Developers can now create new skills and capabilities for Alexa, the brain behind Amazon Echo.
Two days after making the Echo wireless speaker available to everyone, Amazon revealed that it wants to make the device’s built-in, cloud-based virtual assistant open to third-party devices as well. In order to do so, the retail giant has announced the Alexa Skills Kit (ASK), a collection of self-service APIs and tools that simplify and expedite the creation of new voice-driven capabilities for Alexa.
With just a few lines of code, developers will be able to easily integrate existing web services with Alexa or, in a matter of a hours, build entirely new speech-controlled experiences. What’s nice is that no experience with voice recognition or natural language understanding is necessary; instead, Amazon does all the work to hear, understand, and process the customer’s spoken request so a developer doesn’t have to.
According to the company, examples of skills developers can devise with the Alexa Skills Kit include:
- A hobbyist developer can enable Alexa to access his or her child’s school lunch menu—then, each morning simply ask, “Alexa, ask Ballard Elementary School what’s for lunch today” and decide whether to pack a lunch for the child.
- A device maker with an Internet-connected sprinkler system can integrate its sprinklers with Alexa, so a customer can say, “Alexa, ask my sprinkler to water my lawn for 15 minutes.”
- A surf report provider can create a new skill for Alexa that lets customers ask for the latest conditions at their favorite break by saying “Alexa, ask Surf Status for my local forecast.”
- The maker of a smart vacuum cleaner can create a skill for Alexa that lets customers control their vacuum by saying “Alexa, tell the vacuum to start cleaning the living room.”
- A fitness service can enable Alexa to access a user’s workout history, so a customer can say “Alexa, ask My Fitness how many miles I have run this week.”
- A baseball fantasy league can make a new skill for Alexa, so managers can simply say, “Alexa, ask Fantasy Baseball to change my lineup and start Felix Hernandez today.”
“When we launched Amazon Echo we immediately heard from developers about the innovative voice experiences they would create if they had access to an SDK,” explained Greg Hart, VP Amazon Echo and Alexa Voice Services. “We’re making the Alexa Skills Kit available to any developer, maker, or general hobbyist that wants to invent on behalf of customers, creating new skills and capabilities. We can’t wait to see what developers are going to invent with this technology.”
Creating an Alexa skill is super quick and easy. Developers simply write cloud-hosted code that interacts with Alexa’s cloud-based APIs to process customer requests. From there, Alexa does all the heavy-lifting to hear, understand, and resolve the customer’s spoken request, and then maps the service call to the developer’s endpoint.
The most basic way to build a skill for Alexa is to use AWS Lambda, an innovative compute service that runs a developer’s code in response to triggers and automatically manages the compute resources in the AWS Cloud, so there is no need for a developer to provision or continuously run servers. Once the code for the new Alexa skill is uploaded, AWS Lambda takes care of the rest, executing the program in response to Alexa voice interactions and automatically managing the compute resources on the developer’s behalf.
Among the notable third-party developers already tinkering around with the platform include Pebblebee, who you may recall from its recent crowdfunding campaign. The hardware startup is employing ASK to enable their customers to track items and check sensors using voice.
“We’ve learned over the past few years that it’s not always intuitive to use a visual app with so many features. Using voice commands simplifies the complexity for customers,” added Daniel Daoura, co-founder and CEO of Pebblebee. “We’re thrilled to use the Alexa Skills Kit to integrate Alexa with Pebblebee’s sensor information, so a customer can simply ask, ‘Alexa, find my keys,’ or ‘Alexa, how warm is the baby’s room?’ or ‘Alexa, is my dog nearby?’”
Others include Citrix’s enterprise Internet of Things platform Octoblu who is using ASK for voice-activated automation of business tasks, as well as AOL who is incorporating the kit to allow customers to listen to AOL daily headlines and articles.
In order to pull this all off, Amazon launched what it calls the Alexa Fund, which will provide up to $100 million in support to startups, manufacturers and designers looking to implement Alexa. The company has invested in seven IoT startups so far: Orange Chef, Scout Alarm, Garagio, Mojio, MARA, Toymail and Dargon Innovation.
Interested? Head over to Alexa Skills Kit’s official page here.