Update 11/18: Updated to clarify Care Hub is currently US-only, and that Alexa can be used to call for help via landline or mobile phone.
Amazon this week introduced a feature called Care Hub, which allows people to use the Alexa app and an Echo device to remotely check in on loved ones. Announced at the company’s hardware event in September and currently available only in the United States, Amazon describes the functionality as “a simple way to feel close even when you’re apart.” Care Hub users receive notifications when a family member or friend asks Alexa to call for help, and can use the longstanding Drop-In feature to further support them. You also can call them directly over a landline or mobile phone, or contact emergency services if necessary as well.
“Care Hub is a set of Alexa features that simplify and improve the caregiving experience. The Care Hub establishes a connection between two Alexa accounts to enable family members to care for loved ones, even from a distance,” said Toni Reid, Amazon’s Vice President of Alexa Experience & Echo Devices, in an interview. “Once set up and approved by both the family member and loved one, the family member can use their Alexa app to view their loved one’s recent activity with Alexa or other connected smart home devices so that they can know their loved one is up and going about their day.”
Though Care Hub is intended for use by everyone, regardless of ability, its potential utility as an assistive technology tool also resonates. Especially during the coronavirus pandemic, where nearly everyone is isolated from one another, Care Hub has the ability to connect those who may not have alternative options. Consider an elderly person or a disabled person who lives in an assisted living facility. In The Before Times pre-Covid, regular visitations were a common and welcome occurrence. Not so much in this new age of perpetual mask-wearing and social distancing. Other digital tools—Zoom, FaceTime, and Skype, for instance—are indispensable for sustaining human interaction, but so too is Care Hub. The software is more or less Amazon’s take on connecting people in these trying times. If we can’t physically be together, Care Hub (and its ilk) attempt to approximate the experience in the meantime.
The idea that technology can help seniors and other socially-isolated people live fuller lives, engaged with the world, is not a novel one—it’s accessibility too. Music, even through older, ostensibly “obsolete” tech like an iPod, does the same thing.
Reid said building Care Hub was a “passion project” for the team, and although the target demographic is caregivers and older people, they recognized Care Hub’s potential to have relevance beyond seniors. During development, the Alexa team heard from many seniors who expressed confidence with independent living because of the veritable virtual assistant. Reid shared an anecdote about Buzz, a customer who bought his mother an Echo Show after his father passed away. Buzz and his mom have coffee together every morning over Drop-In, and he became famous with colleagues at work for his mother’s virtual visits to his office.
“Stories like these are the highlight of my day,” Reid said. “They also teach us where Alexa can be most useful for these customers, and inspire us to think about how we could do even more. And that’s what led to us developing the Care Hub.”
The design team obsessed over what matters to people in caregiving situations, and made Care Hub in such ways that prioritized those desires and needs. One important revelation was people who are receiving care want to maintain their independence as much as possible. Likewise, caregivers wanted peace of mind that their family or friend was okay. It was these sorts of considerations that acted as Amazon’s North Star during development, Reid told me.
“We see a ton of potential for Alexa to help simplify the caregiving experience and believe we’ve just scratched the surface of what’s possible,” she said. “We look forward to hearing from our customers about what features they would find most useful and evolving the experience based on that feedback.”
That feedback Reid alludes to has been positive thus far, “overwhelming” even. The beta-testing group included Amazon employees, “Amazonians” as they’re colloquially known. Reid said participants felt Care Hub made the pandemic-forced distance “manageable” over the miles. They also enjoyed the activity feed feature, where a caregiver can see when—but not what—their person summoned Alexa for something. This benefits here are twofold: first, it lets the caregiver keep tabs on whomever they’re caring for; secondly, it gives the person receiving care greater senses of autonomy and independence because the caretaker isn’t nagging them about what is going on. That the technology dignifies the experience on both ends does much in making Care Hub successful.
As for Care Hub’s long-term prospects, Reid and team is optimistic and enthusiastic. She and her team welcome feedback from customers, and have a roadmap for where Care Hub goes in the future. “We’re always looking for ways to make interacting with Alexa simpler, more natural and at times, proactive,” she said. “Those same ideas will apply to the Care Hub. As we often say at Amazon, it’s just Day One—we’ll continue to gather feedback from customers and evolve the experience over time.”
Care Hub is available now to try in the Alexa app for iOS and Android.