At the AWS Summit Sydney this year, Telstra decided to host a breakfast session for some of their VIP clients. This was more of a networking session, to get to know the clients much better. However, instead of having a “normal” breakfast session, we decided to take it up one level 😉
Breakfast ordering is quite “boring” if you ask me 😉 The waitress comes to the table, gives you a menu and asks what you would like to order. She then takes the order and after some time your meal is with you.
As it was AWS Summit, we decided to sprinkle a bit of technical fairy dust on the ordering process. Instead of having the waitress take the breakfast orders, we contemplated the idea of using Amazon Alexa instead 😉
I decided to give the Alexa skill development a go. However, not having any prior Alexa skill development experience, I anticipated an uphill battle, having to first learn the product and then developing for it. To my amazement, the learning curve wasn’t too steep and over a weekend, spending just 12 hours in total, I had a working proof of concept breakfast ordering skill ready!
Here is a link to the proof of concept skill https://youtu.be/Z5Prr31ya10
I then spent a week polishing the Alexa skill, giving it more “personality” and adding a more “human” experience.
All the work paid off when I got told that my Alexa skill would be used at the Telstra breakfast session! I was over the moon!
For the final product, to make things even more interesting, I created a business intelligence chart using Amazon QuickSight, showing the popularity of each of the food and drink items on the menu. The popularity was based on the orders that were being received.
Using a laptop, I displayed the chart near the Amazon Echo Dot. This was to help people choose what food or drink they wanted to order (a neat marketing trick 😉 ) . If you would like to know more about Amazon QuickSight, you can read about it at Amazon QuickSight – An elegant and easy to use business analytics tool
Just as a teaser, you can watch one of the ordering scenarios for the finished breakfast ordering skill at https://youtu.be/T5PU9Q8g8ys
In this blog, I will introduce the architecture behind Amazon Alexa and prepare you for creating an Amazon Alexa Skill. In the next blog, we will get our hands dirty with creating the breakfast ordering Alexa skill.
How does Amazon Alexa actually work?
I have heard a lot of people use the name “Alexa” interchangeably for the Amazon Echo devices. As good as it is for Amazon’s marketing team, unfortunately, I have to set the records straight. Amazon Echo are the physical devices that Amazon sells that interface to the Alexa Cloud. You can see the whole range at https://www.amazon.com/Amazon-Echo-And-Alexa-Devices/b?ie=UTF8&node=9818047011. These devices don’t have any smarts in them. They sit in the background listening for the “wake” command, and then they start streaming the audio to Alexa Cloud. Alexa Cloud is where all the smarts are located. Using speech recognition, machine learning and natural language processing, Alexa Cloud converts the audio to text. Alexa Cloud identifies the skill name that the user had requested, the intent and any slot values it finds (these will be explained further in the next blog). The intent and slot values (if any) are passed to the identified skill. The skill uses the input and processes it using some form of compute (AWS Lambda in my case) and then passes the output back to Alexa Cloud. Alexa Cloud, converts the skill output to Speech Synthesis Markup Language (SSML) and sends it to the Amazon Echo device. The device then converts the SSML to audio and plays it to the user.
Below is an overview of the process.
Getting things ready
Getting an Alexa enabled device
The first thing to get is an Alexa enabled device. Amazon has released quite a few different varieties of Alexa enabled devices. You can checkout the whole family here.
If you are keen to try a side project, you can build your own Alexa device using a Raspberry Pi. A good guide can be found at https://www.lifehacker.com.au/2016/10/how-to-build-your-own-amazon-echo-with-a-raspberry-pi/
You can also try out EchoSim (Amazon Echo Simulator). This is a browser-based interface to Amazon Alexa. Please ensure you read the limits of EchoSim on their website. For instance, it cannot stream music
For developing the breakfast ordering skill, I decided to purchase an Amazon Echo Dot. It’s a nice compact device, which doesn’t cost much and can run off any usb power source. For the Telstra Breakfast session, I actually ran it off my portable battery pack 😉
Create an Amazon Account
Now that you have got yourself an Alexa enabled device, you will need an Amazon account to register it with. You can use one that you already have or create a new one. If you don’t have an Amazon account, you can either create one beforehand by going to https://www.amazon.com or you can create it straight from the Alexa app (the Alexa app is used to register the Amazon Echo device).
Setup your Amazon Echo Device
Use the Alexa app to setup your Amazon Echo device. When you login to the app, you will be asked for the Amazon Account credentials. As stated above, if you don’t have an Amazon account, you can create it from within the app.
Create an Alexa Developer Account
To create skills for Alexa, you need a developer account. If you don’t have one already, you can create one by going to https://developer.amazon.com/alexa. There are no costs associated with creating an Alexa developer account.
Just make sure that the username you choose for your Alexa developer account matches the username of the Amazon account to which your Amazon Echo is registered to. This will enable you to test your Alexa skills on your Amazon Echo device without having to publish it on the Alexa Skills Store (the skills will show under Your Skills in the Alexa App)
Create an AWS Free Tier Account
In order to process any of the requests sent to the breakfast ordering Alexa skill, we will make use of AWS Lambda. AWS Lambda provides a cheap and cost-effective way to run code due to the fact that you are only charged for the time that the code is run. There are no costs for any idle time.
If you already have an AWS account, you can use that otherwise, you can sign up for an AWS Free tier account by going to https://aws.amazon.com . AWS provides a lot of services for free for the first 12 months under the Free Tier, with some services continuing the free tier allowance even beyond the 12 months (AWS Lambda is one such). For a full list of Free Tier services, visit https://aws.amazon.com/free/
High Level Architecture for the Breakfast Ordering Skill
Below is the architectural overview for the Breakfast Ordering Skill that I built. I will introduce you to the various components over the next few blogs.
In the next blog, I will take you through the Alexa Developer console, where we will use the Alexa Skills Kit (ASK) to start creating our breakfast ordering skill. We will define the invocation name, intents, slot names for our Alexa Skill. Not familiar with these terms? Don’t worry, I will explain them in the next blog. I hope to see you there.
See you soon.