sense emotional states, according to a report from Bloomberg.

The product (codenamed Dylan) is being developed by Amazon’s hardware development team Lab126 and its Alexa division. Designed to be worn on the wrist, the device seemingly has a form factor similar to a smartwatch.

According to documents and sources cited by Bloomberg, Amazon is currently beta-testing the technology which has built in speakers to pick up vocal inflections and commands.

While these capabilities seems more like science fiction, the technology is grounded in research about vocal biomarkers that can pick up issues like depression or anxiety or function as a diagnostic aid. Startups like San Francisco-based Ellipsis Health and Boston-based Sonde Health are operating in a similar space.

With the increased popularity of its Amazon Echo smart speaker devices, the e-commerce giant has expanded the use of voice skills across a variety of applications and has embedded its voice recognition in hardware ranging from its Fire video streaming sticks and its Echo Auto dashboard device.

One key example was the rollout of HIPAA-compliant skills for Alexa that facilitates the secure exchange of patient information through voice-based apps.

Paddy Padmanabhan, CEO of healthcare consultancy Damo Consulting, pointed to the new technology as the next step in the company’s combination of consumer-facing voice technology and health.

“Even though this is being positioned as wellness app, this could become a clinical app in future once the evidence of its effectiveness is available,” Padmanabhan said. “We already know that voice can be analyzed for detecting early onset of Parkinson’s, so it’s not hard to extend that same application to other conditions as well.”

Amazon has remained mum on the report, but Bloomberg pointed to previous patent filings by the company for voice software technology that can used vocal patterns to discern “joy, anger, sorrow, sadness, fear, disgust, boredom, stress, or other emotional states.”

A wearable would also extend the company’s data collection apparatus outside of its ecosystem with a device that is directly on a user’s body, presumably collecting and tracking information during the person’s daily life and providing an even closer touchpoint with Amazon’s growing retail and health network.

Of course, not all of the company’s forays into hardware have been lucrative. The Amazon Fire smartphone was unveiled with great fanfare in 2014 and discontinued a little more than a year later.

The company faces similar competitive pressure if it decides to enter the crowded industry dominated by incumbents like Apple and Fitbit.

Sam Hanna, an associate dean at American University and longtime healthcare advisor and consultant, said new emotional-sensing capabilities would serve to make Amazon’s products even more integral to users. He pointed to Alexa suggesting a purchase if the software senses sadness in their user.

“The intent is for us to rely and depend on Alexa to help us navigate our needs – whether we know them or not – and to provide us with solutions and options,” Hanna said.

“If you are sick and you sound raspy, it can recommend a special meal recipe to make or a dish to order from your favorite restaurant. It may even suggest you order some Claritin or Sudafed and have it delivered.”

It is still unclear, however, if Amazon’s technology will function as pure research effort or whether the product will eventually be commercialized. So it may be some time before we have a digital shoulder to cry on (and provide retail therapy in the process).

Photo: David Ryder, Getty Images



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