Virtual Counselor - TownSpeaks Technology

Virtual Counselor

Technology brings us to the age where communication and interaction have become more impersonal. Data moves at the speed of light, but what are some of the negatives associated with the age of technology? Have we forgotten the human equation as we hurtle into the future? Technology even provides us with solutions for personal well-being. Introducing the virtual counselor.

Virtual Counselor – The Power of Technology

What is the biggest detractor in technology? Is it the speed of information and the constant bombardment of input? Perhaps it is the onslaught of immediacy and how everyone expects everything right now. There is no delay in demand and it is only getting worse. Maybe it is that our bosses and colleagues, thanks to 24/7 connectivity, no longer show any boundaries when it comes to expectations. Whatever you define as the biggest drawback of technology, the one common aspect is that it makes our lives more impersonal. Enter the virtual counselor.

Millennials, along with members of generations past and future, have grown increasingly used to technology as the primary form of communication and they have become accustomed to the impersonal interaction of text and email. Interpersonal communication, including the subtle art of reading expression and inflection, is getting edged out by the phone and computer screen. The problem? We, as humans, are not built that way. We need interface. Enter the virtual counselor. If you would like to explore more about the role of technology in virtual counseling, there is an interesting article from the American Counseling Association – The Role of Technology in Counseling.

The Virtual Counselor – What We Don’t Know Can Hurt Us

When we think of a virtual counselor, we think of someone online who can answer questions and help us navigate difficult or challenging emotional waters, but virtual counseling is much more than that. When you think of counseling, maybe you think of counseling for kids or marriage counseling. These are only two of areas that make up a vast online presence. Here is a brief list of the different types of counseling.

  • Marriage and Family
  • Guidance and Career
  • Rehabilitation
  • Mental Health
  • Substance Abuse
  • Educational
  • Debt counseling
  • Child development counseling
  • Eating disorder therapy
  • Grief counseling
  • Art therapy
  • Musical therapy

These are just a few areas of specialty, but what is unique is that each area now has a significant online presence. No matter what type of assistance you need, you can find it online. Now here is where it really gets interesting. Most of the online or virtual counselor listings you will find are to professionals you can find online. So really, many of the listings you find are simply listings to private or public practices or counselors.

The Truly Virtual Counselor

But where is technology taking us? The interaction between human and machine has become a dependent relationship between user and mechanism for transport. With Quantum Computing on the near horizon and our electronic volumes of interactive data, we are getting closer to an AI form, but we will never be able to truly create Artificial Intelligence. We cannot create a sentient being any more than we can create gravity. Maybe someday, but not yet.

What we can do right now however, is mimic human interaction and recreate responses that reflect what society considers a “correct” answer to almost any question that can be asked. So does this mean that search engines will become our virtual counselor? The solution will be some form of data construct that will provide answers to questions we have. Look at Siri who is even programmed to answer inane questions. Look at Google, Yahoo and the rest of the search engine platforms built to query through mountains of data almost instantaneously

To learn more about human and computer interface, there is an excellent read – Universal Access in Human-Computer Interaction: Design for All and Accessibility Practice. You can learn where we are headed as a society and how our interface with computers and technology will evolve.

To artificial intelligence, we have a long way to go and it is doubtful that we will be able to recreate intelligence in our lifetime or lifetimes immediately following. We will continue to improve technology’s capability to respond based on recreated human response. Mimic is not a form of intelligence, though we will continue down that path because we are human.


Amazon Echo

Seriously. Amazon Echo is just cool and it may even be the start of something much bigger. Ever thought about talking to a device that can answer all your questions, play music and accomplish simple verbal tasks and commands. Okay, so that is cool but Siri does that right? Well, yes and no.

What is Amazon Echo and how does amazon echo work? Amazon Tap.

What is Amazon Echo?

Thought you would never ask. Echo is the first real attempt at vocal home management where you can simply say a command or make a request and it comes true. Like failed attempts at smart home devices, there are always the physical limitations and dependencies on hardware to accomplish physical tasks. In other words, to turn off the lights or adjust the thermostat, you have to buy the accessories like the voice remote or the WeMo plug-in devices. They are already available and you can see all the available accessories if you scroll to the bottom of this article.

If you want less of a footprint you can get the smaller version appropriately labeled Amazon Dot or if voice activated assistance is not your thing, you can get the Amazon Tap where you tap the mic button on the unit to interact.

The Amazon Echo starts around $179.99 while the Amazon Dot retails for $89.99. If you prefer the physical trigger then look at the Amazon Tap going for $129.99. To learn more or to purchase these items, follow the links. They will take you directly to Amazon – your trusted online source.

What Does Amazon Echo Do?

Another great question, but the real question is “What does Amazon Echo not do?” Okay, maybe that is going just a little too far. The Amazon Echo can’t do a lot of things. Yet! It is, however, the first step toward having a mainstream market, automated home butler. As the Amazon Echo and its accessories expand, it will become capable of much more.


Currently, here are some of the things it can do to make your life easier.

  • Plays all your music from Prime Music, Spotify, Pandora, iHeartRadio, TuneIn and more using just your voice. It can even play your iTunes library if you import it.
  • Fills the room with immersive, 360º omni-directional audio
  • Allows hands-free convenience with voice-control
  • Hears you from across the room with far-field voice recognition, even while music is playing
  • Answers questions, reads audiobooks and the news, reports traffic and weather, gives info on local businesses, provides sports scores and schedules, and more using the Alexa Voice Service
  • Controls lights, switches, and thermostats with compatible WeMo, Philips Hue, Samsung SmartThings, Wink, Insteon, Nest, and ecobee smart home devices
  • Always getting smarter and adding new features and skills–over 100 added since launch, including Domino’s and Uber

Granted, the bullet list above is from Amazon, but here are some critical points that are easily missed. Amazon Echo is working to be platform agnostic so it can play or do across multiple devices and platforms. That makes it universally acceptable and this is very important to the future success of the Amazon Echo platform. Where you have a phone connection and Amazon Echo, it has the ability to do your tasks for you including ordering a pizza or getting you an Uber ride without you having to pickup a phone. Whether we realize it or not, this is a serious step toward home automation services.

Amazon Echo vs. Siri

What about Siri? Wasn’t that the first try at voice automation? Short answer is yes, Siri is a valid effort around voice automation and interacting verbally with a device designed to make your life easier. There are two points, however, where we have to make a distinction between the Amazon Echo (Alexa Voice) service and Siri.

First, the feud between Amazon Echo and Siri is going to be fought on different battlegrounds. Where Siri is an application geared toward mobile interface and use, Amazon Echo is focused on the home and helping a user manage their environment. There is a significant crossover section and that is where Echo comes in. The question that will differentiate this battle is whether our smartphone is a viable platform to manage all of our services and conveniences.

This brings us to our second argument. Siri is buggy and often just does not translate well. This is a source of frustration for all of us who are on an iphone. You say “syrup”, Siri says “tomato”. Let’s not be too critical of Siri though. The Apple team did a great job with the hardware they had to work with. There is still a huge disconnect between what the phone is capable of and what home based hardware can do. The chasm is closing, but not in time to prevent Amazon Echo from taking a large share of the voice automation market.

In the end, Amazon Echo wins over Siri (for now) and what started as interactive bluetooth speakers may end up winning the vocal automation war.

Amazon Echo Accessories

Tablets For Kids

Some will argue that educational aids such as tablets for kids are not necessary for the development of our children. The opposite side will argue that these are necessary tools so that kids can get comfortable with technology at an early age. The truth is, they are both right.

There are lots of different sizes, shapes and makes when it comes to tablets for kids, but the question is whether these tools help a child acclimate to technology or is this too early an age to introduce technology as they are building their social skills and ability to interact with other young humans. In reality, we have to apply the rule of moderation. Tablets for kids are an invaluable tool for education when they are used in moderation.

Tablets for Kids – An Introduction to the World

Just like with anything else in a child’s life, educational tools should be used with parental interaction so that a parent can help the child become proficient. Another argument for the supervision is to moderate the time between social interaction and developing other skills. One of the biggest problems we have with children and technology is that the child can tend to get lost in technology. They can become so engrossed that they devote more and more time to technology at the expense of everything else and this can happen very easily.

That said, the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks. There are actually only a few studies that explore the trade-off between positives and negatives of tablets for kids. In every one, including a research study done by Jordy Kaufman, director of the BabyLab at Swinburne University in Melbourne, that explored toddler use of kid’s tablets to understand the impact.

Tablets for Kids – Supercharge Your Child’s Imagination

The result of this study along with virtually all other studies in this area is that tablets for kids are a great way to get children as young as toddlers to interact with technology and expand their imagination. With the explosion of apps for kids and educational tools available, children can explore and associate visually with the world outside of their direct environment. As a parent, you have to view tablets for kids as a supercharged toy that can expand the creativity and imagination of your child.

Tablets for Kids – A Comparison

Which one is the best one? There are a ton of choices to choose from. Here are a few of them. A couple of things to look for when you are purchasing tablets for kids are ease of use, ability to expand and features geared toward use from a child’s perspective. Here are some choices that we recommend. Once you find one that you like, be sure to look at the full description to find the kid’s tablet that is right for you and your child.

Amazon Fire Tablets for Kids

Amazon Fire Kids Edition - Tablets for Kids

Amazon Fire Kids Edition

Great Buy! From $99.99
The Amazon Fire Kids Edition scores high on the usability scale. Geared more for toddlers and up, this kid friendly tablet is still no slouch in computing power. This is not a toy. It is a full-featured Fire with 7″ display and a kid proof case.
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Amazon Fire 7″

Great Buy! From $49.99
Same great product as the Fire Kids Edition without the kid proof case. This edition of the Fire is great for saving money and if you want to buy a tablet as a crossover or shared unit between younger and older siblings.
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Samsung Galaxy Tab 4

Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 - Tablets for Kids

Great Buy! From $139.86
Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 is more of a mainstream tablet, but it should be mention in this section because it is a great tablet for kids. Like the Amazon Fire 7, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 is a strong crossover between siblings and works well for young and old alike – including parents. The Tab 4 is just a well-rounded, solid piece of hardware that merits attention.
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Apple iPad Tablets for Kids

Apple iPad Mini Tablets for Kids

iPad Mini 2

Great Buy! From $239.86
The Apple iPad Mini 2 is a less expensive version of its newer sibling, the iPad Mini 4, but it has all of the features kids need and will save you money. Probably due to branding, this is the most popular version of kid’s tablet, but it is durable and full-featured so it gets a thumbs up from TownSpeaks.
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iPad Mini 4

Great Buy! From $239.86
iPad Mini 4 is the newest and greatest from the long line of Apple products. While the Mini 2 is comparable in features required in tables for kids, the Mini 4 is thinner, lighter and is in high demand mostly because it is newer. A lot of the other tablets have features just as good as the iPad Mini 2 and 4, but it is hard to beat the branding.
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You can also search other models available on Amazon. Just like there are a lot of great tablets for kids, buyer beware because there are a lot of back tables out there as well. If you are interested in finding out which tablets don’t quite cut it, just drop us a line and we will send you the list of tablets to avoid.

Find the tablet that is right for you.


Best Streaming Music Services Ever

Best Streaming Music Services

Meet Prime - One of the Best Streaming Music Services

Amazon is a relative newcomer to the streaming music services business, but they are serious about the offer. Amazon PrimeBest Streaming Music Services sprung up as the member section of their massive retail site and it has evolved into a unique offering in the market. If I took iTunes and mashed it up with Netflix and stirred in some premium retail services, I would get Amazon Prime. The difference? iTunes makes money on the sale of individual videos and songs where as Prime makes money on the subscription to their service.

I tend to like the Prime model better simply because I can download as many songs or movies as I want without worrying that I am spending too much just because I binge watched my favorite shows. Great news if you want to try the service for free. Amazon Prime has a free 30-day trialBest Streaming Music Services so you can try Prime to see if it is a good fit for you.

One of my pet peeves with any streaming music service is when they do things halfway. My hat is off to Prime simply because they are in it to win it. One thing Apple did that was super smart was to create hardware to compliment their video and music streaming service. They did this without making the user buy iPhones, MacBooks or Mac Computers. Don't get me wrong, Apple hardware sales were important enough to add features to make iTunes easier to interact with on Apple devices, but iTunes did not get dragged down into the abyss of required dependency.

The Perfect Companions for the Best Streaming Music Services

Prime has followed this example with their own unique interpretation of hardware.

Meet Amazon Tap

Meet Amazon Echo

This is a great experiment and I am anxious to see if it will work. Amazon created hardware to compliment not only their streaming music services, but to allow play for all the major competitors as well. But where these devices exceed expectations are in the connected state of voice information as well. In other words, Amazon TapBest Streaming Music Services and Amazon EchoBest Streaming Music Services are the first step into the realm of voice driven, AI mimicking, interactive tools that can also play music, podcasts and more. Granted, to play iTunes requires you to upload your iTunes library to the Prime streaming music services cloud, but guess what? That is ingenious. Amazon has made a play to get you off the iTunes platform and onto the Prime platform with minimal disruption to your life.

Also, if you want, you can play any Internet based streaming music services on the Amazon TapBest Streaming Music Services or Amazon EchoBest Streaming Music Services seamlessly. This is longer-term play and Amazon Prime has done a really good job of catching up (and even passing) other streaming music services. Adding a free 30-day trialBest Streaming Music Services doesn't hurt as they get massive amounts of potential subscribers to try the service. While they are still going through growing pains, I have to say that they have done a great job of providing one of the Best Streaming Music Services on the market.