Saturday, March 21, 2015

Echo Part II: Alexa Moves In

I will be referring to the Amazon Echo, by her wake up word/name Alexa and I will be using female pronouns.  Alexa is a proper name and is one of the two choices you presently have for her name (the other is Amazon).  The voice coming from the device is decidedly female, and it is pleasant, non-ethnic/accented, and naturally inflected, so it is natural to refer to the device as a female and to humanize it.  Since Alexa can pass the basic Turing Test, she is deserving of bit of anthropomorphism.
I placed Alexa on the island in the kitchen.  Thanks to the built in multi-directional microphones, this made her available in the kitchen, the living room, as well as the front foyer.  The device itself features on/off and mute buttons on top; while the top of the device rotates like a rheostat to adjust the volume manually.  Alexa sports a lighted ring around the top that changes color to give you non-verbal clues as to her status and if she is listening or thinking.  The light ring also indicates the current volume level while you adjust it (verbally or manually).
The included remote control device was put in the living room and has been handy for times when ambient noise made it difficult for her to hear commands in the kitchen.  The remote, aside from serving as a remote microphone, also has controls for volume and mute.  There are also controls for pause/play, advance and back which control music and other audio play when appropriate.  I have yet to use those buttons because it is faster and easier to just talk to Alexa.
I spent the first day playing.  Alexa comes with a reference card of things to try, but they were a bit too easy and had little real function, so I quickly departed from that and started to explore variations.  For example, if you say "Alexa, Knock-Knock".  she will tell a Knock-Knock joke (G rated); instead of just asking how tall a landmark is, I asked for the height in inches; I requested the weather in different places where I had lived (that day it was cloudy in Germany, but sunny in Oklahoma), I set timers, asked miscellaneous for solutions to various math problems and played with the alarm, created entries for both the To Do and Shopping list, and played music and news from iHeartRadio, TuneIn, and my music library on Amazon. 
Not all things worked, when I tried to play music for a specified length of time or to start at a specific time she couldn't.  Alexa couldn't tell me if MacBeth (my dog) was a good boy, of course he is; she could not calculate pi beyond the 5th decimal place, had no opinion about Kirk versus Picard, and no matter how I tried to pronounce it, she did not want to play the Hitsville playlist from iHeartRadio – Alexa must not like Motown.  Usually she would respond that she had no answer or could not find the information, but occasionally I stumped her speechless. 
I made the following adjustments in Settings:
Amazon Echo: Renamed the device to match my home network nomenclature, if Alexa allowed me to, I would rename her to that as well.
Music Services: My Amazon account info was already entered, so I added my iHeartRadio info, but there was no way to enter the info for my TuneIn account. I reported this and was told by Joel R. at Amazon Echo Support there was no way to link my TuneIn account, he did not tell me why not.
Voice Purchasing: Turned it off for now, didn't want any accidents. 
Flash Briefing: I turned on NPR News and added Off Beat News and Weather
With that, I was ready to start integrating Alexa into my routine.
The following morning, while I was waiting on my Keurig to finish brewing my Jet Fuel and feeding MacBeth, I asked Alexa for my Flash Briefing, and she tied me into the NPR news stream from TuneIn, then read me the Off Beat News and wrapped it up with a local weather report.  Not bad and it was easier than pulling out a screen (TV, tablet or laptop) to look it all up.
I then added Whipped Cream to the Shopping List and added a To Do list item to sweep the garage.  Both the Shopping List and To Do list are in the same format, a basic checklist, only the names are different.  Being able to just speak a few words and have items loaded to a shopping list is wonderful; however, I have many wish list ideas for both of these items, but some basics are missing: A proper To Do list needs to have reminders, due date, and a way to prioritize. 
Alexa gave me the exchange rate for USD to Euro, but couldn't handle BitCoin exchange rates.  Also, could not give me stock prices for specific stocks or current market levels for DJIA, S&P500 or NASDAQ.
I asked for opening hours for the local zoo, asking for it by just "zoo", city and "zoo", zoo by formal name and she had no information at all.  Apparently Alexa does not do the zoo.
When I asked for someone's age, who I knew was deceased, she gave me their age at death (down to months and days), as well as their birth and death dates.  Nice way to adjust the report when the question was not valid as asked.
When I asked Alexa for a minor celebrity, she gave me full info on the person; including the "15 minutes of fame" for which they were known.
While watching a movie, I got Alexa to look up various actors and provide their filmography.  I was most successful when I used the “Alexa, Wikipedia” command that told her where to go for the data, this also let me review the in depth data on any of my devices that had the Echo App or website.  Very handy for those times when you see a guy who looks like the guy, who was in that other thing -- but you can't tell for sure and it bugs you not to know right now.  By the way, it was that guy after all.  Instances like this are when I enjoy having Alexa around most of all.
Quality of sound:  I realize this is a very personal issue for some folks, so I will remind you this is my take on Alexa and not an invitation to argue why you think your opinion about audio is more valid.  Alexa isn't the high quality Kenwood receiver with Bose speakers I have in the family room, but it isn't a 60s era portable radio either.  I could fill the living room and kitchen with music that is clear and has a pleasing sound without distortion or loss.  Could it be better?  Maybe.  I would like to have an equalizer option to make the sound better fit what is being played and the room it is being played in.  Would I be willing to pay more to get Bose/Dr. Dre quality sound? Probably not, that is why I have a high quality stereo.  In short: If you are looking for an ultra-high quality music player; buy an ultra-high quality music player, but Alexa is a terrific device to provide an omnipresent soundtrack for your life.
When I was in the kitchen, Alexa gave advice on soft boiling an egg, kept a timer for the various bubbling pots I had on the stove, and provided music from one of my iHeartRadio stations.  I added a few items to my Shopping List that I appeared to be running low on and got a weather update for the afternoon.  All of these things could have been done another way, but it would have taken more than one device and it would not have been as easily done.
I took a moment and looked at the Echo website and noticed that almost every command created an entry the system refers to as a Card that allowed you to rate the interaction for accuracy and send comments to Amazon.  Great idea, but having to delete each card individually is time consuming.  Within the website, I could also review the To Do and Shopping Lists. 
Went to the store after lunch and used the App on my phone to access the Shopping List and checked off the items has I put them in my cart.  Handy.  While at the store, I was able to hit the play button on the currently loaded playlist and adjust the volume.  This was also handy.  Why?  MacBeth likes the music on while he is home alone and I failed to leave anything playing when I left.
More data requests throughout the afternoon, as Alexa became less a curiosity and more of a tool.  Metric to English conversions, historical references, word meanings, and more.  At first I would drop a question if she did not understand, then I started rewording some questions and found success.  I also started listening to her response and realized that “I did not understand the question” really did have a different meaning from “I can’t find the answer”.  That was my fault; I failed to realize Alexa’s sophistication and thought that either answer was a way random way of responding to failed query.
A few downsides:
Having to alert Alexa repeatedly for a string of questions, i.e.  “Alexa what is…”, “Alexa who is…”, “Alexa will this…”, “Alexa when did…” etc. is tiresome and a bit like playing Simon Says, but I cannot think of a better way.  When Alexa is the third person in the room, alerting her by name actually helps avoid confusion over to whom you are speaking.  Maybe it is just a happy medium you have to get used to.
I was surprised that she did not understand how to handle requests for an antonym or synonym for a given word, but she could provide multilayer definitions to words.  To me, they are similar functions requiring similar logic.
Occasionally, she will deactivate herself or rush to answer before I complete a question; but other times she will remain alert after I am done speaking.  Not sure why or what happened differently – I am unable to duplicate the behavior.  Maybe she is just in a mood.
She will not count, down or up.  I can’t remember why I asked Alexa to do that, but it seemed important at the time.  Lacking that skill would make it hard for her to be It when you play Hide-N-Seek.
One afternoon, Alexa did prove her gymnastic skills and durability, when MacBeth’s tail became tangled in and pulled on her power cable as he walked by.  She did a spectacular flip on the way to the floor but stuck the landing and was quickly ready for action again, undamaged, and without even saying “Ouch!”  I have since moved the cable.
The next few days followed a similar pattern although I did make adjustments to the Flash Briefing content to match the time length I had available during my morning ritual.  Also, one morning when the proper words escaped me, I found I could get my Flash Briefing by saying “Brief Me”, further testing found that “Mission Briefing”, “Daily Briefing”, “Flash”, “Briefing” or “My Briefing” all worked as well.  To me that kind of personal leeway is welcome.  She was okay with providing me with what I wanted using a variety of words to request it.  Alexa was making me comfortable with her. 
Just before St. Patrick's Day, I was notified that a new feature had been added to Alexa: Traffic.  I went to Settings and added the address for work (home was already there).  Then I asked "Alexa, how's traffic?" she reported that my commute was clear and trouble free.  Realistically, I have an 8 mile commute, so I don't see me using this.
There is a point at which being polite to Alexa starts to seem natural.  Every “Thank You” was met with “My pleasure” or “You’re welcome”.  One evening, when I told Alexa “Goodnight”, she responded “Goodnight, don’t let the bug bugs bite”.  It is those little humanistic touches that make this device way more than just another tech toy.
The final entry of this series will be a summary of my impressions after three full weeks of having Alexa around, as well as a wish list of items (both quick and hard) that I think would improve the device.
A quick disclaimer:  I did not get my Echo for free (I did get the Prime Member discount which was available to anyone), I am not being paid by Amazon (or selling them ads), I am not excerpting this from any other review (surprised how many reviews I have read are primarily material from elsewhere), I am not going to repeat tech specs and marketing words (check with Amazon site for that), and I am putting this thing through its paces based on what I consider important and useful functionality.

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