I wanted to see what Alexa was like and I thought it could be useful for my parents, so I bought one for their home.
This was an experiment not only in terms of understanding what Alexa can do but also in understanding whether or not she would be a useful addition to my parents home. Although my father is fairly tech-savy, neither he nor my mum has a smartphone and the iPad from two Christmases ago is still sat behind the TV out of battery.
I had an idea of what they could use Alexa for (see previous article) but I was unsure if and how they might engage with her. This article is about how I got on.
Setting up Alexa.
Setting up Alexa was incredibly easy. I downloaded a tutorial from the Amazon website (which was hardly necessary but useful) and easily installed the app on both my father’s laptop and my own mobile phone. The log history on my app is a useful feature not only to in terms of recording interactions but also the logs were handy clues in understanding why some stuff didn’t work as I thought it would. (more on that later).
Alexa was in situ in the house in no time. Linking apps such as Google calendar was a cinch and getting to grips with the whole ‘Skills’ ecosystem took little effort. I had skills such as ‘ Ask my Buddy up and running in no time.
Voice is easy to use.
And Alexa is easy to use. Though its obvious to say, the great thing is that she operates using voice! Voice is so natural to us humans, we don’t need a user manual to operate it. It didn’t take long for my mother to get into the habit of using the wake word and then the command.
What is Alexa like?
She looks good. I think the Amazon Echo product itself is elegant and aesthetically pleasing. And although I guess technically it’s a bit of cheat (as it’s not speech), I really liked the way the ring colours on the actual machine change colour to convey different messages.
And I like the way she sounds. I like her voice I believe Amazon were going for personality traits with her voice such as smart, approachable, helpful and friendly. I certainly found her voice calm and reassuring. But I have got to admit, I think Alexa is a bit boring, especially compared to Siri.
I understand Siri has had much more time to develop and invests a lot of time in character and tone of Siri. And I do find talking to Siri much more engaging and fun, I love the cheekiness of it. Alexa is a boring cousin in comparison. However, I expect Alexa will get a bit more of a personality transplant soon.
What did we use Alexa for?
Naturally, we tried lots of stuff.
- Audible was a non-starter. Audible books was one of the main advantages of going with Amazon rather than Google. I like listening to audiobooks and linked my account to this Alexa to introduce this concept to my partners. But it was not a hit with them. I think they found listening to audio books too strange a habit and a bit mentally taxing.
“Sorry I do not understand”
- The success of Internet searches was mixed. It’s incredible how Alexa could pick up voice commands from far away however her interpretations of those requests was somewhat mixed. She could easily tell you who won in the Soccer World cup that day but returned irrelevant results when asked about Rugby Union. It seems that unless the query is straightforward and obvious, the chances of Alexa returning non-relevant results is high.
- Skills: Quiz Master skill did not work very well. I understand this is a popular skill so we tried it and it’s a nice shared social activity. I could not understand how we were all getting the answers wrong. It is only when I checked the logs that I understood that the Quiz Master was not very clever at understanding how we humans speak. Example below.
Quiz Master Question “What is the capital of Venzuela? Is it A) Santiago B) Caracas C) Vilinium D) Brasília.”
Our response “ B) Caracas”
- (Quiz Master). We chose the right answer but were told it was wrong. It’s only when I checked the logs I understood why. Quiz Master did not hear B (pause) Caracas – it heard it all as one word “BCaracas” (which doesn’t mean anything) so it assumed we were wrong. In order for it to work (I think) we either needed to say just the letter “B” or just the answer “Caracas”. However, there was no instruction or guidance from the game at the start on how to play. As a result we ended up getting lots of answers wrong (even when they were right), getting fed-up and abandoning the game. Not good voice design methinks.
“Here’s a station I think you might like”
- Music was a big hit and this is were Alexa comes into her own. We liked how she suggested (relevant) stations and we were impressed with how naturally we could interact with Alexa on this. She easily understood our commands such as ‘Higher’, ‘Lower’, ‘Stop’ etc. This experience was pretty seamless and pleasant.
Is Alexa here to stay?
Yes, I think so. It takes time to get used to new technologies and technology is only as good as the people who use her. My mother does like her and I will encourage her to use more functionality over time. I can also already see the potential of Alexa as a ‘companion’ as sorts but I also recognise that relationships do take time to build up.
Is Alexa more than just ‘smart speakers’?
I have used her alot to date but based on the amount things she gets wrong I would have to say, I don’t think Alexa is very smart (yet). She is supposed to be after all, a digital assistant.
This is one of the limitations of using voice , we expect a lot of it. Voice is something we are so used to using in our everyday lives that we assume when using it as technology, that it will understand and do everything. Which of course it can’t (not yet).
Amazon Vs Siri vs Google: who gets the job?
Apple’s Siri and Google’s assistant have been in the voice game longer than Amazon. Not only does Siri have much more of a personality than Alexa, it is also much more effective in terms of understanding commands and returning better results. However, Google Home is probably Echo’s main contender in the home. But how good is Google in terms of moving beyond merely executing voice commands and having an actual conversation? How good is Google Home as a digital assistant?
I plan to find out. I have just purchased a Google Home and in my next blog, I will be putting it to the test in terms of its conversational skills and usefulness.