Brian Donohue, New Jersey-born software engineer and former CEO of Instapaper, wasn't an immediate Alexa fan. In fact, his first reaction to the 2014 announcement of the Amazon Echo was "That's cool, but why would I buy one?"
All that changed over the course of one whirlwind weekend in March 2016. Almost overnight, Brian went from almost indifferent to being one of the most active developers in the Alexa community. Today he’s recognized as an Alexa Champion and a master organizer of Alexa meetups.
We sat down with Brian to find out how Alexa changed his entire view of voice technology... and why he wanted to share his excitement with other Alexa developers.
Brian has led Instapaper for the last two and a half years. Its former owner, Betaworks, always encouraged employees—including Brian—to check and innovate with new technology. Brian has built apps for Google Glass and other devices, just because the company had them lying around the office.
When the company bought an Echo device in March, Brian had to take another look. He took it home one Friday night and decided to try building a skill using the Alexa Skills Kit (ASK). He selected something simple, inspirational and personal to him. The skill—which later became Nonsmoker—keeps track of when you stopped smoking and tells you how long it's been since your final cigarette.
The first version took Brian half a day to create. It was full of hardcoded values, but it was empowering. Then, in playing with this and other Alexa skills, Brian recognized something exciting. A fundamental technology shift was staring right at him. When he returned the Echo to the office on Monday, he was hooked.
“Interacting with Alexa around my apartment showed me the real value proposition of voice technology,” says Brian. “I realized it’s magical. I think it’s the first time in my life that I’d interacted with technology without using my hands.”
Brian wanted immediate and more active involvement in Alexa development. The following day he was searching meetup.com for Alexa user gatherings in New York City. He found none, so Brian did what always came naturally. He did it himself.
His goal was to find 20 or so interested people before going to the effort of creating a meetup. The demand was far greater than he expected. By the third week of March, he was hosting 70 people at the first-ever NYC Amazon Alexa Meetup, right in the Betaworks conference room.
After a short presentation about Echo, Tap and Dot, Brian did the rest of the program solo. He created a step-by-step tutorial with slides, a presentation and code snippets, all to explain how to create a simple Alexa skill. He walked attendees through the program, then let them test and demo their skills on his own Echo, in front of the class.
“A lot of them weren’t developers, but they could cut and paste code,” says Brian. “About half completed the skill, and some even customized the output a bit.” Brian helped one add a random number generator, so her skill could simulate rolling a pair of dice.[Read More]
In 2012, a “Down Under” team from Melbourne, Australia recognized LED lighting had finally reached a tipping point. LED technology was the most efficient way to create light, and affordable enough to pique consumers’ interest in bringing colored lighting to the home. And LIFX was born.
John Cameron, vice president, says LIFX launched as a successful Kickstarter campaign. From its crowd-funded beginnings, it has grown into a leading producer and seller of smart LED light bulbs. With headquarters in Melbourne and Silicon Valley, its bulbs brighten households in 80 countries around the globe.
Cameron says LIFX makes the world’s brightest, most efficient and versatile Wi-Fi LED light bulbs. The bulbs fit standard light sockets, are dimmable and can emit 1,000 shades of white light. The color model adds 16 million colors to accommodate a customer’s every mood.
Until 2015, LIFX customers controlled their smart bulbs using smartphones apps. Customers could turn them on or off by name, dim or brighten them, and select the color of light. They could also group the devices to control an entire room of lights at once. Advanced features let customers create schedules, custom color themes, even romantic flickering candle effects.
Without the phone, though, customers had no control.
Like Amazon, the LIFX team knew the future of customer interfaces lay in voice control. “We’re always looking for ways to let customers control [their lights] without hauling out their phone,” said Cameron. “When Alexa came along, it took everybody by storm.”
“That drove us to join Amazon's beta program for the Alexa Skills Kit (ASK)” says Daniel Hall, LIFX’s lead cloud engineer. Hall says the ASK documentation and APIs were easy to understand, making it possible for them to implement the first version of the LIFX skill in just two weeks. By the end of March 2015, LIFX had certified the skill and was ready to publish. The skill let customers control their lights just by saying “Alexa, tell ‘Life-ex’ to…”
Since the LIFX skill launch, ASK has added custom slots, a simpler and more accurate way of conveying customer-defined names for bulbs and groups of bulbs. Hall says that custom slots is something that LIFX would be interested in implementing in the future.[Read More]
In the latest headlines from KIRO7:
[stirring theme music begins] Hello from KIRO7 in Seattle. I’m Michelle Millman…
And I’m John Knicely. Here are the top stories we’re following on this Friday.
A car erupted in flames around 5:30 this morning on northbound I-5. This was just south of downtown and caused a major traffic backup, but you can get around it by…
This might sound like a local daybreak newscast blaring from the TV in the kitchen or the bedroom, as you rush around trying to get ready for work – but it isn’t.
It’s actually a Alexa Flash Briefing skill. Flash Briefing streams today’s top news stories to your Alexa-enabled device on demand. To hear the most current news stories from whatever sources you choose, just say “Alexa, play my flash briefing” or “Alexa, what’s the news?”
The particular Flash Briefing skill in question, though, is rather unique. With all its realism and personality, you might be fooled into thinking it’s an actual news desk, complete with bantering anchors, perky weather forecast, and the day’s top local headlines.
That’s because it is—and that’s what sets KIRO7 apart from the rest.
Using the Alexa app, you can select different skills for your Flash Briefing from a number of different news sources. These include big-named outlets like NPR, CNN, NBC, Bloomberg, The Wall Street Journal, and more. These all give you snapshots of global news. Now more and more local stations are creating their own Flash Briefing skills for Alexa.
The Flash Briefing Skill API, a new addition to the Alexa Skills Kit, which enables developers to add feeds to Alexa’s Flash Briefing, delivers pre-recorded audio and text-to-speech (TTS) updates to customers. When using the Flash Briefing Skill API, you no longer need to build a voice interaction model to handle customer requests. You configure your compatible RSS feed and build skills that connect directly to Flash Briefing so that customers can simply ask “Alexa, what’s my Flash Briefing” to hear your content.
If you’ve activated Flash Briefing before, you know that several content providers leverage Alexa to read text in her normal voice. That’s because most skills in Flash Briefing repurpose content that is already available in an RSS-style feed. They plug the same text into the feed for Alexa to ingest.
Jake Milstein, news director for KIRO7, said KIRO7 was one of the first local news channels to create a Flash Briefing. While Alexa has a wonderful reading voice, the KIRO7 team wanted to do something a bit more personal for its listeners. Working with the Alexa team, they discovered they could upload MP3 files as an alternative to text. Instead of reading from canned text files, Alexa would play the audio files.
Milstein said using real people’s voices was an obvious choice, because “We have such great personalities here at KIRO7.” The station tested various formats, but eventually settled on using two of its morning news anchors. Christine Borrmann, KIRO7 Producer, says, “We tinkered with the format until Michelle and John just started talking about the news in a very conversational way. Then we added a little music in the background. It felt right.”
KIRO7 started out with a single daily feed but now has three. The morning anchors, Michelle Millman and John Knicely, record the first ‘cast around 4 a.m. and the second shortly after their live broadcast at 8 a.m. Other news anchors record the third feed in late afternoon, so it captures the evening news topics. Each ‘cast’ is roughly two minutes long and ends by encouraging listeners to consume more KIRO7 content through the app on Amazon FireTV.
The whole KIRO7 team is proud to be the first local news station to produce a studio-quality audio experience in a Flash Briefing and the KIRO7 skill launched alongside several established networks with national scale.
Early feedback on Facebook showed KIRO7 listeners loved the skill and wanted even more. Now that Flash Briefings are skills, though, the KIRO7 team can start collecting its own reviews and star-ratings.
Milstein says it is important that KIRO7 stay at the forefront of delivering Seattle-area news the way people want to get their news. “Having our content broadcast on Alexa-enabled devices and available on Amazon Fire TV is something we're really proud of. For sure, as Amazon develops more exciting ways to deliver the news, we'll be there.”
Share other innovative ways you’re using Alexa in your life. Tweet us @alexadevs with hashtag #AlexaDevStory.
Need a ride? Lyft is an on-demand transportation platform that lets you book a ride in minutes. It’s as easy as opening up the Lyft app, tapping a button and a driver arrives to get you where you need to go. Now, they’ve made it even easier. Simply say, “Alexa, ask Lyft to get me a ride to work.”
Roy Williams, the Lyft engineer who built the Alexa skill, said it started with a company hackathon.
Lyft has a long culture of hackathons. Each quarter, the San Francisco company invites employees to experiment with new ideas. The story goes that Lyft itself was born at such a hackathon, with someone’s idea for an “instant” ride service.
“It took about three weeks to go from the original prototype to a finished app,” Williams said. Lyft has been going strong ever since.
That wasn’t the last innovation to spring from a Lyft hackathon.
Williams said he purchased an Amazon Echo during the 2015 Black Friday sale. He immediately knew he wanted create an Alexa skill to let Echo users order a “lyft.” Williams dove into the Alexa Skills Kit (ASK) documentation, and he started building his prototype at the January hackathon. It was a hit.
Beyond the prototype, Williams estimates the project took three weeks of solid engineering time. The team spent one week working on the core functionality, including adding some workflow to their own API. It spent another week working through edge cases and complex decision trees, so the skill would never leave a user confused or at a dead-end. Finally, they spent another week on testing and analytics, before releasing it for an internal beta with 30 users.
Williams says ASK is very comprehensive, and because it is JSON-based, it makes testing easy. He admits having to add some edge testing to account for cases like asking Lyft for “a banana to work.” (Bananas are a favorite test fruit during certification.) In the end, he knew Lyft had a high-quality skill with near-one hundred percent test coverage.
Amazon published the final Lyft skill in July.
Megan Robershotte is a member of Lyft’s partner marketing team. She explained the Alexa skill fit well with the company’s primary goal: to get people to take their first ride with Lyft.[Read More]
In early 2014, Jonathan Frankel started renovating a house in Philadelphia. With three kids and multiple floors, he wanted an intercom system, but was frustrated with the persistence of old technology. He found that home intercoms hadn’t changed much in the last 30 years; they were still expensive and difficult to install. What’s more, intercom systems had failed to keep up with today’s modern families who are spread across geographies and constantly on the move.
Frankel, now CEO of Nucleus, wanted to bring families closer together. He wanted to build a device that could bridge generations and let his mom video chat with his children with a simple touch. He wanted to visit with his family over dinner, even while away on business. Whenever, whoever, and wherever they may be, he wanted to talk to them—room-to-room, home-to-home, or mobile-to-home.
Now his vision has come to life. Nucleus, the first smart home intercom with video calling, and with the voice capabilities of Alexa, is delighting customers with easy access to music, news, weather, to-do lists, and even smart home controls.
Amazon created the Alexa Voice Service (AVS) to make it easier for developers to add voice-powered experiences to their products and services. That proved advantageous for Nucleus.
According to Isaac Levy, chief technology officer at Nucleus, hands-free interaction was part of the Nucleus vision from the beginning. They prototyped early Nucleus units with various voice recognition solutions, including open source. When they heard about the commercial availability of AVS, they knew their search was over.
“We knew right away that AVS would be a great fit, and we wanted to incorporate it into our product,” Levy said. “It’s one thing to have basic voice recognition. But being able to unlock everything Alexa can do—weather, sports, flash briefings, all those custom skills…it’s like waking up a genie in our device. AVS helped Nucleus create an even more compelling customer experience.”
Levy says AVS allowed his team to develop a more full-featured Nucleus with capabilities the company hadn’t developed on its own. For example, natural language understanding (NLU) is built into the Alexa service, providing developers with an intelligent and intuitive voice interface that’s always getting smarter. This saved Nucleus many years of development work.[Read More]
When Belkin International launched its WeMo line of connected devices in 2012, it wasn’t its first foray into consumer electronics. Belkin has been around for 30 years, transforming its business from cabling to connectivity, wireless networking, and eventually into home automation.
According to CJ Pipkin, Belkin’s national account manager for WeMo, the farther the company delved into wireless networking, the more it realized people wanted to remote-control devices of all kinds around the home. So Belkin transformed its Zensi energy-monitoring devices into what become WeMo—a line of smart, remote-controlled and remotely-monitored switches.
“We built a smart ecosystem of connected devices as early as anyone in the industry,” Pipkin says.
Belkin makes a variety of devices, but high-quality switches dominate its WeMo home automation lineup:
But since Amazon Echo and Alexa came on the scene, it’s completely changed Belkin’s way of thinking. They realized one household user—the techiest one—had previously dominated WeMo usage. With Alexa, though, anyone can operate a connected device with ease.
Tom Hudson, software product manager for WeMo, says smartphones were a natural way to control home devices at first, especially lighting. They are handy for configuring set-it-and-forget-it automations to respond to specific events. For more immediate actions, though, voice actuation is so much better. “It’s a lot easier to just say, ‘Turn that light on’ than it is to pull out your phone, find and load up the app, then locate and tap the right command.”[Read More]
Do you develop in Amazon Web Services (AWS), have an Echo, and want the latest service availability details without having to open your laptop and scroll through dozens of green checkmarks? A home-schooled student named Kira Hammond has the solution with her newly-released CloudStatus Alexa skill.
CloudStatus summarizes the info on the AWS Service Health Dashboard, both current issues and recent problems. On a challenging day, Alexa’s conversation might start out like this:
“Hello! 3 out of 11 AWS regions are experiencing service issues—Mumbai (ap-south-1), Tokyo (ap-northeast-1), Ireland (eu-west-1). 1 out of 11 AWS regions was having problems, but the issues have been resolved—Northern Virginia (us-east-1). The remaining 7 regions are operating normally. All 7 global services are operating normally. Which Amazon Web Services region would you like to check?”
Interested? Listen to a recording of an example session or try it for yourself, say, “Alexa, enable the CloudStatus skill.”
Kira wrote CloudStatus with AWS Lambda, using Amazon EC2 to build Python modules for Requests and LXML. The modules download and parse the AWS status page to provide the desired data. The Python packages and the skill’s code files are zipped and uploaded to AWS Lambda.
Kira created this skill because her father, Eric Hammond, an AWS Community Hero and Internet startup technologist, wanted a simpler, easier way to access the service availability info himself. He figured having Kira create the skill would enable her to learn about retrieving and parsing web pages in Python—and being a good parent, he wanted to foster her creativity. And Kira is very enthusiastic about the creative process of development. “Programming is so much fun and so rewarding! I enjoy making tools so I can be lazy. Coding can be challenging (even frustrating) and it can be tempting to give up on a debug issue. But, oh, the thrill that comes after solving a difficult coding problem!”[Read More]
In April 2016, developer Aaron Roberts put the finishing touches on Alarm.com’s custom Alexa Skill. That wrapped up almost three months of development and internal and beta testing. All that testing led to a smooth certification process.
Rebecca Davenport, Director of Product Management at Alarm.com, says the Alarm.com skill controls more than just home security. It also controls almost every other device that’s part of the company’s home automation ecosystem. That includes security equipment, door locks, garage doors, video cameras, lights and thermostats.
The company's founders recognized the limitations of traditional landline-based alarm systems. Besides relying on phone wires—which can be tampered with and unreliable —customers often forgot to arm their systems. The company saw a unique opportunity to allow customers to arm and disarm the system and know what’s happening at their home from anywhere.
Alarm.com enhanced its offering with its first mobile app. At the same time, it started expanding its core platform beyond security into home automation and video. Today over two million Alarm.com customers control their smart home devices from their phones, tablets, TV, and more.
When Amazon Echo and Alexa debuted, Alarm.com saw another huge opportunity. With the launch of the Alexa Skills Kit (ASK), the company knew voice technology’s time had come. “We had voice technology on our radar,” Davenport says. “Voice control is a compelling way for customers to interact with their devices from within their homes.”
The software team didn’t start developing a custom Alexa skill right away. Instead, Roberts started his own early exploration and prototype during the ASK beta. When the integration project got the green light, he was ready.
Roberts said using the ASK API was straightforward. He found mapping the API responses to Alarm.com’s existing web services was the simplest part of the project. As for the rest, he recalls the major components:
The team members brainstormed all the ways they thought users would request a command. Like many developers new to voice applications, they found customers don’t always say what you expect.[Read More]
We are excited to launch a recognition program that honors the most engaged developers and contributors in the community. These individuals are educating and inspiring other developers in the community online and offline. They are actively and independently sharing their passion and knowledge of Alexa with the community. We’re proud to call them our “Alexa Champions”.
Today we recognize the initial group of ten Alexa Champions and showcase their contributions to the Alexa community in a dedicated gallery. We thank them for all the knowledge they have shared with others and for the tools they have created to make it easier for developers to use the Alexa Skills Kit (ASK) and Alexa Voice Service (AVS).
Join me in welcoming the Alexa Champions:
There are many ways you can share educational and inspiring content about AVS and ASK with the Alexa community through your own blog or newsletter, open-source development tools, tutorials, videos or podcasts and social media. You can also organize local meetup groups for like-minded Alexa enthusiasts and developers.[Read More]
When April L. Hamilton first saw the Amazon Echo in 2014, she knew it was the future. As an Amazon Prime member, April had an early preview of the new device. She immediately knew Echo would be the theme of her next website and blog.
Amazon Echo users and Alexa skill developers will likely know April from her website, www.lovemyecho.com. The site has become a collection of Alexa developer resources, “how-to” articles, news features, and even downloadable Bingo-cards (more on that later).
How does someone become a noted authority on a new, rapidly-evolving technology like Alexa, in such a short time? We sat down with April to find out.
The internet of things enthralled both the technologist and app developer in April. As a blogger, she wanted in on the ground floor with something that had real potential. When Amazon offered its Prime members the chance to pre-order Echo, she knew the internet of things had finally arrived.
“I saw Amazon getting on board with the release of Echo, and I said this is it. Amazon is one of the only companies with the vision, consumer knowledge, tech resources, and dedication to really make it happen.”
Next, she had to figure out how to set up a consumer blog for something so new. April knew Echo would excite consumers and developers alike, and they’d have plenty of questions. With her programming and writing background, she wanted to be the one to answer them.
April knew it would be tough writing with authority about something so cutting-edge, but she wasn’t afraid to learn. In fact, April says her prime motivator was the sheer joy of learning about a new technology. So she signed up for Amazon’s Developer Day in early 2015 to get some hands-on experience with the device.
She likened the thrill she felt to when she developed apps for the first smartphones and tablets—but with a twist. “I was a mobile app developer before. Echo needed a unique type of ‘app’. So I thought, what better way to learn about it than to develop skills for it?”
She wondered what skill she could create that consumers would enjoy. Beyond that, she wanted to build an Alexa skill that would intrigue her colleagues, so they too could see the potential of Amazon Echo.[Read More]