Voice UI and the Open Tech Calendar Alexa Skill

Things are getting interesting in the world of voice UI and smart speakers.

The tech giants that are Amazon, Google and Microsoft have all made AI development a key part of their business roadmaps and the competition is supercharging the development of natural language processing capabilities.

Amazon have been aggressively pushing for widespread adoption of the echo devices with various sales and promotions.

Google Assistant is being rolled out on Android devices and there are rumours of integration with Google Chrome in the future.

It seems likely that within a year or so voice user interfaces will be everywhere. Developers should take note as the demand for this new mode of interaction is also likely to increase.

Today is a great time to prepare your application for voice UI.

Web developers will be used to the fact that the content or data served up by your application can be accessed in many different ways via different web browsers, mobile devices, televisions, and watches all with varying capabilities. Voice UI is the latest option to add to the list.

As we move forwards websites or apps that have a good voice UI will have a competitive advantage in the same way that mobile optimized websites now have over those designed for the desktop.

I recently attended an Alexa skills workshop so that I could get up to speed and was pleased to find that simple Alex skill development isn’t that difficult to pick up.

If you know Node.js or JavaScript and understand the request-response architecture of the web you will likely find Alexa skill development familiar.

Amazon takes care of the language recognition magic that for you behind the scenes leaving developers to write code that works a lot like like processing an AJAX response from a web page.

The productive experience I had at the workshop encouraged me to publish a skill of my own. After some exploring of the skills already available I decided to make a simple skill for checking upcoming tech events around the UK.

If you haven’t heard of it, Open Tech Calendar is a wonderful resource for the tech community. Anyone can sign up and post upcoming events which are displayed on the website as well as made available via their open API.

I figured that checking the calendar by voice would be something I would use a lot and therefore would likely be useful to other tech people. The result is Tech Calendar — a Voice UI for the Open Tech Calendar.

If you have an Alexa enabled device you can say “Enable Tech Calendar” to enable the skill.

Some examples of how you can use it:

  • Alexa, ask Tech Calendar what’s on in Glasgow this week?
  • Alexa, ask Tech Calendar what’s on in London next week?
  • Alexa, ask Tech Calendar for upcoming events in Glasgow?
  • Alexa, ask Tech Calendar what’s on in Edinburgh today?
  • Alexa, ask Tech Calendar what’s on in Glasgow on the 15th of September?

You can also ask Alexa to open the app and then ask the question. “Open” is the word used to ask Alexa to connect to the app. So you can say:

  • Alexa, Open Tech Calendar.

In case you were wondering, this is one reason why the skill is called Tech Calendar not Open Tech Calendar.

In the future I would like to add the ability to ask “When is the next eventname in cityname?” and also to be able to ask for the full event description as only the summary is currently read out.

In the spirit of open data and open source I have posted the Node.js code on Github here:

https://github.com/CreativeTransmissions/alexa-skill-open-tech-calendar

Any contributions or suggestions are welcome.

I encourage any interested developers to get their hands dirty and try out Alexa skill development. It’s a rewarding experience and makes for a fun weekend project.

Voice UI has only just arrived and now is the perfect time to get ahead of the game and prepare for the future demand for this new and natural way to interact with your applications.

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