Placedreamer – a more interesting application

The problem with most Alexa apps is that they’re simple text bots with voice UIs.

Obviously, Alexa’s clever hacks make her skills a little more interesting than the same thing on the command line; such as the system used to match thousands of different phrases to a user’s intention. But a lot of the skills available are boring – particularly the ‘facts’ type of skill, where Alexa recites a random piece of information. What would be interesting would be an application that would not work outside of an Alexa device.

A more interesting problem

Take as an example the tarot app I built in my recent tutorial. It doesn’t do anything particularly novel – we could do the same with a twitter bot or a Bash script. As well as speech, Alexa provides the ability to play sounds, as well as some clever ways of handling streaming (something Tim O’Reilly praised in his celebration of Alexa). An interesting skill would make use of such things.

Rather than take the tarot skill further, I wanted to work on something more interesting. I asked friends on Facebook what they thought I should do. Tom suggested “Pipe in birdsong from the last distant place you travelled to. City sounds from another timezone.

This sounded like a great idea. I like the idea of Alexa as a device that can occupy a strange, eidetic space – something to talk to when you can’t sleep. There are online field recordings available, and I’ve got photos which can be added to the response cards. This is a somewhat whimsical application, but that’s what attracted me to Alexa in the first place – a device that is placed in intimate, home spaces, and is always listening into conversations. (Although this is only for her name/wake-word, it can still prove disconcerting)

A problem with invocation names

My previous skill had the invocation name ‘tarot’. Which was OK for testing, but won’t pass Amazon’s requirements for invocation names, which states that “One-word invocation names are not allowed”.

Following this rule, I first set up the invocation name for this skill to be ‘Place dreamer’. Actually summoning this skill proved difficult. Place was too easily confused with Play, which Alexa saw as a more likely word, and would hear “Place Dreamer” as “Play Streamer”.

Don’t Believe the Hype

VUIs have a huge potential for providing certain types of information. I like asking Alexa if it’s going to rain – it saves me having to grab my phone to look at the weather forecast while trying to leave the house. I can also see how great a VUI will be when I’m driving – I hate setting off in my car and realising I’ve misconfigured my satnav. But one of the big problems I’m having with VUIs is being told how this is the next big thing.

I’m personally not interested in bots for most applications. I find it hard to trust that constrained conversational pathways will be better than tools like google. One book I’m reading about bots sounds the same as late-nineties books on the topic. Just because technologies have improved does not by itself mean this is definitely the era of VUIs and chatbots. Either the application needs to be appropriate or the interface very well crafted.