Who knew it would be an online retailer that would introduce one of the most exciting coding opportunities to come along in a while? With Amazon’s Alexa — the voice recognition software that powers Amazon.com’s physical devices Echo, Dot, and Tap — Bezos and Co. have given third parties the tools they need to expand what this technology can do.
Now, just about anybody with a rudimentary knowledge of coding — or anybody who’s willing to learn — can invent and publish add-ons for Alexa to make it an even more capable, competent household assistant.
Excited? You should be! At the first Amazon Alexa Meetup in New York City, 45 attendees developed 27 brand-new Alexa skills from the ground up. Even folks who’d never written a single line of code were able to complete Amazon’s challenges and obtain their certification, signaled by an official review by Amazon.com staff, by publishing a skill before midnight.
You can do it yourself at home right now. Even if you don’t own an Amazon Echo, Tap, or Echo Dot, you’ll be able to test the functionality of your new skill set using an online emulator.
But first, some examples!
So what exactly do these skills do? How is Alexa improved — “made smarter,” if you prefer — by these additions? Think of it a bit like crowdsourcing.
The more voices you have, the better the product will be. Amazon knows that with many hands and minds trained on the task of developing Alexa into something more, they stand a chance of outpacing competitors like Apple, Google, and Samsung, whose ecosystems are traditionally a bit more closed off.
The internet is a vast resource for tinkerers who want to get under Alexa’s hood and start tinkering. There is, of course, already a sub-Reddit devoted to it, as well as online galleries where Alexa developers can show off their homemade skills.
Using the developer tools made available by Amazon, coders have developed skills like these:
- Moritz Strube taught Alexa to turn his television on and off. It took some tinkering with an IR LED, but Alexa and Amazon did most of the heavy lifting, coding-wise.
- Team Technomadic figured out how to make Alexa the centerpiece in a connected health monitoring system for elderly people or those with precarious health conditions.
- If you want a project officially labeled “easy,” consider Nick Schwab’s simple but effective hack to instruct Alexa to recognize publicly traded companies and retrieve their current stock performance.
As you can see, developing Alexa opens up all kinds of doors and makes all sorts of new tools available. They range from the trivial, like fetching film scores from IMDB, to the potentially life-saving, like “alert me if my grandmother has a cardiac episode.” Alexa is still a young device and service, but it’s clear that one of the few limiting factors won’t be human ingenuity.
So, how do I do it?
We won’t bore you with the full set of instructions here — suffice it to say Amazon has made the process very public and very easy to follow since they’ve staked the future of their company on the success of Alexa and Alexa accessories.
- First, create an Amazon.com account if you don’t have one already. If you successfully create a skill for Alexa and publish it, Amazon will shower you with gifts as thanks, including Developer-exclusive apparel — so sign up!
- To be honest, things get a little more complex from here. You need to have at least a mild programming or coding background or else you need to be a quick study. You may be familiar with GitHub already — it’s how quite a lot of open source code and homegrown coding projects get distributed on the net. To proceed with developing your Alexa skill set, visit GitHub and copy the Space Geek intent schema. If that’s Greek to you, Amazon claims anyone can become a passable expert in five minutes or less with their guide.
- From here, you’re free to tinker! Amazon provides a Developer Portal that gives you the tools and resources to develop your skill and imagine new uses for it. Again, this is coding-intensive, but at the same time, it offers an exciting and immediately applicable way to explore basic coding. Just how immediate? You can test your new skills on your own device at home, right away.
- In addition to testing your new skill set on your Echo, Echo Dot or Alexa device, use Amazon’s Service Simulator to iron out the kinks. You can even use the Echo Simulator Community Edition to test your skill.
This all might sound a bit overwhelming, but Amazon has made it pretty easy to pick up the knowledge you need to get developing for Alexa in no time flat. Remember: Amazon rewards their third-party developers from time to time, so be sure to make your more interesting Alexa Skills public and start enjoying your newfound developer cred!