Archive for September, 2015

Voicecast comes to Alexa

September 25, 2015

Voicecast comes to Alexa

The Alexa app for my

 Amazon Echo (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*)

recently updated to version 1.7.16.

This appears to have brought a new feature called “Voicecast”, and it was turned on by default.

Now, when I ask Alexa on our Echo (the Echo is the hardware; Alexa is the software) most things, they get sent to my Kindle Fire HDX tablet.

They appear on the device…for one thing, they appear on the Fire’s lockscreen, even if it is sleeping (replacing the ad I would normally see there with my ad-supported “Special Offers” device).

They also appear in Notifications (when I swipe down from the top).

The information on the lockscreen doesn’t persist: if I put the Fire to sleep and wake it up again, there is a different image on the screen (just as there would be with an ad).

Update: TIP: you can preserve the information on your tablet by taking a screenshot. While it is displayed on the lockscreen, hold down the power button and the volume down button at the same time for about a second. You’ll see an animation indicating the screenshot. When you unlock your Fire, you can go to Photos, and you should see it there.

The information in the notifications does persist for a while. I can tap there to go to the information in the Alexa app.

We do have two Fires in our household: the information only went to one. It went to the only one that had the Alexa app. If both Fires had the Alexa app, would it have gone to both? UatT (Unknown at this Time).

I tried this shuffling music or playing a playlist, and it was interesting. I was given control of the music on my Fire, but it played through my Echo. I could, for example, see the queue on the Fire.

.I’m going to see if it is still on my Fire when I get out of range of the Echo later today.

Note that you can control whether the information goes to your tablet at all, automatically, or only on your request.

On the tablet, go to the Alexa app. Then, Home-Settings-Voicecast. You’ll have two switches:

  • Enable Voicecast
  • Enable Automatic Voicecast

If you enable Voicecast, but don’t enable Automatic Voicecast, you can ask Alexa a question. After it has provided you the information, if you say, “Alexa, send that to my Fire”, then it appears on your Fire’s lockscreen.

Does this work with other tablets, besides Fires? I don’t think so.

Interestingly, it doesn’t appear on Fire Phone’s lockscreen, and the Fire Phone version of the app doesn’t have the Voicecast settings. Of course, they’ve stopped selling the Fire Phone (at least in this generation one version for now)…

UPDATE: Amazon has confirmed that it only works with Fire tablets, 4.5.1 or higher.

Is this a useful feature?

Yes, I think so. Having the weather appear on the Fire’s lockscreen is nice. I’m not sure what would happen if the Fire was outside of this wi-fi network, though. Could I use this to send information to my Significant Other’s tablet (if it had the app) when the tablet is in another city?

I’ll ask the Alexa team these four questions, and  update with answers:

  • Does Voicecast require that the app is on the device?
  • If there is more than one Fire tablet on the account with the app, does it send to all of them?
  • If music is sent to a Fire tablet via Alexa request, how do you get it to play through the tablet and not the Echo?
  • Can music be sent to a Fire tablet when it is out of the wi-fi network which hosts the Echo?

UPDATE: Alexa Support, which tends to be super fast, sent this response:

This is *** from the Echo Support team. Thanks for contacting us and those are a lot of great questions. I’ll do my best to answer them. 

Voicecast will be delivered to each Kindle Fire registered onto your account that does have the Alexa app installed. The Echo isn’t actually sending music to the Kindle Fire, it’s simply displaying the “card” of your request for that music. 

If you wanted to play music on your Fire you simply go to the music section on the device and play music there and yes you can take it anywhere and play music. However if it’s not downloaded you would need a WiFi connection to stream from the cloud. 

With Voicecast, you can ask Amazon Echo to send you more information about the content you just heard (such as Wikipedia entries, weather, or music) to compatible Fire tablets (running Fire OS 4.5.1 or above) registered to your Amazon account. You can also turn on Automatic Voicecast to see the requested information automatically on your tablet. 

When you send information to your tablet, it appears on the lock screen or automatically opens the Alexa app. If you’re doing something else on your tablet at the time that you request content (such as browsing the web or playing a game), a notification appears on the screen. To use Voicecast, the Alexa app must be installed on your tablet. 

Voicecast and Automatic Voicecast work will send information for the following categories: 

— Music 
— Wikipedia 
— Questions & Answers 
— Flash Briefing 
— To-do and Shopping Lists 
— Weather 
— Timer & Alarms 
— Help 

If you have any further questions, you can reach Amazon Echo Customer Support by phone directly and toll-free at 1-877-375-9365. We’re available from 3 a.m. to 10 p.m Pacific time, seven days a week. 

Thanks and have a good weekend.

If you are able to answer any of the questions, or have other questions or comments, feel free to let me and my readers know by commenting on this post.

For more information on the Echo and Alexa, see The Measured Circle’s Echo Central.

Join thousands of readers and try the free The Measured Circle magazine at Flipboard 

* I am linking to the same thing at the regular Amazon site, and at AmazonSmile. When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. :) Shop ’til you help! :) 

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the  The Measured Circle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy  Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.

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Amazon Echo/Alexa Round up #2:

September 14, 2015

Amazon Echo/Alexa Round up #2: 

The Measure Circle’s Amazon Echo/Alexa Round ups are short pieces about the Amazon Echo (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*) and Amazon’s Alexa Voice Service which may or may not be expanded later. For more information on the Echo and Alexa, see The Measured Circle’s Echo Central.

New skills and our improved skills page

One of the most important elements for the Amazon Echo and especially for Alexa Voice Service to succeed is the third-party apps which they call Alexa Skills.

I’m going to look at building one myself. I do have some programming knowledge (I’ve taught Visual Basic), but I doubt that it’s that hard to do the actual creation.

That means that the real challenge for developers is going to be to give people a friction-free, enjoyable (or useful) experience.

So far, April Hamilton (of http://lovemyecho.com) shows real evidence of consideration of the user experience.

You can also currently see and compare two apps which do basically the same thing: Guess the Number and High Low Guessing Game. In both cases, you are guessing a number between 1 and 100. High Low gives you the option of either being the guesser or having Alexa guess…that’s the sort of thing that will make a difference to users.

Another important thing for developers? Error handling. What does Alexa do (in the skill) when you do something unexpected? I’ve gotten trapped in an app…and had another one drop me out because it misunderstood me.

While Amazon has told me you can have as many skills as you want (suggesting they are really stored in the Cloud), you might still want to choose which ones you enable. However, whether you enable it or not, you still have to go through them all in the Alexa app to find the ones you want.

For more information on the apps, see our page:

Alexa Skills

Home automation and Alexa

So many people associate the idea of Alexa with the computer on Star Trek. They even want to use “Computer” as the wake word (instead of “Alexa” or “Amazon”). I was thinking that would cause a lot of false positives when people said the word “computer”…but then I realized that, especially at home, a lot fewer people probably say it than used to say it. Now, if it was named “iPad” or  “Galaxy”, that might be a problem. 😉

The Enterprise’s computer didn’t just answer questions…it controlled the operations of the ship. That’s a good thing, too. I’ve often pointed out to people that on the original series, they were way ahead of us in medicine (although we are catching up) with the tricorder, far ahead of us in transportation with warp drive and the transporter…but considerably behind us on computers (unless, you know, they are super intelligent menaces). When Captain Kirk asks the computer for someone’s identification number, you can actually hear the relays closing! It has to say, “Working…” and then it takes several seconds. But I digress… 😉

You can use the Echo to control your house…but you have to first have the home automation.

I know someone who has a fully automated, Jetsons-style house. I’ve been getting some advice.

I didn’t have any home automation yet, so I took that person’s (who wants to remain anonymous) suggestion and got

GE Link Starter Kit, PLINK-SKIT, Wireless, A19 LED Light Bulb, Pack of 2 (at AmazonSmile)

for about $45 (you could spend thousands of dollars on home automation…even to the point of a

Connected Egg Carton (at AmazonSmile*)

which will let you check on how many eggs you have left while you are on the bus…and whether they are good or not.

What this set does is give you a controller, and two bulbs.

There is no special wiring for the bulb…you just screw it in like you would any other lightbulb.

The controller goes in a regular power outlet, like plugging in a lamp.

The Wink app was very clear. Set up was easy.

The only really weird thing is that the Wink app wasn’t available for the

Amazon Fire Phone (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*)

Now, I know, I’m in the tiny minority in even having a Fire Phone…but you would think that when Amazon promotes the Wink capability of the Echo vigorously that it would work with other Amazon hardware. 😉

I even checked with Wink: you can’t set it up any other way except with an app for iPhones and Android.

Fortunately, Amazon (contrary to what you hear sometimes) is not a closed system, and lets you install apps from “outside sources” on the Fire Phone. I got the Wink app from http://www.1mobile.com/ and was good to go.

I have to say, it is cool to be able to say, “Alexa, turn off the family room” or “Alexa, turn on the library light” and have it just happen.

It’s not always that practical, but it certainly has helped at times. For example, when I’ve got two dogs leashed up and am heading out the door, it’s great to be able to just turn the light off verbally.

If you do want to try out automation, this is a relatively inexpensive way to start. It appears to me that I can’t dim the light through the Echo, but it’s still worthwhile.

Alexa gaining knowledge…and losing it

I’m very happy to report that one of the two hashtags I created for Alexa

has actually had an impact!

Amazon stated to both April F. Hamilton (see above) that our use of #TeachAlexa got them to add things to Alexa. For me it was this:

“Alexa, it’s a bird, it’s a plane…”

Alexa: “It’s Superman.”

For April Hamilton it was

“Alexa, cake or death?”

I’ve actually heard more than one response now. That’s an Eddie Izzard routine, by the way.

Feel free to use it and to encourage other people. They should include @AmazonEcho, so the development team sees it.

However…

I noted quite some time back (and with some surprise) that when I asked Alexa if Bigfoot is real, I got a matter of fact response that, “Yes, Bigfoot is real.”

The Echo sidesteps some questions (like religious ones), and I think that’s understandable.

Now, I’m not saying this is a religious question, but it could be controversial. 😉

Interestingly, Alexa now doesn’t answer the Bigfoot question.

I wonder if somebody had, um, second thoughts about that and made a change.

Gee, I guess that might be an “Echoverup”. 😉

Echophile’s problem #1: diving for the remote to mute the TV before your Echo responds to an Echo commercial

Have questions, comments, or stories about the Echo/Alexa for me or my readers? Feel free to comment on this post.

Join thousands of readers and try the free The Measured Circle magazine at Flipboard 

* I am linking to the same thing at the regular Amazon site, and at AmazonSmile. When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. :) Shop ’til you help! :) 

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the  The Measured Circle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy  Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.

 

The Year the Geek Stars Died

September 3, 2015

The Year the Geek Stars Died

This has been a devastating year for geeks.

We, perhaps more than any other group, honor actors in our genres. Even if you only had a small role in one geek-friendly movie, you may find yourself interviewed by a fanzine, or invited to be a guest at a con (convention).

Every year, we lose people we consider part of our community. We regret the loss of each and every one, and lament the unfairness if they don’t appear in the Oscars In Memoriam presentation.

This year (and we are only in September) has been one of the most striking…we feel a disturbance in the Force.

Why is that?

Part of it may be that geek-friendly actors and other moviemakers are continuing to work later in their lives…and to appear in more mainstream works. There is no longer a fast and hard divide between “our” actors and “respectable” ones. Oscar winners now routinely appear in science fiction and fantasy movies (and increasingly, in TV shows). There may be a higher awareness of them (creating more media coverage), and longer resumes.

Another part is all of the media outlets. Older movies are easier to see…and more geek TV shows and movies are being made.

Here are some of the biggest stars who we have lost this year (but who we will always have with us on our screens)…any of them could have headlined a convention:

  • Leonard Nimoy, Mr. Spock from Star Trek (and so much more). Spock is one of my fictional heroes…as is the case for many geeks. That was due in large part to Leonard Nimoy…who, in a true rarity in a geek-friendly role, was nominated for three Emmys for the part. That’s only a small part of Nimoy’s contributions (which include directing Star Trek movies and hosting In Search Of…)
  • Yvonne Craig, Batgirl on the 1960s Batman (and who also appeared on Star Trek…quite a few actors did both shows). While there was pushback about the addition of Batgirl, the character was inspirational for many younger viewers. Craig was also memorable in that Star Trek episode
  • James Horner, one of the most important geek movie scorers (along with Bernard Herrman and John Williams), whose work includes Avatar, Jumanji, and Aliens
  • Rod Taylor is best-known to geeks for starring in George Pal’s adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, but also starred in The Birds and was a voice in Disney’s 101 Dalmations
  • Gary Owens was most recognized as the announcer on Laugh In, but did a lot of voice work, including Roger Ramjet, Space Ghost, and the Blue Falcon (as well as an appearance as “1950s Batman”)
  • Grace Lee Whitney was Yeoman Rand, one of the stars of the original Star Trek
  • Christopher Lee: from the 1960s (Hammer star, The Avengers) straight on through the 21st Century (Count Dooku in Star Wars, Saruman in Lord of the Rings), Lee was one of the biggest geek stars. Just listing roles would take up too much of this post, but we don’t want to omit The Wicker Man and playing a James Bond villain
  • Rowdy Roddy Piper certainly is best known to geeks as the star of John Carpenter’s They Live, but has several other geek-friendly credits, including guest appearances on the TV series Robocop,  Highlander, and Superboy, and the movie H*ll Comes to Frogtown
  • Dean Jones was reported dead while this post was being written. Jones is most associated with Disney live action movies of the 1960s, including Blackbeard’s Ghost and The Love Bug. Dean Jones also was part of the worlds of Batman, Superman, and Jonny Quest

There were certainly other losses this year…we list many of them here:

2015 Geeky Good-byes

We recognize the contributions that each and every one of them made to the geek universe, but the number of headliners we have lost this year feels…unprecedented.

Join thousands of readers and try the free The Measured Circle magazine at Flipboard 

* I am linking to the same thing at the regular Amazon site, and at AmazonSmile. When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. :) Shop ’til you help! :) 

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the  The Measured Circle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy  Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.


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