Tech

Amazon Glow is a buggy steam blast – TechCrunch


I’m annoyed that the magic black box on the table sometimes can’t seem to keep track of my hand.

Meanwhile, my three-year-old doesn’t seem to mind at all. He laughed until he couldn’t breathe as he continuously sucked out the dinosaurs his grandmother was placing on the table from 200 miles away.

I suppose none of that really makes sense out of context, so let’s rewind a bit.

We’re playing with Amazon Glow – the new one, not to be confused with another thing Amazon named “Glow” just two years ago.

Use the touch screen and make it stand on its own. Give it a projector that can project an image onto the table in front of it, and two cameras – one to capture video of the person in front of it and another, pointed at the table, to detect the position of your hand and let it be. Image projection acts as a touch screen. It’s Glow.

Image credits: Amazon

Glow is meant to allow kids* to play, read, and video chat with a tightly curated list of remote family and friends. The top screen always shows who they’re talking to. What they see is projected onto the table, which Grandma – or whoever – will see on their tablet. When she turned the page of her book, the last page of the child turned too. When one side draws, the other sees it too.

(* “3 or more,” Amazon suggests, but in its current form I might limit it to 3-8.)

All content is built on top of Amazon Kids+, a paid subscription service (separate from Prime) filled with children’s books, games, movies, and TV shows. Only books and a handful of games work with Glow; video content doesn’t show up on Glow, it could be the right call or my kid will just ask for Blippi 100% of the time. Kids+ is free for a year with the purchase of Glow, after which it costs $3 (or $5, if you don’t have Amazon Prime) per month.

The book selection looks good, especially for a younger audience. The games are all simple, multiplayer stuff like memory matching, chess, a pong-style arcade and a drawing app that keeps me coming back hard to the days of sitting in front of my dad’s computer for hours and hours drawing Kid Pix. Except this time it’s projected onto the table, and my son is painting with his grandma across the state. She places a dinosaur sticker on the screen; he uses the vacuum tool (erase) to eat it. Both laughed. Rinse and repeat about a million times.

Each person a child can call must be explicitly whitelisted by their parent’s account and must have an Amazon account. That setup can take some time depending on how knowledgeable others are – but once you’ve got it all configured, you won’t have to do it all over again. I like that whitelisting system because it means my child probably won’t accidentally talk to a stranger.

The Glow is a device that was born very much out of the pandemic, and from seeing family in person – especially older family members – can feel like being tempted by fate.

“But wait,” you ask. “If they just want to talk to Grandma from afar, can’t they just FaceTime while using a reading app or something?”

It’s correct! Of course. And…

There’s something different about Glow. My child treats it total different than FaceTimes, or Zooms, or whatever. It also feels different to me.

Image credits: Greg Kumparak

Something about design that gives the person you’re talking to… a presence? It’s probably because you can’t actually move the Light around during a call; there’s no battery, so it turns off as soon as you unplug it from the wall. It could be because you’re interacting with something on the table and then looking at someone on a separate/dedicated screen, almost making eye contact. It doesn’t feel like staring at a screen, it’s more like sitting at a table around a boardgame.

Either way, it works strangely. My child usually spends about five minutes FaceTiming with grandma, showing her his toys, then running off to do something else. When I asked him if he wanted to call Grandma now, he specifically asked them to “glow” (use it as a verb). Hell delight sat in front of Glow playing and reading with grandma for an hour, damn bugs.

Ah, that’s right, bugs.

The Glow is pretty weird in that type out now, but also not. It’s part of Amazon’s “Day 1 Edition” program, which is actually a more marketable way of saying “products you buy while they’re still in beta.” You ask for an “invitation,” Amazon picks who can buy it, and says select people can play with things a little early while Amazon tinkers. It costs $250 if you get it as part of the Day 1 program and will cost $299 after.

In such a program, errors come with territory. And Glow, as it currently exists in late 2021, has them. It fails to detect frequent touches (it seems especially annoying when the child wears longer sleeves), makes a “KLONK” sound, and throws an error (for both users!) mistake. Books and games sometimes fail to load. Sometimes it just randomly resets.

There are also some bits with less error, just coarser. Such as:

  • For some reason, callers on Glow’s screen tend to have half of their faces cut off, as shown above. I think it’s because the Glow screen is in portrait (higher than it is wide), while the caller will generally be in landscape (wider than it is tall). Meanwhile, the caller usually can’t see own face most of the time – only the child’s and the view what the child is looking at is projected onto – so they don’t know it’s happening. At first I thought it was just the person who didn’t know how to place their tablet. Then it happened to someone else. Then I called my kid on Glow from another room, and my wife laughed at me for maybe three minutes after finishing with a razor-sharp face. Amazon should probably build some of the following Center Stage-style faces to account for that.
  • Some of the books in the Amazon Kid’s library don’t look good on these screens, with words too small for each side to read. There is a “Bubble” mode that automatically tries to enlarge these words to make them easier to read; More often than not, it just gets in the way. Sometimes this mode just turns on by itself, confusing for those who have never encountered it.
  • Overall, the user interface can be slow and oddly formatted.

All of these seem to be problems that can be fixed. And I hope Amazon does the same! Because with a little more polish and more content added over time, the Glow can be a really, really sweet little device. But how much love it gets from here is unclear; We’ve been leaving it around our house for weeks now and, if there are patches, they’ve been… sophisticated.

But even in my current form, I still like a lot of things. The projection screen is nice and bright, with some extra brightness and features from a bright white roll-out mat that comes in the box. I’ve never had to adjust the lighting of the room to make it work. It’s quick to set up, and compacts if you don’t want it to sit out all the time – something Amazon has clearly considered, since the box it comes with acts as a very nice and durable container. if you do If you want it to stay active, there’s a physical shutter switch that you can use to cover the camera for added privacy. I also love that Amazon promises to replace it for free if it breaks in the first two years, because, well, kids mess things up.

But my kids don’t care about those things either. He just wants to suck more dinosaurs.

I want to end my reviews with one simple question: After submitting this loan review unit, will I buy it? In this case, I had. Or, at least, I asked for an invitation to buy one. Partly because I think my baby will be very confused if he can’t “glow with grandma” again, and partly because I honestly just love the unique physical presence his grandparents bring when they call.

Should you? If your child is already satisfied with their grandparents’ FaceTiming, maybe not. If books and drawing and basic games don’t interest them, probably not. If you’re not willing to deal with one or three bugs while Amazon figures out what this means for them in the long run, probably not. But if that sounds good, it’s really fun.



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