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Showing posts by Zoey Collier

July 01, 2016

Zoey Collier

Shark Week, television's most anticipated week of shark-filled television, kicked off this year on Sunday, June 26. A celebration of all things shark-related, this year's week delivers more hours of all-new, visually-stunning, and informative shark-filled specials than ever before.

Since the Discovery Channel audience is tech-savvy and forward-thinking, Discovery wanted to expand Shark Week's reach. To do this, Discovery decided to test the water with a Shark Week skill.

Given this was Discovery's first Alexa skill, they wanted to familiarize the team with Alexa skill development. Adam Zuckerman, Director of Ventures & Innovation at Discovery Channel, says, “The requirements for the Alexa skill were three-fold: 1) build an Alexa skill that the Discovery audience would find useful and informative 2) add a time-relevant component for Shark Week 3) remain relevant after Shark Week.”

With these requirements in mind, they built an Alexa skill with a real-time countdown timer and a voice activated “Sharkopedia” fact engine. The skill was a collaboration between Adam Zuckerman and Stephen Garlick, Lead Development and Operations Engineer at Discovery Channel.

See the skill in action by first enabling the skill via the Alexa app or simply saying, “Alexa, enable Shark Week skill.” Then say, “Alexa, ask Shark Week for a fact.”

Stay tuned for part two to learn how Discovery built and tested their Alexa skill and their tips for other Alexa developers.
 


Share other innovative ways you’re using Alexa in your life. Tweet us @alexadevs with hashtag #AlexaDevStory.

Get Started with Alexa Skills Kit

Are you ready to build your first (or next) Alexa skill? Build a custom skill or use one of our easy tutorials to get started quickly.

 

June 25, 2016

Zoey Collier

Imagine a group of you gather for an impromptu meeting, and Alexa not only tells you what conference rooms are available but also schedules the room of your choice. That’s the vision behind an Alexa skill in development at Beco (check out the proof-of-concept demo), and it demonstrates the enormous potential for Alexa to deliver new experiences, efficiencies, and value in the workplace.

The Beco skill is a location-aware office assistant that combines the natural ease of a voice user interface with the building intelligence of Beco. It’s a mobile platform that uses existing light fixtures to power low-cost iBeacons, a mobile SDK, and cloud services that enable enterprise systems. For clients across sectors, Beco provides indoor positioning, location analytics, and the ability to search for people and places in real time. Learn more about Beco (pronounced “Bee-Co”—and stands for “Be Connected”) here.

Current implementation

The Beco-Alexa skill communicates with a NodeJS application deployed on AWS Lambda. Given a query from Alexa, the NodeJS application maps a person’s name to an email address using a lookup table. Beco provides extensive People vs. Place vs. Time query functionality via a real-time Occupancy API. This RESTful web service allows introspection of a variety of hyper location data.

The skill requires the use of custom-slots in its intents, because people typically give numbers as ordinals (“the 16th floor”) rather than cardinals (“floor 16”). Following are the intents available now and some of their corresponding sample utterances.

Intent

Purpose

Sample Utterances

LocationOfPersonIntent

Uses the “find by email address” endpoint to find the “Place” where the mobile device of the person-to-be-found is currently located, then speaks the name of the Place.

  • Where is {Person}
  • Where is {Person} right now
  • Where is {Person} at the moment

AvailableRoomsOnFloorIntent

Uses the “what spaces are free/utilized” endpoint and speaks back the names of those free Places.

  • What rooms are free on the {Floor} floor
  • What rooms are open on the {Floor} floor
  • What rooms are empty on the {Floor} floor

Future development

The Beco team envisions expanding Alexa integration to include these capabilities:

[Read More]

June 10, 2016

Zoey Collier

Experienced Alexa developer Eric Olson (Galactoise in the Amazon developer forums) had a mission to determine whether or not you could really create a custom skill from scratch within 24 hours. Eric did it in less than 12—and did it well—on a weighted, random-number-generator skill called DiceBot that he developed using Alexa Skills Kit (ASK) and a Lambda proxy.

By day Eric is an engineer for Disney, but he and his friends at DERP Group also build things on their own for fun and profit. The dice-rolling DiceBot is their third Alexa skill, and Eric shares his experience about the process in this informative blog post. His vision was:

  • DiceBot would skew fairly evenly, instead of clustering on specific numbers.
  • The randomness would be based on subtle differences in speech patterns, so that players could roll the dice loaded or roll them fair without anyone being the wiser.

In DiceBot, you can invoke a different intent by changing the invocation phrase. For example, by prepending the word “me” to your dice-set description, you can tip DiceBot off to weight things a bit differently:

  • Fair: “Alexa, ask DiceBot to roll a 20-sided die.”
  • Weighted: “Alexa, ask DiceBot to roll me a 20-sided die.”

You can also append “for me” to the end of the dice set description to weight the rolls downward:

  • Fair: “Alexa, ask DiceBot to roll a 20-sided die.”
  • Weighted: “Alexa, ask DiceBot to roll a 20-sided die for me.”

Read more about Eric's experience building DiceBot and give it a try yourself. Simply enable the Dicebot skill in the Alexa app and say one of these:

  • “Alexa, launch DiceBot.”
  • “Alexa, tell DiceBot to roll me five dice.”
  • “Alexa, ask DiceBot to roll 3 d 20 for me.”

Share other innovative ways you’re using Alexa in your life. Tweet us @alexadevs with hashtag #AlexaDevStory.

Get Started with Alexa Skills Kit

Are you ready to build your first (or next) Alexa skill? Build a custom skill or use one of our easy tutorials to get started quickly.

June 09, 2016

Zoey Collier

On April 5, 2016, Amazon announced the Smart Home Skill API, the public, self-service version of the Alexa Lighting API, which was introduced as a beta in August 2015. As part of the beta program, we worked with a number of companies to gather developer feedback, while extending the Alexa smart home capabilities to work with their devices.

In 2015, the Alexa team wanted to make it fast and easy for developers to create skills that connect devices directly to our lighting and thermostat capabilities so that customers can control their lights, switches, smart plugs or thermostats—without lifting a finger. So they created a beta program to work with experts in thermostats and home comfort to gather developer feedback, while extending the Alexa smart home capabilities to work with their devices. That naturally led them to ecobee, creator of a smart thermostat that uses remote sensors to optimize the temperature in specific rooms. The engineers at ecobee jumped at the chance to help Amazon define the integration and product requirements for the new feature.

Why? First, ecobee was the first to allow iOS users to control their thermostats with the Siri voice interface when they integrated Apple’s HomeKit API into their smartphone app. “But Alexa’s way different,” said Hesham Fahmy, Vice President of Technology for ecobee. “One of our biggest product benefits is ‘Comfort where it matters,’ which is especially true with our remote sensor capabilities.” To Fahmy, it made perfect sense to connect your ecobee device to Alexa and say, “Alexa, turn up the temperature” without needing to find your phone.

[Read More]

June 03, 2016

Zoey Collier

Recently an entrepreneur approached software and design firm Macadamian with a unique product concept: an interactive NHL scoreboard. That WiFi-connected, voice-controlled gadget is enough to make any hockey fan drool. And while it was the company’s first foray into the world of Echo and Alexa, it was certainly not the last.

Now Macadamian has launched an Alexa skill to bring “hands-free” to an action performed 6 billion times each day in the U.S. alone: sending a text message. What could have more mass-market appeal? Yet the company says it created the skill to showcase its expertise, not to gain millions of users.

They call their skill Scryb (pronounced “scribe”). To use it, enable Scryb in the Alexa App, and simply say “Alexa, Scryb your-message-here.”

Ed Sarfeld, UX architect at Macadamian, explains the twofold reason behind the name. "As UX designers, we wanted to make the skill simple and natural to use. The word ‘scribe’ means to write, so it's easy to remember. We changed the spelling because of existing trademarks and wordmarks. But this is voice, and it’s still pronounced ‘scribe’.”

Further, “scribe” is also the skill's main verb, and there’s no need to repeat it.  Scryb needs only a single, simple statement: “Alexa, tell Scryb I’m on my way.” Less to remember means it’s simpler for the user.

By design, users have few other commands to worry about. One lets you set or change the recipient – Scryb stores only one number at a time. If that seems odd, it’s not: remember there’s no screen of contacts on a smartphone to tap on here. And having a single, primary recipient is right in line with the expected uses for the skill:

  • To a parent: “I’m home from school” or “I’m going over to Sally’s”
  • To a caregiver: “I need my medicines refilled” or “I’ve fallen and need help”
  • To a partner or spouse: “Making dinner but we’re out of milk. Can you stop?”
[Read More]

May 27, 2016

Zoey Collier

The Alexa Skills Kit is a collection of self-service APIs, tools, documentation and code samples that make it fast and easy for developers to add skills to Alexa. Justin Kovac, developer of 7-Minute Workout and Technical Program Manager for Alexa Skills Kit shares his experience and tips for diving head-first into building your own skills.

Prior to his current role, Justin was a Developer Advocate for multiple services across Amazon where his core responsibility was to serve as a voice of the developer community. This includes gathering community feedback to help guide initiatives and providing technical guidance to anyone seeking help via Amazon's Developer Forums and Contact Us support channels. "When I began supporting Alexa, I needed to get my bearings quickly," Justin remembers. “How can you advocate on behalf of a new developer community if you haven’t been in their shoes?”

To get started, Justin attended a hackathon – the perfect opportunity to learn the whole process, from concept to certification.

"The 7-Minute Workout skill is extremely simple in concept," Justin believes. "After some brainstorming, I remembered an iOS app I used based on a New York Times article. It worked, but it felt awkward to have my phone on the table or floor while looking for the next exercise in the routine." That's when Justin began creating a proof of concept of his skill using Node.js and AWS Lambda, an Amazon Web Service where you can run code for virtually any type of application or backend service with zero administration.

“To me, the most important benefit of 7-Minute Workout was getting hands-on knowledge of how to develop an Alexa skill, end to end. Knowing that, I was able to better support the developers who are just joining our community.”

Below Justin discusses the top seven lessons he learned while developing the 7-Minute Workout.

1.  Understand Voice User Interface (VUI) Concepts First

One of the things that the experience at the hackathon made very clear to me was the need to start with the voice experience, not the code. While skills are developed using the same tools and resources as you would use when creating an app, designing for voice feels distinctively different which makes it essential to understand VUI concepts first. The idea of triggering an action, like you traditionally would by the press of a button in an app, is now a variable of hundreds of potential values based on the customer’s request. So a customer could potentially say, “start a new workout” or “begin a workout” or “let’s exercise.” This guide is a great starting point to help you better understand Alexa Skills Kit, VUI, and how to keep users on the "happy path" when interacting with your skill via voice.

2.  Check out the Alexa Skills Kit's Included Samples

With no prior experience building an Alexa skill, I needed the ability to dive right in. What I quickly realized was that there was no need to reinvent the wheel. Amazon’s included samples provide a great variety of functional building blocks to kick start your skill, including DynamoDB integration, multi-stage conversations, RESTful request to third-party APIs and more. Personally, I used 'Wiseguy' as a starting point for the 7-Minute Workout skill because of its simplicity and intent structure. For each sample, read the overview of features and don't forget to follow the README.md files for step-by-step instructions.

[Read More]

May 26, 2016

Zoey Collier

Adrian Bolinger is a Bloc student and has developed three Alexa skills thus far. His most recent, Date Ninja, builds upon Alexa’s ability to convert a spoken date into a slot formatted as a date in order to make day, week, month, and year calculations on the fly.

With each skill, his need to monitor skill performance, optimize, and rollout subsequent releases has been a top priority. Adrian found a simple way to monitor the performance of his Alexa skills, to see which intents are being used and identify invocation issues with intents. He did it using the open source universal-analytics node module, with five lines of code per intent.  

Using the Big Nerd Ranch series as a basis, Adrian developed Date Ninja locally with a Node.js environment using the moment.js library. Installing universal-analytics with npm, Adrian found the process of implementing Google Analytics to be very easy.

[Read More]

May 21, 2016

Zoey Collier

The Stanley Cup playoffs are underway—a perfect time to share the new Fantasy Scoreboards skill built by Macadamian, an international UX design and software development firm with offices in the U.S., Canada, Armenia, and Romania. Using the skill on NHL-connected Fantasy Scoreboards devices that are paired with an Amazon Echo or Fire TV, now Alexa can tell you the score of a specific game, what games are coming up, who played yesterday and even lets you set your favorite team. Here’s a demo of the skill in action.

As described by Chief Architect Martin Larochelle, voice mapping was an important component of making the user experience as natural as possible, given that fans refer to their teams in many different ways—e.g., “Montreal,” “Canadiens,” and “the Habs.” Macadamian identified about 150 variations for the 30 NHL teams, and configured two maps. The first contains all the possible values mapped to a unique team code—e.g., MTL for the Montreal Canadiens—and the second specifies how Alexa says the name of a team—in the case above, “Montreal Canadiens.”

Because the city of New York has two teams, Macadamian needed to create an extension that supports resolving to multiple values. As a result, if a user asks for the score for “New York,” Alexa can ask for further clarification by responding, Do you mean the Islanders or Rangers?”

The Macadamian crew discovered that in some domain-specific cases, the Alexa sample utterances needed alternate spellings to make the voice recognition work. As an example, initially Alexa couldn’t distinguish between “the Avs” (nickname for the Colorado Avalanche) and “the Habs” (Montreal Canadiens). With Avs as a value in the custom slot, Alexa always thought the user said Habs, even when testing in a noise-free room with a native English speaker. What solved the problem was to spell the nickname Avs as Aves.

Martin says that, in the beginning, the detection of Canadiens was not as reliable as desired. Again, the solution was to add Canadians as one of the slot values (although, interestingly, Alexa always sends Canadiens as the spelling).

Read Martin’s blog post for more tips on resolving “fuzzy entry” points using the session.attributes functionality of Alexa Skill Kit (ASK) and adding special handling for misheard values with hexadecimal numbers.

If you have a Fantasy Scoreboards device and want to check out this skill, say “Alexa, ask Fantasy Scoreboards what games are playing today?”

Share other innovative ways you’re using Alexa in your life. Tweet us @alexadevs with hashtag #AlexaDevStory.

May 12, 2016

Zoey Collier

When Daniel Rassiner contemplated what he wanted his custom Alexa skill to do, he decided to build a voice experience based on a popular internet topic – enter Daily Cutiemals. With the skill enabled, anyone can ask Alexa to send them an email every day featuring an image (cute, naturally) of their requested animal species from the Imgur library.

Bloc, an education company with mentor-led programs in software engineering and design, recently enhanced several of their curriculums by adding an Alexa Project module. In this new module, Daniel and other students like him, learn how to build compelling voice experiences with the Alexa Skills Kit and thereby create Alexa skills they can add to their portfolios.

With an understanding of Alexa and an idea for his custom skill, Daniel’s first order of business was to determine whether Alexa could interact properly with the Imgur API. To do this Daniel tested using static data. The test was successful, so he delved into interaction with the AWS DynamoDB and using ES6 fetches/promises to find the appropriate picture.

Because Alexa uses JSON files to organize its communications, creating the intent schema for the skill enabled Rassiner to beef up his Java expertise. He used the Custom Slots and Sample Utterances capabilities to give users a list of animals and adjectives to choose from.

The Alexa Skills Kit provides several samples of custom skills written in Node.js (JavaScript) and Java. You can deploy and test these samples as AWS Lambda functions on AWS Lambda (a service offering by Amazon Web Services). Daniel used the Amazon Score Keeper sample provided as a basis for reading and writing to a database using AWS DynamoDB, which is very easy to access from a Lambda function.

[Read More]

May 10, 2016

Zoey Collier

When David Markley got his Echo Dot, he was curious about how he could take Alexa on the road. Markley leads the app compatibility team for the Amazon Appstore and, as he puts it, “tinkers with voice game development on the side”.

Markley says the set up in his car was simple. He turned on the personal hotspot on his iPhone, plugged the Echo Dot into a USB adapter, and the Echo Dot booted into setup mode. He then used a different device, a tablet, to complete the setup by connecting the Echo Dot's WiFi to his iPhone’s personal hotspot. The Bluetooth wouldn’t connect in his car, so Markley used the audio line-in instead. His car has a good quality sound system, so he hasn’t had issues with noise interference.

“After she boots, I typically get my morning news update and then either listen to an Audible book or play music on my way to work. It’s great to be able to add things to my shopping list as they come to mind during the drive.”

Now, he simply makes sure the personal hotspot on his iPhone is enabled and the Echo Dot boots when the car starts, reconnects, and says “hello”. Markley loves having his Echo Dot in his car – watch it in action.

[Read More]

May 06, 2016

Zoey Collier

You can play Rock, Paper, Scissors on Amazon Echo right out of the box. But it took Octavio Menocal to write a more advanced Alexa skill based on Sheldon Cooper’s favorite permutation, Rock, Paper, Scissors, Lizard, Spock. (Watch The Big Bang Theory’s physicist explain the rules and how in the end, “as it always has, rock crushes scissors.”)

A software engineer at the Nicaraguan office of the digital advertising agency RAIN, Menocal improved on the original Echo game not only by including variables for a reptile and the Star Trek Vulcan hand salute, but also by making it a true contest between you and Alexa—scoring each round, explaining why you won or lost, and tracking totals. When she’s victorious, Alexa is not above a little schoolyard taunting, saying, “I’m the best in this game. Come back to challenge me — I’ll be waiting for you.”

Menocal created this Alexa skill just for fun, but developing innovative voice experiences is serious business at RAIN. An innovative thought leader in the realm of voice development, the agency has released pioneering custom Alexa skills for clients, among them Campbell’s Kitchen and, just in time for Mother’s Day, voice-enabled bouquet deliveries from 1-800-FLOWERS.COM.

While his official role at RAIN is that of Android developer, Menocal enjoys working with Alexa and has already created additional skills, including Currency Converter and Sage of Elements. The Echo isn’t available yet in Nicaragua, so he’s especially pleased to be at the forefront of creating excitement around voice technology in his home country. And Menocal found the learning curve easy thanks to numerous programming training resources available, including Alexa documentation, webinars, and live sessions with Amazon evangelists.

To play Rock, Paper, Scissors, Lizard, Spock, enable the skill in the Alexa app and say, "Alexa, open lizard Spock."

Get Started with Alexa Skills Kit

Are you ready to build your first (or next) Alexa skill? Build a custom skill or use one of our easy tutorials to get started quickly.

April 15, 2016

Zoey Collier

Like many industries today, the financial services sector is looking to become more customer-centric—to provide faster, easier, and more secure ways for consumers and businesses to buy goods and services online.

UK-based Lloyds Banking Group is no different. Committed to becoming a world-class, customer-centric digital bank, Lloyds is actively exploring biometrics, including voice recognition. According to Marc Lien, Director of Innovation and Digital Development, the use of speech is exciting not only because it’s convenient, but also because it can empower the 360,000 people registered as blind or partially sighted in the UK.

As Lien says, “Some of our customers cannot enjoy the full benefits of online banking. Understanding how we can break down accessibility barriers is another way in which we are working towards becoming the best bank for customers.”

To that end, Lloyds has created a proof of concept for Alexa, writing test cases for logging in, requesting account balances as well as account details, and asking for help from Lloyds. Watch this video to see the skill in action.

The skill isn’t live, because Alexa-enabled devices and Alexa Skills Kit are not yet available in the UK. But, as Lien explains, “By being at the forefront of exploring technologies we can keep pace with the evolving expectations of our customers. This also means that we can future-proof our products and services by considering how technologies may develop.”

To learn more about how they are developing test of concept for Alexa, read their blog. Look for more to come from Lloyds.

Are you ready to build your own Alexa skill but not sure where to start? Try our trivia and fact skill templates to get started quickly.

April 14, 2016

Zoey Collier

Great news—we've made this month’s t-shirt even more collectible. To recognize your accomplishment of publishing one of the first 1,000 Alexa skills, we’ve added a new badge to the April t-shirt. Simply come up with an idea for a skill, create your next (or first) Alexa skill, and publish it by April 30.

Not sure where to start? Our trivia and fact skill templates make it easy to create a simple skill for Alexa. Both templates and step-by-step guides leverage AWS Lambda and the Alexa Skills Kit, while providing the business logic, use cases, error handling and help functions for your skill.

Don't miss out. Build and publish your Alexa skill by April 30 to score your free Alexa dev t-shirt. Terms and conditions apply.

April 01, 2016

Zoey Collier

Fidelity Investments wanted to find a way to provide Echo users with real-time insights into market trends. By building a voice experience with Alexa Skills Kit (ASK), Fidelity is able to reach people in a different way – using voice. Now, with the Fidelity skill, anyone with an Alexa-enabled device can get a market update or a quote for publicly listed companies by simply enabling the skill and then saying “Alexa, Ask Fidelity how [Company Name] is doing.”

Building Voice Innovation

Fidelity’s Mobile team began tinkering with Alexa and Echo in late 2015. Intrigued by the new technology and curious about how to leverage Alexa to assist Fidelity customers, they worked with Amazon to reach an ambitious launch timeline with only five weeks left before the holidays. Working through possible voice experience scenarios, Fidelity decided to focus on their core business of finance and build a skill which they could enhance over time. Additionally, they wanted the skill to be helpful to most people. Naturally, providing financial updates seemed like the best fit.

Shanthan Kesharaju, Director of Software Engineering at Fidelity, and his team took the lead and built the skill. He took an agile approach to launch the skill in time for the holidays and leveraged cloud watch features and the analytics dashboard to measure hit rates and intent usage. Shanthan says, “The technical documentation, new feature announcements, and tutorials enable anybody with decent java skills to build a skill for Alexa pretty quickly. Also, the events, such as hackathons, are great and very helpful. Overall, it’s a first step into cloud for developers who have not played with cloud, and it’s a great resume builder.”

[Read More]

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