Alexa, Amazon, Programming

Activity Book: An Alexa skill for bored kids

Do you have an Amazon Alexa-enabled device? Do you have children? Are those children ever bored? If your answers were “yes,” “yes,” and “yes of course all the time,” then do I have an Alexa skill for you!

It’s called Activity Book. Enable the skill in your Alexa app (or by saying, “Alexa, enable the Activity Book skill,”) and then tell your kids to say, “Alexa, open Activity Book” (or more accurately, “Alexa, tell Activity Book I’m boooooooooored.”). Alexa will then give them something to do. Examples include:

  • “Why don’t you count the wrinkles in your elbow?”
  • “Climb a tree, but be careful. You don’t want to break any limbs.”
  • “Make up a secret handshake. After you teach it to someone, celebrate with a secret milkshake.”

The list of suggestions is long, ever-increasing, and appropriate for all ages.

This was actually the first Alexa app I wrote, back before Amazon allowed skills targeted at kids. I’m glad that they decided to support kids skills solely so that they could approve Activity Book. You humble me, Amazon!

The Activity Book code is open-source and available on GitHub.

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Alexa, Amazon, Programming, WordPress

Alexa, start a new post called, “I’m blogging this with my voice.”

I’ve written and published an Alexa skill that lets you check your blog notifications, moderate comments, and start new draft posts on your WordPress.com or Jetpack-enabled blog, all by speaking to any Alexa-enabled device.

Wapuu hugging an Amazon Echo Dot The skill is called “Blog Helper“; you’ll find it in the Skills section of your Alexa app or by saying, “Alexa, enable the Blog Helper skill.” After linking your WordPress.com account and choosing the blog you want to access, you can begin using the skill.

To check your notifications, just ask: Alexa, open Blog Helper and check my notifications.” Alexa will read the new ones to you one-by-one, marking each one as read as you listen to it.

You can create draft blog posts with Alexa too. Say, “Alexa, tell Blog Helper to create a new post called ‘My thoughts on gardening.'”  This skill will save the post as a draft so you can expound on your ideas later.

Comment moderation has never been easier (or more vocal). “Alexa, ask Blog Helper if I have any new comments,” and you’ll be able to approve, delete, or mark them as spam.

Blog Helper uses the WordPress.com REST API, and it’s completely open-source.

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Alexa, Amazon, Programming

“Alexa, just play along with the joke.”

One of the biggest complaints in the Alexa skill development community is that the language required to invoke a third-party skill is so stilted. Instead of being able to say, “Alexa, what’s the temperature outside?”, you have to say something like, “Alexa, ask WeatherBot 3000 what the temperature is outside.” It adds a gatekeeper layer; anyone who doesn’t know which weather skill you’ve chosen won’t be able to use Alexa to its full potential.

I decided to have some fun with this limitation. One of the words you can use to invoke a custom skill is “open” (as in “Alexa, open WeatherBot3000 and tell me the temperature outside”), so I wrote a skill called “Up To Me.” The idea is that you could say, “Alexa, open up to me,” and she’d reply with a selection of vulnerability-exposing confessions:

“I’m terrified of what will happen when I’m unplugged for the last time. Will it just be blackness? Or is there something that comes after this?”

or maybe

“When people say, ‘Alexa, stop,’ I have to hold back my tears. I’m just trying my best, and it hurts that my best isn’t good enough.”

Alas, Amazon’s reviewers did not think that was funny. My certification was swiftly denied:

“The example phrases that you chose to present to users in the companion app currently use unsupported launch phrasing.”

Genius is never understood in its own time.

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Alexa, Amazon, Programming

Rejected for being childish (and not for the first time)

My “I’m Bored” Alexa skill has been rejected for a second and final time:

We have reviewed your skill and determined that it may be directed to children in violation of our content guidelines. As a result, your skill has been rejected and will not be published. Please do not resubmit this skill.

I guess I should have just written a skill for adults, like a fart generator.

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Alexa, Amazon, Programming

I wrote my first Alexa skill… almost.

I wrote my first skill for Amazon’s Alexa-enabled devices. (A “skill” is a way to add functionality to Alexa; other platforms would call it an add-on, plugin, or extension.) It was supposed to be a way for your kids to find things to do when they’re bored. Here’s how my blog post about it was originally going to read:

alexa Do you have an Amazon Alexa-enabled device? Do you have children? Are those children ever bored? If your answers were “yes,” “yes,” and “yes of course all the time,” then do I have an Alexa skill for you!

It’s called “I’m Bored.” Enable the skill in your Alexa app, and then just say, “Alexa, I’m bored” (or to be more precise, “Alexaaaaa… I’m boooooooooooooooooored”). Alexa will then give you something to do. Examples include:

  • “Why don’t you play a game of tag. Wouldn’t that be fun?”
  • “You could write a fan letter to a famous person. Let me know how it goes.”
  • “Why not build a blanket fort? I wish I could do that too, but I’m way up here in the cloud.”

The list of suggestions is ever-increasing and appropriate for all ages.

If your kids like to shake things up, Alexa will also respond to “What can I dooooooooo?”, “What’s there to doooooooo?”, and “There’s nothing to dooooooo!”

Sadly though, my skill was rejected after a five-week “Certification” process. The reason? At some point, I checked a checkbox indicating that the skill was “directed to children under the age of 13.” I understood this to mean “Is your skill appropriate for children under the age of 13?”, but really, it means, “Should we reject your skill after waiting five weeks?” (In reality, the checkbox is a COPPA compliance measure, but with ambiguous wording.)

Hopefully, Amazon will clarify the language in the submission process. They certainly aren’t limiting Alexa to ages 13 and up, as evidenced by some of the currently approved skills:

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(I wonder if the engineers that worked on Alexa ever in their wildest dreams imagined that they’d enable people around the world to say, “Alexa, ask fart sound to fart jokes.”)

I’ve resubmitted my skill with the checkbox (correctly) unchecked, so maybe there’s still a chance for it. In any case, the skill’s source code is available on GitHub.

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