Echo?

January 3, 2017
Labs Projects Research & Development

An introduction to our research of the Amazon Echo by Tracy Haupt.

Once upon a time, a nearly-graduated student went a-hunting for interesting work. She was stumbling around in the dark for what seemed like weeks. Then, suddenly, she stumbled upon a black box! “Behold!” she said quizzically. “I have no idea what this does. Let’s explore.” And then she went to work.

So, when I started with Fortego Labs, I was handed an Amazon Echo and told, essentially, to go play and figure out what I could learn. The Amazon Echo is a “hands-free, voice-controlled speaker that connects to Alexa for music, information, news, sports scores, weather and more–instantly.” according to Amazon.

Okay, cool. So you may ask, “what’s Alexa?” Whoa there, not yet. That will come in time. But first, let’s go back to this crazy black speaker thing. I opened the box to see…well, this.

echo

What should I do with this?

First things first, I plugged it in. And then I started thinking about what can be done with this device both intentionally and unintentionally. Being so unfamiliar with this device, I really wanted to see what built-in features existed.

It turns out, the Echo is pretty handy. I could listen to music from Prime Music, Spotify and Pandora. It answers questions, reads audiobooks, reports traffic, gives local business info, and provides sports scores. With other IoT devices it can control lights and switches with WeMo, Philips Hue, Samsung SmartThings, Wink, Insteon and ecobee. When I started there were about 4 skills. Now there are many, many more (hundreds).

As someone interested in DSP, I took great pleasure in attempting to ‘trick’ the voice processing. First, I tried speaking the “wake word”, which was “Alexa” for me. (Either “Alexa,” or “Amazon” are options for wake words, but it’s more fun to choose a real name.) I then tried singing, or recording myself and playing it back. All of those worked well and prompted the Echo to listen to my request. It turned out that even with heavy accents and other tricky things, Alexa responded. I was fairly surprised when Billy Joel’s crooning of “The Downeaster ‘Alexa’” came on a different bluetooth speaker and the Echo was waiting and ready to hear what he had to say.

I continued playing around with built-in features, such as playing music, getting weather, asking about famous people and prompting nerdy canned responses (wonders such as “Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.” had some lovely easter eggs.) After a few days of exploring, I came across IFTTT (If This Then That). This was a game changer. Since getting my hands on the Echo I had wanted to do something fun and different. I tried using IFTTT to send emails or texts from my phone by saying “Alexa, send John Doe a text saying ‘omw.’” I started branching out with other IFTTT formulas and late one night, alone and hungry in our lab, I had an idea. “Alexa, order me a pizza.” Since a pizza delivery service recently had a commercial showing a way to order pizza via an emoji, I wanted to do just that. Through IFTTT and the Echo, I could have Alexa reach out and send a text to that company. While I was sure the Echo was great for many things, at that moment, I was satisfied by ordering pizza with my voice.

image02

I continued playing around with built-in features, such as playing music, getting weather, asking about famous people and prompting nerdy canned responses (wonders such as “Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.” had some lovely easter eggs.) After a few days of exploring, I came across IFTTT (If This Then That). This was a game changer. Since getting my hands on the Echo I had wanted to do something fun and different. I tried using IFTTT to send emails or texts from my phone by saying “Alexa, send John Doe a text saying ‘omw.’” I started branching out with other IFTTT formulas and late one night, alone and hungry in our lab, I had an idea. “Alexa, order me a pizza.” Since a pizza delivery service recently had a commercial showing a way to order pizza via an emoji, I wanted to do just that. Through IFTTT and the Echo, I could have Alexa reach out and send a text to that company. While I was sure the Echo was great for many things, at that moment, I was satisfied by ordering pizza with my voice.