THE AMAZON ECHO is remarkably useful. Alexa, the digital personal assistant within the cylindrical black gadget, plays music, helps with recipes, and orders stuff online. One thing it cannot do, however, is speak Chinese.
The LingLong DingDong can.
The name may sound funny to you, but this gadget is no joke. It could introduce millions of people to the power of a voice-activated, cloud-based smart home speaker. And it could help introduce the Echo to China.
Companies like Amazon and Google want their voice-enabled smart speakers front and center in your home. These clever devices are designed to be your primary interface to almost anything. Using nothing more than a wake word and a simple sentence, you can get the weather, set alarms or maintain a shopping list, and control your lights and locks. Whichever product and platform you choose becomes the focal point of your interaction with the internet. According to one report, China’s smart home market alone could hit $22.8 billion by 2018. “We think that the voice is most natural way to connect,” says Charlie Liu, LingLong’s senior marketing manager. “You just need to say what you want. We think it is really a huge market.”
The DingDong, which costs the equivalent of $118, provides news, weather, and stock updates. It answers questions, manages schedules, provides directions, and plays music and audiobooks. It is the first product from Beijing LingLong Co., a $25 million joint venture between JD.com, China’s largest online retailer, and voice recognition powerhouse iFlytek.
The gadget weighs about 3 pounds and stands 9.5 inches tall. It is circular at the top and square on the bottom, and available in white, red, black, and purple. The shape symbolizes tiānyuán dìfāng—the notion that “heaven is round, Earth is square,” a concept that Liu says is central to LingLong’s design language. The colors also are imbued with meaning; white is associated with purity, and red with prosperity.
Three commands wake the device: DingDong DingDong, Xiaowei Xiaowei (a girl’s nickname), and BaiLing BaiLing (skylark). The DingDong comes in Mandarin and Cantonese versions (the engines required to understand the languages are too complex to include them both in one device). Most people speak Mandarin, and the myriad accents and dialects present a Herculean challenge. Still, the company claims the DingDong understands roughly 95 percent of the population.
If the DingDong sounds a lot like the Echo, that’s by design. Although work on the DingDong was well underway when the Echo arrived in 2014, engineers at LingLong took a long look at Amazon’s digital assistant. “Their launch influenced us a lot,” Liu says. No one at the company could get one, so they gleaned what they could from marketing materials and info online.