Sunday, January 22, 2017

Something fishy at the Alexa conference


Brian Kane sees a lot of potential in Alexa, the voice-recognition technology inside the Amazon gadgets that exploded in popularity over the Christmas holidays. But he’s no fan of the way Amazon designed those gadgets, the Echo, Tap and Dot.

“It’s so new that it reeks of engineer,” the robotics educator at the Rhode Island School of Design told an audience at The Alexa Conference in Nashville last week. “I love Star Trek as much as anyone but we have to stop making what was in sci-fi movies 50 years ago.”

Developers and designers should think about building in emotion and social intelligence when they create modern devices. “Personality is the new ringtone,” he said. “Lose the ‘Assistant’ and ‘Agent.’ Nobody is asking for that. Think companion, friend or pet.”

So how would Kane add some personality to Alexa? Last fall, he took Amazon’s hockey puck-shaped Dot and wired it Big Mouth Billy Bass, an animatronic singing fish that was a popular novelty item in the early 2000s. When Alexa answers a question or command, Billy moves his head and wiggles his tail. It was goofy idea, but Kane said it illustrates his point that high-tech gadgets don’t have to be sterile and bland.

Brian Kane and his Alexa fish hack
Billy was a big hit among the programmers and enthusiasts who came to The Alexa Conference, an event organized by Bradley Metrock. His company, Score Publishing, helps authors who use Apple’s iBooks publishing platform and he sees Alexa and other voice technologies as one more  tool to help authors, small publishers and other content creators to expand their audience. Just as ebooks and audiobooks opened new opportunities, Metrock said “Alexa can help self-publishers extend our world into the next generation.”

Metrock included authors and publishers among the speakers at his conference at Vanderbilt University. Jolene Barto, a marketing manager at HarperCollins Christian Publishing, described how the company built Devotionals, an Alexa skill – essentially an app – that delivers a short inspirational reading.

The devotionals are audio segments of about five minutes clipped from audio books read by HarperCollins authors. Each one has an introduction and exit segment that promotes the book and the company’s collection. Users can connect to the publisher through the digital cards that they get in their Alexa app.

Bradley Metrock
“It’s kind of an experiment right now,” Barto said, but Alexa has the potential to expand the company’s connections to its readers and customers.

While HarperCollins used its own technical staff to do most of its Alexa work, other speakers described how users with above average programming abilities and a knowledge of Amazon Web Services can build an Alexa skill.

Tim Moses of Multiply walked through the Alexa API and developer’s platform that Amazon provides for free.  Moses showed an application he wrote in one evening that would let people who are registered for an event or meeting check in and out using their voice.

And Kevin Old of LifeWay, a Christian services supply company, showed how he used the Serverless Framework as a alternate route to the functions on Amazon Web Services that support Alexa and skills coding. Old Serverless to build a skill that reads requested Bible verses from an app called MyBible.

“This platform allows me – a single lone developer – to create an engaging user experience using the power of their voice,” he said.

Other speakers included developer Emily Lam, who looked at how Alexa will be integrated into vehicles, and Matt Cybulsky, who discussed applications for Alexa in the health care industry.

The conference also included an Alexathon skills coding competition. The winner was Xander Morrison, the Digital Community Coordinator at Sony Music's Provident Label Group. It took Morrison just 24 hours to create his Nashville Tour Guide as an Alexa skill.

Metrock said he plans to expand The Alexa Conference for 2018. The event will be held Jan. 17-20 and that venue and initial speakers will be announced by the end of February.


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Follow me on Twitter @ricmanning and read my technology columns at My Well Being.


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