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March 02, 2017Zoey Collier
In 2012, brothers Maurice and Marcel Eisterhues built a smartphone app for their father. TorAlarm—German for GoalAlert—had a simple purpose: to help dad keep up with the scores for his favorite football teams. (That’s soccer for readers in the USA.)
What started as a fun project turned into a true opportunity for the two German entrepreneurs. TorAlarm’s popularity grew steadily, until in 2014, the brothers and their father founded a company with the same name. Today, TorAlarm is among Germany’s most popular apps for tracking the scores and schedules of football matches across the country,with over a million users in Germany alone.
Maurice and Marcel knew instantly voice would be the next step in TorAlarm’s evolution when they saw the upcoming launch of Amazon Echo in Germany.
“We were both totally amazed when we first saw the Amazon Echo,” says Maurice. “We’re always interested in new technology, so we decided very quickly we wanted to be part of this launch.”
Sridev Srikanth, a developer at TorAlarm, was primarily responsible for the back-end services for the TorAlarm app. But when it can time to develop an Alexa skill, he jumped at the chance.
The German language model was not yet available for Alexa, so Sridev started out using the US English version. Using the Alexa Skills Kit (ASK), it was a simple matter for the developer to build the custom TorAlarm skill. He had no trouble completing the whole skill in under a month, using the online documentation and forums from Amazon and others. When the German language model for Alexa was released, he spent a good deal of time testing and tweaking the skill, because the slang of the two languages is so different.
The hardest part was forcing themselves to simplify the voice user interface (VUI). The team had lots of complex functionality in mind at first. When they started diagramming the VUI, however, it quickly became over-complicated. “When Amazon sent an example of a well-designed VUI, it really helped us get it under control,” says Marcel.
After simplifying the VUI, development of the first intent took Sridev only a week. What extended the project duration to a month was the challenge of mapping so many team names.
A lot of soccer teams have multiple names, not to mention all the nicknames the fans use. For example, the football club Borussia Dortmund is also known by Borussia, Dortmund, BVB and BVB 09, just to name a few. Some hardcore fans have even more esoteric nicknames for their teams.
To account for this, Sridev mapped all the possible names for each team, which he stored in Amazon S3. When a team name comes through in an intent, the skill uses a text-similarity algorithm, searching the database for a match with at least 85 percent similarity. Besides the matching algorithms, they had to test the many pronunciations for each name and nickname.
For example, in the following, the teams both resolve to Borussia Dortmund:
Alexa, frag TorAlarm wie Dortmund gespielt hat.
(Alexa, ask GoalAlert the result of Dortmund’s last match.)
Alexa, frag TorAlarm auf welchem Tabellenplatz der BVB 09 ist.
(Alexa, ask GoalAlert what the current ranking for BVB 09.)
“It's very cool for the user experience, when they ask for a team in a very uncommon way, and still get an answer from our skill,” Marcel says.
Another user experience challenge was to display the team logos in the Alexa app. The smartphone notifications display images of both logos for the match, whereas the Alexa card allows a single image. To solve this, Sridev wrote code that dynamically merges the two logos into a single image and stores it in Amazon S3. The next time a user requests a match with the same combination, the skill simply retrieves it—making the UX even more responsive.
TorAlarm is already getting a lot use, especially on weekends when there are more football matches. Now that Amazon Echo is available in Germany, the company expects volume to increase.
As for the future of TorAlarm and Alexa, Marcel says the company is focused growing its user base. It wants to further improve the service for its German customers.
“We really want to be the best football skill on Alexa,” says Marcel. “We see huge potential for voice services in the future—especially Alexa—and we definitely want and intend to be part of it.”
Goal and match goes to Alexa!
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