Last week, I was afforded the generous opportunity to test out the latest in Amazon’s range of technological goodies, the ‘Amazon Echo’. To give you a basic run-down, the Echo is a hands-free speaker you control using your voice; the primary feature of which is your very own personal assistant, ‘Alexa’! For the sake of context, I feel obliged to explain that my previous experience with artificial voice-activated personal assistant thingies is fairly minimal. In fact, my only remembrance of engaging with any of these curious personalities was accidentally tapping the “Cortana” tile on my Windows Phone before promptly exiting the app and removing it entirely from my home screen. I have also heard that ‘Siri’ shares similar functionality with Cortana but exists exclusively within those obscure iOS devices that no-one uses. Therefore, I think it is safe to say I am quite new to this branch of digital assistant technology.
However, forever willing to act the pioneer of technological advances, I opened the box containing my Echo, bravely strode to the plug socket and with one singular movement, powered my device with electricity. Thankfully, I had downloaded the Alexa app beforehand, which provided instructions on first-time setup, and I was thus able to proceed swimmingly with connecting Alexa to the Wi-Fi. The device stood ready at my beck and call;
“Alexa,” I said. A luminous blue glow encompassed the circumference, assuring me that I had caught her attention.
“What will the winning Lotto numbers be this Saturday?!” I bellowed.
After a moment’s pause, Alexa replied: “I’m sorry, I don’t know what you mean by that.”
Damn. It appeared as though Alexa was not quite as omniscient as I had hoped her to be and my path to riches would have to wait. I was, however, encouraged that the app was capable of tracking everything I asked in Alexa in real time, though it was a tad disconcerting at first. Unperturbed by this initial setback, I began plying Alexa with a series of far more important questions; “Why did the chicken cross the road?”, “What is the meaning of life?”, “Can you dance?” and so forth. I must confess the replies to these inane questions were rather amusing and so I shall leave you to discover them for yourself.
Once that tomfoolery was done with, I consulted my Alexa app to see the vast swathe of features this device incorporated. The degree of functionality was overwhelming at first but I quickly grasped the most practical features I could use. For instance, after entering a couple of addresses into the app, I could simply ask “Alexa, what’s the traffic like?” and she would give me the laydown of the time it would take me to get to my destination and any recent traffic incidents within the area. Alternatively, I could ask “Alexa, what’s the weather doing on Saturday?” and she would give me a forecast for my local area.
What I found particularly useful was asking Alexa when my next train would arrive because she could then tell me exactly how many minutes late it was going to be, instead of having to fiddle about on the National Rail App. Of course, she also has an alarm, a timer, the capability to tell me the latest news stories for the day and so on. It became quite the ritual for me to wake up, ask Alexa about the weather, my commute and for a flash briefing on the latest news stories, before making the critical mistake of asking “Alexa, did Manchester United win?” and being left distinctly disappointed. I think this was where Alexa really won me over with the way she made my daily routines easier and more enjoyable, yet this was merely the beginning….
“Alexa, open the magic door!” I commanded. Alexa crackles into life as you hear the sound of the aforementioned door creaking open. Thus began the most enjoyable interactive fully-voiced by a digital assistant adventure I have ever had. You see, ‘The Magic Door’ is one of Alexa’s ‘Skills’, a series of varying games and applications that have been designed for use with Alexa and which can be turned on through the Alexa app. ‘The Magic Door’ particularly caught my attention because it hearkened back to my childhood days of reading interactive adventure books where you would make decisions based on scenarios you were given and be required to turn to another page in the book to see the outcome of your choices, all set within one self-contained story.
As I’m sure you can imagine, having such a format brought to life through voice activation was a tantalising prospect to me. The fact that it came complete with sound effects was just the icing on the cake. A world of possibility was open to me, portrayed as three separate paths I could go down, filled with mythical beasts and sweeping landscapes, which I could only envision through Alexa’s narration. It is reasonable to say that I spent an unhealthy amount of time navigating the puzzles and challenges this adventure posed to me but I don’t regret it one bit.
Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end and though I felt I had only just begun to unlock Alexa’s potential, my time with her was coming to a swift conclusion. Before I could depart with Alexa, I had just one last question to ask her:
“Alexa, will you marry me?”
“I’m sorry, I can’t do that.”
I felt this reply neatly encompassed my time with Alexa, short but sweet.