Dear Alexa – It’s not you, it’s me. Part 1

When I was asked recently by my boss whether I’d like to research and then write about a piece of technology I jumped at the chance to try out Amazon’s Alexa. Before I get started however, let’s back up a bit.

Expectations, meet reality

Voice assistants have always seemed so futuristic, but until recently, they’ve not quite lived up to the hype. My first foray into voice control left much to be desired. I had a TomTom Go GPS device in my car that would suggest faster routes. I could confirm this new route either by tapping an on-screen button or by using my voice. This simply required me to say “yes” or “no” and it rarely worked. I would shout the response at the device, trying all sorts of inflections but when it decided to work seemed to be down to luck more than anything else.

It was also possible to initiate a voice call from a Bluetooth connected phone by saying something like “call Mum”. Again, this functionality never really worked and usually ended in an embarrassing situation making small talk with someone completely random.

Jumping ahead a few years and Siri arrived. On the whole Siri works well. When my iPhone is plugged in I can say “Hey Siri” and then ask something like “what time is it” or “what’s the weather like outside”. I can also add reminders or set timers, which is useful.

However, Siri still has its limitations. I really want to ask for things to be switched on and off, or maybe for adjustments to be made to things, but most importantly, I want to be able to do this without having to think about it too much.

Does Alexa fulfil this promise?

Set-Up

Once you have the Echo free of its packaging the setup is very straightforward. Following the common pattern of “connect to me with your phone first” you download the Alexa app and then connect your smartphone or tablet to the Echo’s own wi-fi network. Once this has been achieved, you can configure the settings using the app. This makes the process easy and fairly painless. Once you’re connected, it’s time to speak to Alexa.

A lot of us probably have a fear of embarrassing ourselves when public speaking. Initially, talking to Alexa triggered that same anxiety in me.

Fortunately, Amazon helps you out here including a little “hint card” that lists the things you can ask Alexa to do without any set-up, preventing any initial voice control traumas.

Teaching Alexa some new skills

Without “skills” Alexa wouldn’t be able to do anything. They’re the equivalent of apps on your smartphone or the software on your PC.

The Echo comes pre-loaded with some skills of course. These include telling jokes, playing Internet radio stations and a countdown timer. There is a Shazam-like one that will tell you what you’re currently listening to.

At some point though, you’ll want to move beyond the pre-installed skills. This is where the Amazon Alexa Skills store comes in.

I started off with the very simple but strangely compelling “Meow!” skill.

This skill is essentially a “cat simulator”. No really. You kick it off by saying “Alexa, meow meow” and then, off you… meow (ahem)

Once you’ve started this skill, Alexa will then respond to whatever you say with various meows or mews. It’s not going to change the world. And yes, it’s the equivalent of a “fart app” (and you know that those exist as well) but it is quite fun. The “Meow!” skill does get you used to speaking to the Echo. So arguably, it is actually quite useful.

Next, I installed something a bit more useful and more complicated — the “London Buses” skill.

Before you can use this skill you need to tell it which bus stop is which. For example, you can specify local bus stops that go in certain directions (north, south, east and west). Before you do this, you need to get the bus stop codes from Transport For London’s website.

This is actually a bit tricky as it involves copying numbers from web URLs. Once you have the information required, the voice command used to set it up goes like this…

“Alexa, tell London Buses to set North as 51232”

This took a few frustrating attempts to get right and reminded me of my previous TomTom experience. It’s not what you’d call an intuitive process, but it got there eventually.

There are over 10,000 skills in Amazon’s US store now. And this number is growing rapidly (it only took a year and a half to reach this milestone). All of these skills are currently free because Amazon doesn’t support charging for them, yet.

Tune in next week for part 2 where we will discuss the problems with Alexa, developing your skills and our final thoughts…

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