An evening with Alexa

Okay, I confess: my curiosity got the best of me and I splurged on an Amazon Echo. You know, one of those little black cylinders that talks back. The Echo is basically a sophisticated bluetooth speaker coupled with Amazon’s cloud-based artificial intelligence ‘Alexa’ ready and waiting to answer your queries. Admittedly an Echo isn’t something I needed so much as something I desired, but when you’ve had a week like ours, a little overindulgence can’t be wrong. That’s a discussion for another time.

I recently started an Amazon Prime subscription upon realising that, at £7.99 / month, it’s cheaper than Spotify’s £9.99 / month plan for what I use it for. The basic Amazon Prime subscription has 2 million songs, speedy delivery and Amazon Video, plus with Amazon Households I can share this with Lizzie at no extra cost. I’m no audiophile so, while Spotify has more songs, it’s the better option for me. Any songs Amazon is missing I can simply purchase through the Amazon store.

Another reason to try out the Amazon Echo then since one of its big features is being able to ask for music to be played on demand with only your voice. I ordered the Echo last night and, thanks to Prime, it arrived this afternoon.

Setup

I was a little anxious since we have a BT Home Hub and several users have had issues getting the Echo to connect successfully. However Amazon are up front about this on the store page and link to a help article. As it turned out, the Echo connected to our internet with no issues using the Alexa web app. I haven’t tried the iOS app yet.

The only issue I did have was that, once up and running, the web app did become unresponsive and when I reloaded the webpage it took me back to the Setup Wizard, despite the Echo working fine. After much page refreshing and head scratching, simply clearing my cookies and logging back into the Amazon Alexa site took me to the web app proper and it’s been working fine ever since.

First Words

Alexa, what’s the weather?

My first query resulted in finding out the current temperature up in Edinburgh and the chance of rain this evening. A quick visit to Settings > Device and I was able to set the correct location here in London. I do have multiple addresses in my Amazon account which might explain the confusion. You talk to the Amazon Echo using the ‘wake word’ followed by your request. The wake word can be changed from Alexa to Echo, Amazon or Computer.

My subsequent queries “Alexa, play some relaxing music” and “Alexa, what’s new?” gave me a ‘Laid Back Classics’ playlist on Amazon Music and a Flash Briefing of headlines from BBC News respectively. I then asked Alexa to tell me a joke (it was bad) and when the moon landing was. I asked what she was (“I’m an Amazon Echo“) and where she was (“I’m here and my head is in the cloud“) and, of course, the meaning of life (‘42‘).

Alexa, set an alarm for six thirty tomorrow.

Is that six thirty in the morning or in the evening?

Overall i’m very impressed with Alexa’s voice recognition capabilities. So far she’s understood everything i’ve said and heard me despite being in the middle of playing a song (Alexa lowers the volume of the currently playing song when she hears the ‘wake word’). Her own speech sounds very natural without the broken English of computer generated voices from days gone by.

Visual Appeal

I opted for the black version of the Echo; It also comes in white. It’s a solid, well built product about the size of a small Thermos flask with a modern matte finish. The speaker takes up  the lower half of the cylinder, with a light ring at the top end which also doubles as a manual volume control. The light alternates between a blue/green hue when Alexa is dealing with enquiries, and orange during first launch and – it seems – setting updates. There’s a couple of buttons on the top, one to turn the microphones on and off, and the other as a snooze/power button. The Echo requires a permanent, wired, power connection.

Aside from the light ring at the top indicating when Alexa has heard you and is processing your query, there’s no other visual output, so on the face of it the Echo is not a very deaf-friendly device. That said, one of the nice features of the web app is a detailed transcript of everything i’ve ever said to Alexa: what she thought she heard, and her response (rather alarmingly, she even records my voice). Perhaps it will one day be possible to send Alexa’s words to a magic mirror similar to what’s going on here. Note that Alexa understands me just fine without requiring me to enunciate quite as forcefully as the little kid in that video!

Skills

Skills are what Amazon calls Alexa’s third party apps. Essentially a way to add additional capabilities and you enable them via the web or mobile apps before using them on the device. So far i’ve only added Amazon’s Skill Finder skill which promises a better way of finding new skills via the Echo itself, and Notion, which allows Alexa to read your emails.

The former I haven’t actually tried, but the latter works well, albeit quite laborious given that ‘delete’ prompts an ‘are you sure you want to delete that?’ for every. single. email. I’ve only tried the app briefly but it’s quite promising with options to ‘summarise’ and ‘move on’ to the next email. I’m aware there are privacy concerns but the folks behind Notion go out of their way to address this and, to be honest, I already give away so much of my personal information to all the other web services I use anyway.

I’ve also had a look around the Amazon Alexa Developer website – hey, you never know! – and I followed their Fact Skill tutorial to create my first Alexa Skill that, unsurprisingly, reads back facts. It was easy enough to follow even if most of the technical jargon was unfamiliar (Amazon Web Services and Node.js being completely alien to me) and there are plenty of tutorials online.

Interestingly, while my new skill worked fine in the simulator, it didn’t work on my device at first (“Sorry i’m having trouble, please try again in a little while.”) and I discovered this was because the skill language was set to Eng-US, while my device was set to Eng-UK. I was able to add Eng-UK as a second language to fix this. Whether you have do to this for every supported language in multi-language Skills I don’t know as yet. Although the Fact Skill example has English and German language intents (queries) and outputs, they don’t mention the device language at all.

First Impressions

I’m extremely impressed with Alexa and the Amazon Echo. Her voice recognition abilities alone are leaps and bounds beyond other services i’ve tried in the past. Even with bare minimum usage – starting music and getting news headlines without lifting a finger – I think she’s earned her keep already.

I know there are limitations in terms of her ability to accept dictation and understand the context of questions (Asking who the Prime Minister of the UK is, and then how to spell her name doesn’t work, for example). Also, Google have their own equivalent with the Google Home. However Alexa can only improve given enough development and I think healthy competition can only inspire innovation on both sides.

I’m looking forward to throwing more questions at Alexa over the coming weeks and trying some more skills, maybe even dabbling with creating my own. Watch this space.

Alexa, do you like cats?

I don’t have a cat, but if I did, I would love her meowy much.

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