Monday 19 February 2018

Part 1: creating voice-activated #ID #learning #Alexa #smartclass #elearning

In this first post on the topic, I share how I installed Alexa, using a basic smarthome skill (Philips Hue) and some features that increase or limit Alexa’s search returns (e.g. playing Spanish podcasts via free radio).

Testing the Amazon Echo Dot
The last couple of weeks I have been enthusiastically using the Amazon Echo Dot (which answers to Alexa). I am trying to setup a voice operated learning hub (well, as much as possible in a relatively cheap and simple way). With each step, I will keep you updated and share what works, what did not work, and which unexpected hurdles needed to be solved. In following episodes I want to use some coding options for additional Alexa skills, combine the Echo dot with an Arduino board as well as a Raspberry Pi to see what can be done with relatively cheap computer boards, and of course in relation to IFTTT and for specific voice operated IFTTT.

Why? Because with all the Fab Labs emerging (you can locate your nearest fablab using this map), I wanted to see how much of that could be built at my home (as I will be mostly home based for the next couple of months), so I might as well work on making my home into a fab lab or at least a smart learning hub.  The Echo dot has been used in classrooms using its basic functionality, but also for some special ed purposes for communication skill practice for children withautism.

I bought my Alexa with last year’s frequent flyer miles (made it much cheaper), but you can also buy it from Amazon for 40 $  or Amazon UK for 49 £. This does mean I got the German version of the Alexa, but as I can read and understand German, that was something I could start with. Once it was installed, I could switch to English. I also got two Philips Hue light bulbs, as they would enable me to test out the smart home part of the Alexa. By using this simple Alexa in combination with existing objects (things) that react to an impulse coming either from a mobile, voice or other object, it becomes easier to feel what the Internet of Things (IoT) is really like.
With a new online course in the back of my mind (working title of the course 'instructional and learning design examples, with added academic background information'), I want to explore a more meaningful application of this Amazon Echo Bot learning hub setup.

Installing Alexa
This is super simple, and only requires an internet connection and a mobile. The mobile app (either Android  or iTunes store ) is used to control Alexa and possible other devices, e.g. the Philips Hue, Nest thermostat….

As Alexa is voice-activated, it depends on specific language. In the Amazon Echo dot I bought, it was either English (you can choose American or British English) or German. My German is not that active, so I have installed my Alexa for British English use, also because I want to install specific skills on it. Skills are conversational applications that allow you to ‘ask’ Alexa something specific and then – hopefully – get a meaningful answer in return, so a skill connects to end users via the conversational Amazon Echo platform. Reddit features anice list of skills here once you have decided to add a skill, go to the Alexa app and add it to your skills.

The name Amazon Echo Dot says it: this device is a home device that will want you to buy more from Amazon. It uses Amazon prime to play music (paid service, I don’t use it, so will share other free options soon), and you can buy a list of options from Amazon, which is why I immediately deselect the buying option in the Amazon device, I do not want to order something buy mistake or simply because some of my Flemish sounds like “Alexa, buy a supersonic airplane from Amazon”…. And it does happen that Alexa thinks I am asking her something, as she has returned uninvited answers during regular conversations at the dinner table. There is some commotion on Alexa spying, if interested you can read upon these here.

Basic Alexa features
Alexa can be used for some basic options:
  • Ask a question (answer found via Bing browser)
  • Ask what the weather is like (still some limitations on regions, but if you add your own town in an English voice it can give you the weather there… my town is called Aalter, it took a while before I could get the weather forecast for that particular very Flemish town.
  • Ask a silly question (Alexa sing a song, do the dishes…)
  • Play music (mostly paid service, but free, easy option below)
  • Make a to do list (“Alexa, add write blogpost to my to do list” afterwards ask “Alexa what is my to do list”)
  • Make a shopping list.
  • Set a timer (“Alexa, set a timer for 10 minutes”).
In case you are not a native English speaker
If you are not a native English speaker, it is good to use Google translate, type in your word or the words you are looking for, then push the speaker button to hear how it is pronounced. After that you can choose either to perfect your English-speaking voice, or you can say 'Alexa', and type in 'search google for X' into google translate and push the audio button again to have the English version of what you are looking for. I confess, it takes a bit of practising to get a fluent mix of both actions (speaking and pushing button on time).
First steps in a smart home/learning hub
First I bought two Philips Hue lights and one Hue bridge  to get the lights to work on voice-command. That works well with the skill of Philips Hue, which you need to install to get Alexa working with it. The Philips Hue lights need to be installed with one ‘Hue Bridge’ per 50 light bulbs. This means you need to have an internet connected bridge to manipulate the Hue lights either through Alexa or through the Hue mobile app. You need to install the lights and turn on the lights first in order to be able to control them from a distance. With the Hue mobile app you can group the lights together per room, making it easier to tell Alexa which lights to turn on or off (btw you can also operate them from any location, so you can trick your partner in turning off the lights unexpectedly…. Well…. If they do not mind that joke…).

The process is simple and indicative of how the Alexa Echo Dot works:
  • Address Alexa by saying her name out loud,
  • Speak specific command (a command is a coded speech operand that triggers Alexa to do something specific): e.g. “Alexa, turn on lights living room” or “play Singing in the Rain’ by Gene Kelly
  • And then wait for Alexa to return an answer, or in this case play that specific song.
Learning podcasts, using radio feature
Alexa is linked to Amazon, so some features simply do not work for free (no free music, as Alexa’s options are Amazon prime or Spotify pro) and the search option is linked to Bing, which does not always return useful answers. But if you like music, you can find it without having to resort to any skill by using the command “Alexa play TuniIn [followed by the name of your preferred TuneIn radio station].
e.g. “Alexa, play TuneIn Learn Spanish -” which triggers the latest podcast of this radio station.
You can find a list of radio stations here:

Next post on this topic will be on installing a skill that you customize using Amazon Web Services and Amazon Developer services (but with the help of 'the people who know'). 

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