Amazon's Alexa made its way to Hollywood this week, where Michael Francisco, partner business development lead for the technology, sought to drum up excitement for Amazon's voice-based digital assistant.
"We really believe voice is the future," Francisco said at the Digital Hollywood conference. That's not something visual creatives like to hear, but everyone is keen to know more about Amazon's plans.
"Echo is really just the first device through which we've delivered the Alexa experience to consumers, born out of the discussions we had at Amazon trying to make people's lives easier," Francisco said of the company's voice-activated speaker.
Beyond the Amazon Echo, the Echo Dot, Amazon Tap and Amazon Fire TV also support Alexa, and will largely be used, Amazon hopes, to buy products it sells in the online superstore.
But the Echo won't become truly integrated into a household unless it does more than shop. Which is why Amazon opened up its platform and struck deals with partners to create a fully ambient controller for the connected home. Alongside smart device integration to control lights and so on, it can play music, access your Google Calendar, do local searches with Yelp, and find out movie showtimes.
The Echo at Francisco's house is clearly kept busy. "It controls all of my lights, all the door locks, my kids get the weather forecast, so they know what to wear, and it tells them fart jokes. It has completely changed the way we interact with our home," he confirmed. "Amazon has invested a lot of years, and a lot of money, in voice technology, and we're also encouraging other companies to build Alexa Voice Service into other hardware."
Significantly, Amazon is taking a three-tiered approach to development to ensure rapid adoption of the platform. There's top-level domain functionality—the stuff Amazon has built directly into the platform (news, weather), plus APIs to integrate with other connected home devices (like Samsung SmartThings), but the biggest area of potential growth is the Alexa Skills Kit. Just don't call them apps.
Francisco was clear that Amazon sees Alexa as an entirely new world and not an adjunct to the now ubiquitous smartphone ecosystem. "You can't just think you can translate your mobile app to Alexa and be done with it," he said. "This is about designing a voice-enabled experience from scratch."
Andrew Howlett, partner and Chief Digital Officer at Rain, was on hand to talk about the Alexa Skills his agency has already built for clients. These include the solution to the perennial cry of "What's for Dinner?" with Campbell's Kitchen Skill and last-minute bouquet deliveries via 1-800-FLOWERS, just in time for Mother's Day.
The Campbell's Soup Skill takes users through a decision tree based on meal choice, available items, and so on. However, it doesn't read out the recipe while you stir the soup, it emails it to you, which feels like missing a trick. Hopefully, when we inevitably have Amazon Alexa-enabled household robots, you can cut out the email—and cooking—stages entirely.
But it's hard to get big tech budgets in Hollywood if the pay-off is purely driving awareness, rather than ticket sales. When asked about the recent Alexa-based choose-your-own-adventure game Warner Bros. released to promote Batman vs. Superman, Francisco said he could not "speak to the specific results for that campaign...but I can confirm they launched that skill and got a lot of press about doing that.
"They got a big pop in the market about the movie itself, tangential to the skill itself," he continued. "I will say that Warner Bros. were very happy with the results they did receive. It's very difficult to track between that person playing the skill and whether they saw the film."
The integration would seem like an ideal way to hawk movie merchandise, but that has yet to be integrated. Right now, Amazon can only see how many times someone enabled the skill, "but there's no direct way today, based on the way Alexa is set up, to say, within that skill, 'Hey, I want to buy the Batman shirt'," said Francisco.
Another thing Alexa needs? Sensitivity to manners. Parents are concerned that Alexa doesn't demand a "please" or "thank you"; you just bark orders at it. So children are developing a rather sassy relationship with their household appliances.
One person at the conference mentioned taking his 2-year-old daughter to a restaurant where she didn't like the lighting setup at their table. In the middle of a quiet dining experience, she shouted "Alexa, turn off the light!" and startled the waiter who wondered who Alexa might be.
Not to worry, though, there's a Skill coming soon to fix that. A company called SciFutures is launching a new Alexa Skill that can integrate a parenting rewards program. Alexa will essentially monitor your child and keep a running scoreboard of gold stars earned for chores well done.
"We developed this based on the insights we have gleaned from using it in our households and our own internal sci-fi prototyping workshops," SciFutures CEO and founder Ari Popper told PCMag. "We do a few of these internally every quarter and develop our own IP. The skill is in development and will be ready and in the Alexa Skills marketplace in a few more weeks."
It seems the Alexa platform has a myriad of possibilities, including a digital Mary Poppins to keep kids in check. But Hollywood will need Amazon Alexa to close the loop on merchandise and movie tickets before it invests serious money in developing Skills.