You're Never Home Alone With Alexa

As somebody who had resisted voice services like Siri on my phone, I'm surprised how much I like Amazon Echo and Alexa. Granted I hadn't tried that hard to like Siri; the idea of speaking to my phone like a person just felt awkward. My few interactions with Siri made me fee like I was talking to a bad phone tree system, slow and robotic, to improve recognition of my words. 

Fast forward for a few weeks ago when a colleague pushed to include Alexa as part of a set of tech demos we were doing for a client. Upon its arrival I did a quick unboxing, connected the device to my home WiFi and said "Alexa play 'All My Friends' by LCD Soundsystem." Almost instantly I was enjoying one of my favorite bands. Too impatient to listen all the way through though I interrupted Alexa and said "Alexa stop." She politely complied, and didn't seem the least bit offended. I went on to read the manual and discovered the Flash Briefing: a function that plays news clips from NPR, BBC News the Economist and the Associated Press.

Ok, so I'm talking to a computer—and it's not so bad. Alexa is incredibly accurate at picking up my words and unbelievably quick and natural even from way across the room. I soon found myself asking Alexa for assistance when I had a random question or music preference. A few times I found myself in other room, without an Echo, and wished it would just spring some wings and follow me from room to room. Amazon was brilliant to target the home with voice technology; it's ripe for moments when we reach for your phones but wish we didn't have to.

I cracked open the documentation and within an hour I had a functional example demo running in the cloud and available to my own Echo device.

Next step was to put Echo to work for a client and see if I could code for it. I cracked open the documentation and within an hour I had a functional example demo running in the cloud and available to my own Echo device. It was pretty easy, setting up an Amazon web services service using their Lambda toolset. Lambda allows you to upload JavaScript code and run it without the hassles of hosting your server. Best part it's free for up to a million requests a month, that's plenty for demo work. You aren't locked in to using Lambda for your app; you can use any web server (and programming language) as long as it's protected by a legit security certificate. 

The other part is to go to the Amazon developer portal (different than AWS) setup a little code to tell Alexa to listen for your app and handle your "intents" and "utterances". Intents are the glue that connect your backend code to the Alexa requests, and utterances are the word patterns that your app will look for. 

With this knowledge in hand, I was able to build a client specific application in a few hours. The client was as impressed as I was and we are moving forward with a real app for Alexa.

Note, you don't need an Echo to program for Alexa, Amazon provides ample online tools to satisfy developers, but you'll want one anyway to get the instant feedback and satisfaction of hearing Alexa respond to your code based on your voice.

Alexa, play ‘We Are The Champions’ by Queen.

Our office has caught Alexa fever. Eric Grant, our Creative Director here in New York, bought an Echo and has already set up all the Philips Hue lights in his house to respond to requests from Alexa—just since we started experimenting with Alexa less than two weeks ago. 

There is bound to be plenty of competition between Siri, Google and Cortana over the next few years but with its speed, accuracy and ease of development, Alexa seems to be setting the pace.