Since 2013, August Home’s mission has been to build smart devices that help customers live safely and securely in their homes. To reach that goal, the company has created a variety of innovative door locks, doorbell cameras, keypads, and bridges.
When Tejash Unadkat, August Home’s general manager of platform and partnerships, saw the rapid adoption of voice technology, he was determined August would move beyond the world of smartphone apps.
August delivered its first Alexa skill in 2016 to give customers the option to check and control August smart locks with their voice. “Alexa simplifies our skill development because Amazon provides automatic speech recognition. And because the Smart Home Skill API provides a built-in smart home voice user interface, we can concentrate more of our development efforts on our smart devices.”
Today, as an early adopter of the new Asynchronous Messaging, Proactive State Updates, and Capability Interfaces recently added to the Smart Home Skill API, August delivers a versatile, low-latency control and monitoring experience to Alexa customers.
From Custom Skill to Smart Home Skill, and Now Even Smarter
August Home was one of the first partners to build a skill to connect a smart home device to Alexa. The company started with a custom skill to control locks, and later built a smart home skill using the Smart Home Skill API when the API added support for locks. In addition to AWS Lambda, the skills use the AWS API Gateway and Amazon DynamoDB.
“Alexa has quickly become a big part of most people’s smart homes,” says Unadkat. “As one of the first Alexa smart home skills, we solidified in our customers’ mind that August is focused on delighting users by adding new value to their August products, enabling them to use the latest smart home innovations.”
Developing a smart home skill is simpler than building a custom skill because the VUI is already designed within the Smart Home Skill API, allowing users to leverage the convenient utterances for Alexa smart home skills. In addition, thanks to enhancements in both the API and in the Alexa app, Alexa can report the status of any August lock, whether the customer is at home or on the go.
The main functional difference of the August custom skill—and the reason August maintains it today—is the ability to unlock the door. The custom skill requires the user to provide a PIN code when asking Alexa to unlock the door.
Providing Customers More Consistent and Even Speedier Responses
Andy Rothfusz, August Home’s director of security and partner integration, says working with hardware devices requires providing responsive feedback to users during operations that may take more than a few seconds to complete—for example, physically turning a deadbolt. ”Providing a seamless and more responsive customer experience during complex transactions like this is where the updated Smart Home Skill API shines,” says Rothfusz.
Rothfusz says locks can take several seconds to respond to a command from the August REST API, and physically turn the lock itself. If the whole operation doesn’t complete in the standard five seconds Alexa waits for a response, the user might wonder if the request was actually completed.
To handle transactions like this while still providing immediate feedback to the user, the updated Smart Home Skill API allows developers to send asynchronous messages to Alexa directly from your own device cloud. (Previously, only smart home skills running in AWS Lambda could provide updates to Alexa.) This gives developers greater flexibility for situations when a skill cannot provide an immediate response, such as when locking a door.
When the user says, “Alexa, lock my front door,” Alexa sends the command to the August smart home skill, which makes an asynchronous call to the August backend API to verify the request. The August API verifies the request and responds that the command was received. When the physical lock operation has completed, the August backend sends an asynchronous message to Alexa. If the whole operation completes in a normal timeout, Alexa reports “August locked the door.” If not, Alexa reports “August is locking the door” until the asynchronous message arrives.
“The updated August smart home skill immediately tells Alexa it received the command and has sent it to be processed,” says Rothfusz. “Alexa can update the user, without waiting for it all to complete.”
The August skills leverage another new feature of the updated API: Proactive State Updates. The August cloud monitors locks and other devices for state changes, whether they occur via the smart home skills or manually. When a change is detected, August uses Proactive State Updates to asynchronously send the new state to Alexa. Along with a new consolidated directive, ReportState, proactive state updates allow Alexa to provide a near-immediate response when customers ask about their devices. Users can also easily see the state of their August locks in the Alexa app, no matter where they are.
More Reasons to Update Smart Home Skills to the Updated API
What do August customers get from all this? First, longer transactions don’t time out, meaning the user isn’t left wondering whether the request completed. Second, Alexa can answer a status query immediately, without waiting for August to poll the device. In either case, users get immediate responses to their voice commands.
The company’s doorbell cameras also work well with the updated Smart Home Skill API. Users simply say, “Alexa, show me the front door” to stream video directly from the camera to their Echo Show or Fire TV. But the API’s new Routines also make it possible for users to control multiple August devices with a single voice command. And since the API continues to evolve, it allows August to continue providing new value to its existing customers.
“When customers find August products in a store and realize they work with Alexa, it increases the value,” says Unadkat. “It shows them that as a company, we’re delivering more than a ‘piece of metal,’ we’re delivering on technology that lets us keep improving their experience with the products they’ve already purchased. Leveraging the new Smart Home Skill API capabilities are just the latest example of this.”
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