In this series, we take a look at what Amazon has recently added to Alexa noted within their newsletter. If you’re unaware, Amazon sends out a frequent newsletter called “Keep up with Alexa.”
We’ll talk about what the new commands really do (which Amazon doesn’t typically do itself) so you don’t have to guess. Additionally, I’ll review what Amazon presented to see if we can get a glimpse of what direction Amazon and the Smart Home industry is going. Feel free to skip around to the categories that are more interesting to you.
Alexa Newsletter Review
As mentioned above, Amazon sends out a newsletter called “Keep up with Alexa.” This newsletter from the last week of March 2020 has four highlighted commands in the Spotlight section. It also contains a list of 20 smaller commands that are either new or that do something newer or even better.
Let’s see what Amazon deemed Spotlight worthy this newsletter.
“Alexa, make a donation to the COVID-19 response fund”
The “fund” that you donate to with this command is called Feeding America. The world is following the Coronavirus situation very closely, as I’m sure you are too. Like everyone else, Voice Assistants are adding new information to help answer requests that are related to the ongoing crisis. Through this fund, every dollar you donate attributes to 10 meals to children and families in need. There are also other commands related to Coronavirus that Alexa understands, in case you want to check them out.
“Alexa, open Guided Meditation”
This command opens an Alexa Skill called Guided Meditation. Currently it has a 4.5 out of 5 rating and 300 reviews. The skill is free to use, so don’t worry about any paywalls coming your way. From the looks of it, Amazon is encouraging meditation during these stressful times.
“Alexa, open Disney Stories”
Disney recently added this skill, which will read Disney stories to you. Watch out though,the skill will likely require some cash once you get past a story or two. Don’t let your kids go wild and ring up the credit card bill.
“Alexa, drop in on living room Echo”
This command is a slight advertisement for the intercom features that Amazon has added. In short, if you have multiple Echos, this command allows you to talk between each of your Echo devices. This is pretty useful if you have multiple Echos and a large house.
Next, let’s take a look at the longer list of commands in the “Things to Try” section.
Things to Try
“Alexa, cancel my bedroom Echo timer”
This command is an improvement to the timer features. Now you can cancel timers that are registered on specific Alexa devices. This is a slight improvement from using the phrase “cancel my timer,” which cancels the current timer from all your Echos at once.
“Alexa, restart my timer”
This is another timer related command. If you find yourself using the same timer over and over, then this update is for you! Most likely Amazon sees many people using their original command to start up the same timer twice. Instead, you can now use this command to save yourself a bit of effort.
“Alexa, talk to the front door”
Amazon pushed out a bunch of updates for its Ring integration over the last few months. For this newsletter, Amazon added the ability to open a 2-way conversation with your doorbell, much like the intercom feature Amazon highlighted above.
“Alexa, add the lamp to the living room group”
Setting up groups is a tedious but important process of configuring your Smart Home devices. Here’s why groups are important. Alexa now has the ability to add devices to an existing group by Voice, rather than by going to the Alexa App. This is a solid addition, but it’s certainly an update that would go under the radar unless you know it exists. Next time you need to change a group, try this command instead.
“Alexa, turn on Song ID”
“Alexa, read my Audible book”
This command highlights Alexa’s deep integration with Audible, which is also owned by Amazon. With this command, you’ll get a prompt asking you which Audible book to read that you already own or an advertisement explaining what Alexa can do if you buy an Audible book.
“Alexa, open Meditation Timer”
This command is another advertisement for the Alexa Skill, Meditation Timer. This skill is also a nod to the ongoing health crisis. Although it’s a mediation skill, it doesn’t offer you a guided meditation, but instead plays ambient sound for the time requested. The idea is you meditate until the ambient sound ends.
“Alexa, how do I make chicken stock?”
Cooking is an important area for Voice Assistants. Using this command highlights Alexa’s ability to read recipes to you from various sources. After asking Alexa this question, she tells you a recipe from the Food Network. While the command itself isn’t an Alexa Skill, it is something Amazon is working on internally, it points to their ability to scrape websites directly, not just recipes.
“Alexa, play King of the Hill on Hulu”
For this command, Amazon is looking to highlight some of the commands you can use with your TV and the Hulu Skill. In this case, the skill is able to understand the name of shows on its network. Depending on what Alexa device you use, the show itself should simply start playing directly on the Alexa device or on a nearby TV.
“Alexa, add board games to my Wish List”
This command is a bit confusing. I suspect the intent is to give the user a list of board games to choose from and then add the selected one to their shopping cart. But that’s not what happens. Instead, the command adds an “idea” to my wish list in my Amazon account, and that’s it.
Not super useful yet in my opinion, but this command does give you a hint into what Amazon thinks is important. I wouldn’t be surprised if they offer a list of possible board games to add in the near future.
“Alexa, make a donation to Wounded Warrior Project”
This is donation command number two for this newsletter. Amazon is connected to many different charities with the Wounded Warrior Project as a new addition. You can find the full list of charities that Alexa supports here.
“Alexa, what am I holding?”
This command is really interesting. It means Alexa is able to identify some basic items that you might have in your hand, as long as Alexa has a camera attached. The feature provides an interesting glimpse into the sort of AI technology Amazon is building out. At this point, they can already identify some items.
“Alexa, tell me a light bulb joke”
“Alexa, are you left handed?”
Jokes are added and removed pretty regularly. Give these new additions a try.
“Alexa, how far is London from Paris?”
Similar to jokes, static informational commands are updated regularly, depending on what Amazon sees users asking. For this instance, there isn’t too much that’s noteworthy.
“Alexa, what time is sunset?”
This question is also informational, but it’s much trickier to answer. The reason being the time of sunset changes, depending on the time of year and where you actually are located. So to get this running, Amazon needs some sort of database that stores the information.
This feature is also really useful for Home Automation. With Home Automation, you can use the sunset time as a condition to do things like turn on your lights. So this command may hint at Amazon adding this sort of functionality to the Smart Home space in the future.
And that’s our first review! With this newsletter, we’re given a total of 20 new commands to try out. Here’s how they break down into different groups:
- Donations: 2
- Timers: 2
- Information: 2
- Shopping: 1
- Accessibility: 1
- Alexa Skills: 6
- Smart Home: 3
- Jokes: 2
- Cooking: 1
What can we gleam from this? Here are my takeaways.
Donations and meditation Alexa Skills are the largest highlights of this newsletter. But Amazon isn’t alone in this push. The other big Voice Assistants have similar Coronavirus updates to check out.
For instance, Siri helps you to self-diagnose by going through a list of COVID-19 symptoms. To ask Siri, say, “Do I have the coronavirus?” The Verge has some more info here.
Additionally, Google Assistant helps with tips on preventing the spread of the virus. To ask Google Assistant, say, “Do the Five.” More info on that here.
Both Amazon and Apple believe Secure Video is a very important area for Voice Assistants and the Smart Home space. Apple also added HomeKit Secure Video in the iOS 13, which provides some enhanced video support for HomeKit, much like what Ring has for Amazon.