They are all over the place - on smart speakers, smartphones and synced with a lot many smart appliances. They can talk to us, fetch us information and carry out tasks as bidden. They are the voice-controlled virtual assistants, which are steadily growing in number. Of course, there is no Siri for Android users. But Amazon's Alexa, Google Assistant, Lyra, Robin and their ilk are doing an excellent job. Look around, and you will find thousands of apps doing the same or more. The only problem: Finding those apps can be difficult. Even if you manage to download them all, running different apps for different tasks is not exactly convenient. Also, let us not deny it; you have always looked for new applications for new kinds of tasks and new ways of interaction. But you are not that tech wizard who can make it happen. You do not even know how to code.
That should not be a problem in an era of short-cuts and quick fixes. In fact, tech giants like Google and Amazon are helping non-techies build their very own voice apps by using pre-coded templates. Imagine publishing a personalised platform that will allow you to share your hobby, nay, passion, with netizens far and wide. If you are a budding author, share an audio clip featuring your latest poem or short story. Or if you fancy yourself as a quiz master, create hard-to-crack trivia. Now that you know the potential, let us create some new activities on Alexa and Google (they call these activities skills and actions, respectively).
Creating 'Skills' on Alexa
Amazon has kept things quite simple for the 'layman' keen to experiment with and create customised Alexa skills. Go to Alexa Blueprints (blueprints.amazon.in), log in using your Amazon account and follow the steps featured there. This starts with the kind of 'skill' you want to develop. As of now, the Blueprints offers several categories, including At Home, Learning & Knowledge, Fun & Games, Storyteller, Greetings & Occasions and Community & Organisations. So, you can create a quiz or flash card under Learning & Knowledge or develop spiritual talks under Community & Organisations.
I started with the Quiz skill. The first step required replacing the existing questions, answers and follow-up facts (optional) with new content. I customised it further by adding a welcome message, player greetings and responses for right and wrong quiz answers, and then named the quiz. After that, I had to hit the Create Skill icon on the top and it was done. A new window opened, showing a brief of the quiz, its visibility, publishing option on the Alexa Skill Store and ways to share it via e-mail, social media and messenger apps. Sharing creates a link to the new skill that can be pasted anywhere. You can also unshare it by choosing revoke. But skill stores are region-specific, and Indians can only publish their skills on the India store.
Creating activities on Alexa is mostly about replacing the content or doing some fill-in-the-blanks. So, go ahead and try more activities. Creating a Flash Card can be useful as it helps students with a quick revision. Assign topic names to the cards and customise them with terms, definitions and hints, and you will be through.
More 'Actions' on Google
Just like Alexa Skills, one can create activities on Actions on Google (developers.google.com/actions/). Log in using your Google Account, select Go to Action Console and click on New Project. Follow the prompts and name your new project post which you will be on a colourful landing page. This contains eight categories such as Smart Home, Health & Fitness, Games & Fun, Shopping and more. But many of these will require technical knowledge and use of SDKs or software development kits. Do not worry, though, as anyone can use the Templates option at the bottom left of the page. However, you can only create trivia, personality quiz, flash cards and how-to videos with Templates, and the process is not as simple as creating Skills.
The first step is Invocation, where you have to give your action/activity a display name. This will be listed in the Actions Directory. Now, go to the action category you have chosen and start by selecting the Personality you like. There are three options under each Templates category, but how-to videos do not have this feature. Personality typically defines how you want the project to appeal to others. The next step is the most important and a little tricky. When you hit Get Started and click on the content template for putting in new content, a new window pops up, asking you to make a copy of the existing Google Sheet. Do as prompted, enter the new content on the first page and make necessary changes on the configuration page within the same sheet. Every time you make a change, it will be automatically saved in the cloud. When the content part is done, click on Share Link to generate a sharable link for your document. Now, head back to the content console page, click on Upload Content and paste the link in the Google Sheet URL box for uploading. If the uploading is successful, you will be asked to Create App.
To test the Action, click on Go to Simulator that enables testing. Next, go back to the Overview page and click on Get Ready for Deployment. You will come across a dropdown list and need to enter all details required for Directory information, location targeting and specifying device capabilities. Finally, submit the production for release, and you will get an e-mail message within a few minutes regarding the status of the Action.