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Amazon now lets you share your custom skills made with Alexa Blueprints

Earlier this year, Amazon introducedAlexa Blueprints” – a way for anyone to create their own customized Alexa skills for personal use, without needing to know how to code. Today, the company will allow those skills to be shared with others, including through text messages, email, messaging apps like WhatsApp, or social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.

The idea is that you could create a skill for your friends or family to use, to save them the work of having to edit Amazon’s provided templates with your own content. Amazon suggests the new sharing feature could be used among study groups, who have built a custom “flashcards” skill, for example, or shared among family for a birthday. (Presumably, the skill is part of your present?)

Blueprints, so far, have been a fun way to play around with Alexa in your home, teaching it to respond to questions like “who’s the best mom?” (me, of course), creating lists of your family’s favorite jokes, playing customized trivia games, and more.

But adoption has been fairly limited – it’s a neat trick, but not a must-have for all Alexa users.

The skills themselves are simple to build: Amazon provides templates, which are basically filled in and ready to go, but you change the answers to suit your needs.

Now, you when you’re viewing the list of skills you’ve made, you can toggle the skill’s status under the “Access” section to either “just me” or “shared.” (You can un-share a skill at any time, too, by choosing “revoke.”)

Sharing creates a link to your skill that you can paste into a text message, email, social media, or anywhere else. When the recipients clicks the link, they’re taken to the Alexa Blueprints site where they can enable the skill for themselves.

While this could make it easier for people to use Blueprints, it would be interesting if there was a way to share the skills more publicly, too – currently, you can’t publish skills to the Alexa Skill Store, as they’re meant for personal use. But having some sort of community section for Alexa owners within the Blueprints site itself could be interesting – maybe you could share your own Blueprints templates here, or ask others to collaborate on creating one with you.

Imagine a Blueprint trivia game built by all the fans of a favorite TV show, for instance. Or maybe you could share a set of Blueprints with your extended family, since, you know, you’re “the techie one.”

Of course, it’s hard to justify investing in a project that still has a niche audience at this time – but on the other hand, building a community of Alexa owners around homegrown skills could prompt that audience to grow, and help to inform professional developers about what kinds of skills people really wanted.

Alexa Blueprints are free to use at blueprints.amazon.com. 

News Source = techcrunch.com

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Alexa

TiVo adds Alexa voice control to its DVRs

TiVo’s DVRs are getting Alexa support. The company is announcing its lineup of DVRs, including Series 4 (Premiere), 5 (Roamio), and 6 (Bolt) boxes like TiVo BOLT VOX introduced last fall, will be gaining support for Amazon’s virtual assistant, Alexa. The assistant will be able to do things like change the channel, skip commercials, jump back or forward, launch apps like Netflix, and more, says TiVo.

The company is not the only third-party DVR maker to have added support for Alexa.

Thanks to developer tools like the Video Skill API, other cable and satellite TV companies, streaming services, and content providers can now add voice control to their devices and apps, as well. For example, Dish last fall became the first U.S. pay TV provider to integrate with Alexa for hands-free TV. Others working with Amazon include DirecTV and TechCrunch’s parent (by way of Oath), Verizon.

Amazon’s Video Skill API was updated in March to include support for DVR recording, allowing users to set and manage their DVR recordings via their voice – that’s something TiVo, presumably, will add at a later date, as it’s not live yet. At the time of Amazon’s announcement, it had also said TiVo was one of the companies developing experiences using the Video Skill API.

In addition, TiVo itself had announced plans to add smart home integration, including voice control through Alexa and Google Assistant, back at CES in January. 

According to TiVo, Alexa will let its customers do many of the things they can do today with the TiVo remote. For example, you can ask Alexa to change the channel by saying things like “Alexa, watch CBS” or “Alexa, go to FOX.” You can also launch apps on TiVo” by saying things like “Alexa, open Netflix.”

But where TiVo’s implementation is different from other DVR makers is how it has put Alexa to use to control its devices’ unique features, like skipping the commercials – which TiVo calls SkipMode. 

This can be done by telling Alex to “skip commercials,” says TiVo, and it joins other playback-related skills like jumping back 8 seconds (“Alexa, go back”), pausing and playing, fast-forward, and rewind. 

“With far-field voice control, life becomes more untethered for our customers,” said Andrew Heymann, TiVo’s Senior Director of Product Management, in an announcement about the new functionality. “They can continue to enjoy watching their favorite programming with TiVo’s cool features even when they’re preparing dinner and their hands are too dirty to use the remote, or when they’re exercising, and they don’t have access to their remote. Life suddenly gets a lot easier,” he adds.

A placeholder screen for the new Alexa functionality popped up this weekend on supported devices, reports Dave Zatz, who regularly covers TiVo. The screen says Alexa is “coming soon” and will roll out to TiVo retail devices with software version 20.7.4 or later. The rollout is expected to compete by June 1st, it also notes.

The addition of Alexa to TiVo’s boxes is notable, too, because TiVo itself had developed voice-control functionality of its own. Its newer BOLT VOX and Mini VOX were the company’s first DVRs to include a voice remote control, which offers similar functionality to Alexa.

However, TiVo sold the remote separately, which limited the reach of its voice control offering for consumers. With Alexa, the company is able to go after the growing market of those who already own an Amazon Echo device.

News Source = techcrunch.com

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Microsoft shows off Alexa-Cortana integration, launches sign-up website for news

Microsoft still isn’t giving a timeline as to when its virtual assistant, Cortana, will support integration with Amazon Alexa – something the companies had announced last year. But the company at its Build developer conference today did show off how that integration will work, in an on-stage demo with support from Amazon, and it launched a new website for developers interested in receiving Alexa-Cortana integration news and information going forward.

When Microsoft and Amazon first discussed integrating their virtual assistants, it was described as a two-way street – that is, Cortana could pass requests back to Alexa, and vice versa. For example, Alexa customers would be able to access Cortana’s productivity features, like booking meetings, accessing work calendars, or reading work emails. Meanwhile, Cortana users could ask Alexa to control smart home devices, shop Amazon, or use Alexa’s some 40,000 skills. 

But there were some concerns those commands would be awkward, and that integrations like this could be unnecessary too.

At Build, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella stressed the values of a more open system, saying “We want to make it possible for our customers to get the most out of their personal digital assistants – not be bound to some walled garden.”

Perhaps, though, what Microsoft really wants is to benefit from Alexa’s momentum.

In a brief demo, Microsoft Cortana GM Megan Saunders along with Amazon Alexa SVP Tom Taylor showed how Alexa and Cortana would work together. It didn’t look quite as unwieldy as you may have imagined.

Saunders directed her Echo speaker to “open Cortana,” which saw the digital assistant responding with a different voice, “Cortana here, how can I help?”

The experience seemed more like launching and using a third-party skill, rather than a series of tricky verbal commands.

She was then able to ask Cortana for information on her calendar, without having to say “Cortana,” or “Alexa” again – just “how’s my day?”

And she told Cortana to “send an email to Tom Taylor saying ‘I’ll see you tonight’” – again, without having to command the assistant by name.

After the Alexa-to-Cortana demo, Taylor showed off the reverse situation – calling up Alexa from Cortana.

While using Cortana on his PC, he said to Microsoft’s Assistant, “Hey Cortana, open Alexa.” Alexa responded in her own voice: “hi there, this is Alexa. How can I help?”

Taylor used Alexa to order an Uber using the third-party Uber skill and told her to turn off the lights.

He also asked Alexa what she thought of Cortana, to which Amazon’s assistant replied, with her typical cheesy humor, “I like Cortana. We both have experience with rings, although hers is more of a Halo.” Oh, hardy-har-har. 

Of course, what people really wanted to hear about is when the Cortana-Alexa integration would go live, and unfortunately there was no news on that front.

Saunders referred to the experience as still being in a “limited beta” for the time being, but did note the launch of a new website for developers.

Developers who are building skills for Cortana and Alexa can go to this new site in order to sign up to be notified when the integrations go live.

“For all of you developers out there building skills, Cortana and Alexa is going to enable access to more people across more devices,” said Saunders. “And we can’t wait to see what you build.”

News Source = techcrunch.com

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Suki raises $20M to create a voice assistant for doctors

When trying to figure out what to do after an extensive career at Google, Motorola, and Flipkart, Punit Soni decided to spend a lot of time sitting in doctors’ offices to figure out what to do next.

It was there that Soni said he figured out one of the most annoying pain points for doctors in any office: writing down notes and documentation. That’s why he decided to start Suki — previously Robin AI — to create a way for doctors to simply start talking aloud to take notes when working with patients, rather than having to put everything into a medical record system, or even writing those notes down by hand. That seemed like the lowest hanging fruit, offering an opportunity to make it easier for doctors that see dozens of patients to make their lives significantly easier, he said.

“We decided we had found a powerful constituency who were burning out because of just documentation,” Soni said. “They have underlying EMR systems that are much older in design. The solution aligns with the commoditization of voice and machine learning. If you put it all together, if we can build a system for doctors and allow doctors to use it in a relatively easy way, they’ll use it to document all the interactions they do with patients. If you have access to all data right from a horse’s mouth, you can use that to solve all the other problems on the health stack.”

The company said it has raised a $15 million funding round led by Venrock, with First Round, Social+Capital, Nat Turner of Flatiron Health, Marc Benioff, and other individual Googlers and angels. Venrock also previously led a $5 million seed financing round, bringing the company’s total funding to around $20 million. It’s also changing its name from Robin AI to Suki, though the reason is actually a pretty simple one: “Suki” is a better wake word for a voice assistant than “Robin” because odds are there’s someone named Robin in the office.

The challenge for a company like Suki is not actually the voice recognition part. Indeed, that’s why Soni said they are actually starting a company like this today: voice recognition is commoditized. Trying to start a company like Suki four years ago would have meant having to build that kind of technology from scratch, but thanks to incredible advances in machine learning over just the past few years, startups can quickly move on to the core business problems they hope to solve rather than focusing on early technical challenges.

Instead, Suki’s problem is one of understanding language. It has to ingest everything that a doctor is saying, parse it, and figure out what goes where in a patient’s documentation. That problem is even more complex because each doctor has a different way of documenting their work with a patient, meaning it has to take extra care in building a system that can scale to any number of doctors. As with any company, the more data it collects over time, the better those results get — and the more defensible the business becomes, because it can be the best product.

“Whether you bring up the iOS app or want to bring it in a website, doctors have it in the exam room,” Soni said. “You can say, ‘Suki, make sure you document this, prescribe this drug, and make sure this person comes back to me for a follow-up visit.’ It takes all that, it captures it into a clinically comprehensive note and then pushes it to the underlying electronic medical record. [Those EMRs] are the system of record, it is not our job to day-one replace these guys. Our job is to make sure doctors and the burnout they are having is relieved.”

Given that voice recognition is commoditized, there will likely be others looking to build a scribe for doctors as well. There are startups like Saykara looking to do something similar, and in these situations it often seems like the companies that are able to capture the most data first are able to become the market leaders. And there’s also a chance that a larger company — like Amazon, which has made its interest in healthcare already known — may step in with its comprehensive understanding of language and find its way into the doctors’ office. Over time, Soni hopes that as it gets more and more data, Suki can become more intelligent and more than just a simple transcription service.

“You can see this arc where you’re going from an Alexa, to a smarter form of a digital assistant, to a device that’s a little bit like a chief resident of a doctor,” Soni said. “You’ll be able to say things like, ‘Suki, pay attention,’ and all it needs to do is listen to your conversation with the patient. I’m, not building a medical transcription company. I’m basically trying to build a digital assistant for doctors.”

News Source = techcrunch.com

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