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Here’s a first look at Facebook’s “Aloha” voice assistant that might power its smart speaker

Published Aug 21st, 2018 6:46PM EDT
Facebook voice assistant
Image: Shutterstock

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Facebook is serious about raising its voice. An app researcher has discovered what appears to be code inside the main Facebook app and its standalone Messenger for a voice assistant named Aloha, a bare-bones version of which was uncovered by researcher Jane Manchun Wong.

The interface is tagged as “Aloha Voice Testing” and shows the same blue icon that’s been tied to Facebook’s defunct “M” virtual assistant. In Jane’s tweet below, you can see a message box and the transcription of voice into text. Multiple reports out today speculate this tool will wind up as a key part of both Facebook apps like Messenger as well as an eventual smart speaker from the company that will be positioned as a rival to Amazon’s Echo Show.

Reports around this same time last year were using the “Aloha” code name in reference to a video chat smart speaker that was to be Facebook’s first attempt at selling mass-market consumer hardware. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg can read the numbers and is no doubt jealous of the runaway success of speakers like Amazons Echoes and to a lesser extent Google’s Home speakers, which come equipped with those companies’ own respective and powerful voice assistants and serve to keep users tied into their ecosystem.

Sources told Business Insider last year that Facebook employees quickly set to work on Aloha (the speaker, not the assistant) after watching the success of Amazon’s first Echo device. The Facebook device, with a touchscreen plus a camera and speakers, was also to have been the first product to come out of Facebook’s Building 8 secret hardware lab.

Maybe Facebook is backing into this, with an assistant first and a speaker later? Or it could just be this is a case of Jane, the researcher, discovering the horse before the cart. Make that the horse that will power the cart. Reporting on the interface she discovered, TechCrunch notes that it shows “as a user speaks while in a message thread, a horizontal blue bar expands and contracts to visualize the volume of speech while recognizing and transcribing into text. The code describes the feature as having connections with external WiFi or Bluetooth devices. It’s possible that the software will run on both Facebook’s hardware and software, similar to Google Assistant that runs both on phones and Google Home speakers.”

Facebook has declined to comment about the discovered feature. Wong also found a logo of what looks like a volcano also buried in the code, with TechCrunch confirming a similar Aloha-related logo is being used on the phones of Facebook employees.

One more thing Jane stumbled across — a voice messaging feature apparently in the works for Instagram. “This,” notes the same TechCrunch report, “would allow you to speak into Instagram and send the audio clips similar to a walkie-talkie.”

You can see the mike in this image from one of her tweets, similar to the mike that starts a voice recording in Facebook Messenger:

Andy Meek Trending News Editor

Andy Meek is a reporter based in Memphis who has covered media, entertainment, and culture for over 20 years. His work has appeared in outlets including The Guardian, Forbes, and The Financial Times, and he’s written for BGR since 2015. Andy's coverage includes technology and entertainment, and he has a particular interest in all things streaming.

Over the years, he’s interviewed legendary figures in entertainment and tech that range from Stan Lee to John McAfee, Peter Thiel, and Reed Hastings.