May 8, 2021

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Alexa can reach out and ‘hug’ someone for you, but only if you do this first – CNET

6 min read
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You can send virtual hugs to family and friends from one Amazon Echo to another.

Chris Monroe/CNET

“Reach out,” the sentimental old ad campaign used to say. “Reach out and touch someone.” That was the 1980s, and the metaphor of physical touch helped humanize the technological marvel that was… <checks notes> …long-distance phone calls. Holy Tamagotchi, things sure have changed.

Today we have Alexa. Today we have… hugs?

Last year, at the height of the pandemic, Amazon quietly (by Prime standards, anyway) updated Alexa to let you not just message your friends and family — not just call or video-call them — but do the simple thing that lockdowns, social distancing rules and public health protocols often meant we couldn’t do anymore: hug someone.

It’s not the most elaborate message: Alexa just plays an endearing little ringtone and lets the recipients know you’ve sent them a hug. But it’s darling, like an audible emoji, and perfect for letting someone know you’re thinking about them, even when you don’t have anything in particular to say.

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Unfortunately, there’s a catch. You can’t send hugs to just anybody — they have to have an Alexa account too. And you may not even be able to send them a hug even if they do have Alexa — if they haven’t set it up correctly, that is.

But don’t tap out just yet. We’ll walk you through all the setup steps you need to do, plus help you explain to your less tech-savvy friends and family how to get this whole hugging affair underway.

Then let the hug-fest begin.

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When you send a hug to someone with Alexa, they’ll receive a notification on their devices as well as from the Alexa mobile app.

Dale Smith/CNET

Love 2.0: How to send a hug with Alexa

To send some nonverbal love to friends or family, all you’ve got to say is, “Alexa, send [contact] a hug.” If everything is set up the right way, they’ll get the message on their connected Amazon Echo devices (and a notification in their Alexa mobile app, too).

To make sure this will work, you’ll want to first dig into your Alexa app settings to make sure your contacts are synced and that (this is the important part) Alexa knows which of them have an Alexa account — and which don’t (keep reading to find out what to do for those who don’t).

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If a contact lives in an Alexa household that uses someone else’s login credentials, they may appear as a non-Alexa contact in your Alexa app.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Make sure your phone contacts sync with Alexa

This part’s easy. Once you’ve set Alexa to keep an eye on your phone contacts, anytime you add someone to your phone it’ll also add them to your Alexa contacts. Here’s how to set it and forget it:

1. Open the Alexa app, tap Communicate on the lower menu bar, then tap the contacts icon (the people icon) in the upper right corner.

2. In the same spot on the next screen, tap the More (three stacked dots) icon.

3. Midway down the screen, beneath Import Contacts, does it say Enabled? If it does, you’re good to go. If not, tap Import Contacts and move the toggle to the on position.

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When a contact has an Alexa account, “Alexa Calling & Messaging” will be available at the top and “Allow Drop In” will be an option.

Screenshot by Dale Smith/CNET

There’s a difference between contacts and Alexa contacts

Once you’ve turned on Import Contacts, Alexa will scan your synced contact list looking for email addresses and phone numbers that are already registered with Alexa. When you tap on those contacts, you’ll see options like Alexa Calling & Messaging and a toggle labeled Allow Drop In that can give them permission to drop in on your Alexa devices (apparently some people want that?) 

With these contacts, you’re done. You can use Alexa to call, video call, message or hug them to your heart’s content. 

It’s the other contacts, the ones that say Invite [contact] to connect on Alexa that you need to nudge a little to get this all to work. 

What’s the problem, Alexa?

Say you want to send your mom a hug, but her Alexa device is registered to your dad’s account. She might show up as a regular (i.e., non-Alexa) contact and you won’t be able to send her a hug. Or maybe you’d like to give your grandma or grandpa a virtual squeeze, but smart speakers are a little too Generation Next for them.

All hope is not lost. Those people will still show up in your Alexa contact list, but you can’t interact with them through Alexa just yet.

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A contact without an Alexa account (like this entry for Apple Inc.) will display a link to send an invitation to create an Alexa account.

Screenshot by Dale Smith/CNET

How to connect with non-Alexa contacts

First, navigate to the non-Alexa contact with whom you’d like to use Alexa to connect (Alexa app > Communicate > Contacts icon > contact name). To the right of where it says Invite [contact] to connect on Alexa you’ll see a little envelope icon. If you tap it, your phone should automatically pull up your messaging app with a text that reads, “Let’s connect on the Alexa app! We can video call, message, and more. Get it at: [URL].”

All that link really does is direct the recipient to their respective version of the Alexa mobile app (whether iOS or Android). So, depending on their technological chops, you can just as easily skip the generic message and just tell them to download the Alexa app to their phone in your own words. 

OK, they’ve downloaded the Alexa app — now what?

Once they have the Alexa mobile app installed on their phone, there are three ways to go about signing into it, each with pros and cons.

If they don’t have Alexa, have never had Alexa and would never have gotten Alexa were you not insisting that they do so now, they should sign in with their Amazon account. (Surely they have that, right?) Fun fact: You don’t have to actually own an Amazon Echo device to use the Alexa mobile app.

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Even if your friend or family member doesn’t own an Amazon Echo smart speaker or display, they can still receive hugs, messages and calls via the Alexa mobile app.

James Martin/CNET

If they live in an Alexa household that’s connected to someone else’s Amazon account and they neither have nor want their own Amazon or Alexa login, they can sign in with the other household member’s credentials. The upside for them is this is the most hassle-free way to go about it. The downside for you, however, is that you’ll have to remember, for example, that “Dad” means “Dad” and “Mom” and “Mom and Dad.”

Finally, if someone else in their house controls the primary Alexa account and they’d like to have their own individualized experience with Alexa, they’ll need to create their own personal account and have the primary account holder add them to their Alexa account (here’s how to do all of that). 

This last way is, of course, the most difficult and complicated for them, at least in the moment. But it’s the easiest for you and, in the long run, it will probably be more convenient for them as well.

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