Alexa is listening better than ever before—and leading the way in the world of digital assistants

As I walk through downtown Seattle wondering about dinner, I look down at my wrist, tap the screen, and ask: “What hours is Harbor City Restaurant open today?” The answer soon appears on the screen: “Harbor City Restaurant is open between 8:30 a.m. and 11 p.m. today.” This makes my decision easy as I turn south.

That’s an old trick that has been available for years. But because the world of digital personal assistants is changing quickly, the tricks are getting a lot more interesting—and useful. No longer limited to a few specific commands, digital assistants can now bring essentially every web-based service to a user’s metaphorical fingertips through the cloud. Google, Microsoft, Apple, and others have been doing this for a while. And while the digital assistant is often tied to a specific piece of hardware, Amazon is trying to change that with Alexa. They’re doing a really, really, good job, and here’s why.

Alexa’s Evolution

Alexa was originally tied to the semi-successful Amazon Echo, the cylindrical speaker through which you could voice your commands to this virtual assistant. Amazon then expanded the available hardware to the Tap and the Dot. Although these hardware options for Alexa are niche products (in my opinion), the most important outcome is that Amazon has allowed the Alexa voice service to be opened to developers. This means that Alexa could possibly be used with everything, from Raspberry Pi to dedicated hardware to various software implementations (including my own).

“The best digital assistant is the one that’s always with you. The more accessible it is, the more impactful the experience will be.”

Will Blaschko

That’s a major advantage for any business looking to customize its experience with virtual assistant technology. And the difference between Alexa and previous offerings is the ease with which this can be done. Essentially any organization or individual can now add to the overall collection of available intuitive commands, or “skills,” that an end user can access through Alexa. Domino’s Pizza and Uber have already done this, and these are just the biggest names. A project I worked on brought Alexa to CES 2016, with integrated facial recognition and custom responses based on the individual in front of the screen. It was just a polished technical demo, but one that started to explore the possible integration of Alexa with other media and hardware.

Accessibility Is Everything

The best digital assistant is the one that’s always with you. The more accessible it is, the more impactful the experience will be (how professional photographers tend to think of their cameras). Cell phones are the logical next step, and this is certainly where Alexa is headed. But sometimes you leave your phone in the other room while you go about your life. So digital assistants should be able to bridge that gap, like Echo’s always-on mic, or a device you always wear on your wrist.

Enter Android Wear, Android’s smart wearable platform. Touch screens and microphones (but no speakers) are the norm, and some have GPS. Most importantly, Android Wear is almost always with you, and being able to issue commands to Alexa from your wrist will change how you interact with the platform. For example, I can be half-way across the house, not know where my phone is, but still get the information I need. It’s not a new experience, but a positive addition to an existing lifestyle. I expect to be much more active with Alexa because of its functionality on Android Wear, which is why I helped bring the Alexa service to this popular device.

While the wearable experience is not perfect yet, the potential is huge. Aside from Alexa-enabled wear technology helping you figure out the mundane things in life, like how many teaspoons are in a cup or the number of inches in a parsec, it could also truly help your organization reimagine how it reaches customers. Perhaps more importantly, this wearable technology enabled by Alexa could empower your customers to actually want to interact with your business.

The Future

Alexa is a powerful tool, and its uses will continue to grow—especially as built-in speakers on wearable devices become the norm in order to help us take full advantage of the Alexa assistant that Amazon has created. I can’t wait until I have a smart home of my own that I can control from my wrist. In another example of Alexa’s potential, the Alexa app could be extended (or another app created) that would allow certain commands to be accessible with the touch of a button.

Companies with existing web services or those creating new hardware and software should consider writing a link using an intuitive Alexa command, or “skill,” since the platform continues to grow more popular over time.

Ultimately, companies will want to find developers experienced with the platform who know how to tap into the full potential of the Alexa service.

Technical Details

Click here to read more about the technical aspects of Alexa.

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