Amazon has never shied away from making strange gadgets that require a bit of explanation, but the new Amazon Glow might take the prize for the strangest in several years. It’s a videoconferencing device that also has a tabletop projector built into it. The idea is that younger children get quickly bored with video chats and wander off, leaving their remote relative staring at an empty screen. So the Amazon Glow can project games, books, or puzzles onto a table that kids and their parents (or grandparents) can play together.
Amazon Glow will cost $299.99 when it’s released widely, but for now, anybody who wants one will need to apply to an invite-only program (and get an introductory price of $249.99). It comes with a year of the Amazon Kids Plus content service, has a two-year warranty against all breaks and spills, and also comes with a set of interactive tangram shapes kids can use to solve puzzles. The first units should ship in mid-October and only in the US to start.
Setting up the Amazon Glow will probably be the first challenge for parents. It has Amazon’s characteristically good parental controls, so to get the device going, parents will log in and set up a list of trusted people their child can call with it.
But it also has the added challenge of not being the only device they’ll need to set up. On the other end of each call, the parent or grandparent will need to install a custom Amazon Glow app on their tablet — it works with iPads and Android tablets, with Amazon’s own Fire tablets coming soon. It can also work with phones, but it’s not ideal on those.
So a parent will theoretically need to learn how to set up the Glow, teach their child the basics (Amazon says it’s targeted to children between three and nine), then finally teach their own parents or relatives how the tablet apps work.
The Glow itself is designed to sit on an indoor table — preferably not too close to a brightly lit window. It has an eight-inch inch screen for video chat, and it projects a second 19-inch screen down on a flat white mat that comes with the device (and which Amazon promises is relatively easy to clean). A kid can call their relative by tapping a speed dial button on the front-facing screen, and from there, it works like any other video chat app.
But this video chat app has a shared display — what the kid sees projected on the table is mirrored on the remote iPad. That display can be home to several different activities; there are books, games, puzzles, and some basic learning apps. All of it is within Amazon’s Kids Plus ecosystem, and it’s not clear how much the Glow can do once the included one-year subscription expires. (Normally, Kids Plus costs $2.99 a month.)
Some of the interactions seem really neat. Books are animated with cartoon characters from Frozen, Toy Story and other Disney films, and other activities feature SpongeBob SquarePants, Dora the Explorer, Sesame Street, and more. You can solve puzzles together. There are drawing apps, too — the projector can track a child’s hand using infrared sensors so they can tap or draw on the mat. It also has another camera pointed down so a kid can put in a toy and scan it, turning it into a little object they can incorporate into their drawing.
Games include standards like chess, checkers, Go Fish, and memory match, and Amazon says you can scale up and down the difficulty level, which could help it accommodate older and younger kids. You can also replace the pieces in some games: dragons, pirates, or dinosaurs instead of checkers, for example.
It is possible to just plop your kid down in front of a Glow and let them play with it themselves, but we had to explicitly ask Amazon if this was possible several times before they’d cop to it. The intention here really is to only have it be used for more engaging video calls, even though it’s easy to see similarities between the Glow’s games and other tablet-based game / learning systems like Osmo.
Amazon will similarly sell add-on packs for the Glow, and the company uses the included tangrams as an example of what to expect. When a child puts the shapes together to form a shark, for example, it will animate on the projected display and swim around.
The Amazon Glow can only call tablets right now; it can’t communicate with another Glow. Both the child and the adult on the other end of the call have control over the screen. There’s also a physical privacy shutter switch on the right side: pull it down, and it disables the microphones and covers the video chat camera.
Amazon says that it began development on the Glow before the pandemic began, but it sure seems like a gadget designed for the current moment — a time when it’s much harder for families to get together in the same space. Some Verge parents have had difficulty getting our own kids to stay engaged with grandparents in video chats, so we’re curious if they might warm up to what Amazon is offering.
Correction, 3:15PM ET: The Amazon Glow projects a 19-inch screen, but its mat is 22 inches, not 19 inches. Also, while Amazon initially told us the device would have screentime limits, the company now says those aren’t currently available.