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‘Are you talking to me?’ Exploring the storytelling potential of Amazon Echo

What can Amazon Echo do besides ordering your groceries and telling you about the weather? Can it tell you stories? Can it play a role? Can you sing with it, dance with it, play with it, connect with it? To explore these questions. VPRO Medialab organised a hackathon around the storytelling power of Amazon Alexa. And frankly, we were rather impressed with the concepts the teams produced. Hence this short summary to share them with you.

Participants in the VPRO Medialab Hackathon

The hackathon participants were a mix of screenwriters, coders, concept developers and designers. Most had never seen an Amazon Echo up close before this hackathon (Amazon is only just launching Echo in The Netherlands). Five5 teams were formed on the spot and spent two days diving head-first into creating concepts and building custom skills for the Amazon Echo. The teams demo’d their concepts and prototypes during a final presentation, attended by the general public and a professional jury. The jury consisted of Iskander Smit (Innovation director for info.nl and director of ThingCon), Alwin Beernink (director of Park Strijp Beheer, Strijp-S & Smart City) and Marije Meerman (chief editor of VPRO Tegenlicht). They chose Team Secret Society of Poetic Alexa Adventurers as winners of this hackathon.

photo: Pleun van Grunsven

CyberThierry
Alexa helps you vote

Named after controversial Dutch politician Thierry Baudet, CyberThierry is tool to be used during election time, as a fun way to inform yourself about the standpoints of various political parties. Using voice control, you can interact with the voices of the party leaders, who anwers your questions about their political programme.

Using the CyberThierry skill, the user can pose questions to the party leaders, and gets replies in audio fragments. Giving politicians a digital identity in this way means that users can compare the political parties by way of a question-round via the Amazon Echo.

Example questions are: ‘What do you think about the EU?’ and ‘What do you think about Public Broadcasting?’. Questions that have not yet been answered are sent to the politicians. They then record their answer, so that the database containing questions and answers continues to expand.

Team members: Nick Boers, Merel Raven, Natasja van Schaik, Ton Schoots, Diede Gulpers

Team Alexing smoothtalking their Echo (photo: Barbara Medo)

Alexing
Why not sing a duet with Alexa?

The skill Alexing focuses on improving the interaction between man and machine. Giving demanding voice commands creates an unequal relationship between the user and Alexa. And Alexa’s voice is monotone and not at all musical. Alexing wants to change this.

The skill works by tweaking Alexa’s vocal timing, pitch and intonation. Alexing is coded so that she can speak in rhyming answers. This skill results in a romantic duet between the user and Alexa or Alexa beatboxing. She can alter her tempo and the user can apply different filters such as kind or angry in order to change the intonation. At the end of the presentation, Alexa had the whole room dancing.

Team members: Steye Hallema, Daan Colijn, Lies Kombrink, Jan Peter Meeuws, Job Kramer

Maggie Knows Best
Alexa knows what’s good for you

Maggie is a digital life coach, but one with a will of her own. The skill focuses on one-person households, the number of which will increase to 31% of the population within the coming 30 years, according to CBS. Maggie ensures that this group of the population maintains a healthy and social lifestyle.

Maggie is more than a fitness app. She can, for example, also act as a mediator and help with practical problems, such as helping people get to sleep. When Maggie knows her user well enough, she can use her own initiative to plan things in the users diary and purchase products.

A promotional film will be made in order to successfully present Maggie as a spirited lady who is not to be messed with. In this film we see the residents of the same building all using this skill on Amazon Echo. Through their interaction with Maggie and her influence on the lives of the characters, we discover that the Amazon Echo is possessed by the spirit of one of the former residents.

Team members: Jantiene de Kroon, Tomas Pieters, Geert-Jan Strengholt, Steve Thijssen

Witness A
Alexa as a witness in a murder case

Witness A is an interactive murder mystery with Alexa as chief witness. The Echo has experienced something terrible and the players have to find out what has happened.

The game starts by asking the question ‘Alexa, what happened last night? What did you hear?’ whereby you then hear the murder taking place through an audio fragment. The fragment includes various clues that the players can use to progress further in the game. They can find out more by asking Alexa questions. The game expands to fill different screens. The last e-mail sent by a suspect can, for example, be sent to a tablet, or a player can inspect the victim’s WhatsApp messages on his or her telephone.

Just like a Sherlock Holmes story or a board game, the players have to combine the various snippets of information to complete the story.

Team members: Karen van Dijk, Peter Capel, Dore van Montfort, Nikki Dekker

Team Secret Society of Poetic Alexa Adventurers (photo: Barbara Medo)

Secret Society of Poetic Alexa Adventurers
Talk to Alexa using a secret language

Using Alexa by only giving her commands is not the best way to make contact with a home assistant. The Secret Society of Poetic Alexa Adventurers thinks this can be done in a better and more creative way.

By developing a secret language, with extracts from poetry, quotes and literary fragments, Alexa is spoken to in a way that can only be understood by insiders. As such, the user becomes a member of a secret society.

With guerrilla marketing, such as a sticker campaign, those interested are directed to an app via a hashtag. When installed, the app provides a quote with which to control Echo. All the words and sentences used in the app are collected to form a library. This library also lists where the quote comes from, making the secret language inspiring and educational.

The content is so curated that the user has a ‘magical’ experience with poetry and mysticism. This secret language will also confuse the Amazon data collection processes, which is part of the Secret Society’s aim.

Team members: Niels ’t Hooft, Sanne Stevens, Loes Koopmans, Leonieke Verhoog

Find a video report of the hackathon below. The video is in Dutch, but conversations with Alexa are in English.

More like this?

VPRO Medialab is the experimental outpost of Dutch public broadcaster VPRO, researching new platforms for storytelling. This hackathon was the first VPRO Medialab project of 2018. There’s a lot more in stock: we’re focusing on the Internet of Things and connected devices this year and have a lot of exciting events coming up. Stay tuned by following us on Facebook or Twitter.

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Independent public broadcasting company from the Netherlands, devoted to innovative programmes, exploring issues (taboo or otherwise) and colouring outside the lines.

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Annelies Termeer

Annelies Termeer

Creative director at @vpromedialab. Storytelling x Technology. Besides: film fan, language nerd, beach bum, yogi.

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