Many of you may have seen that the Amazon Echo; more affectionately referred to as 'Alexa' was an extremely popular Christmas present this year. In fact, so many units were sold that, as reported on Christmas day, Amazon servers could not handle the volume of traffic as excited new owners plugged them in and attempted to register.
With so many purchased, chances are one may have appeared on your gift list, and although many people will currently only have used it to play music or perhaps listen to a podcast or audiobook, there are over 50,000 skills you can now choose from (although it is a bit of a mixed bag). To enable a 'skill' all you have to do is ask for it; "Alexa open [name of skill]" and Alexa will talk you through the process.
How can Alexa help people with disabilities?
The Alexa (and voice assistants in general) often feature in our blogs as a great example of a mainstream device that is of great benefit to many disabled people as they enable an interaction and experience of technology that is practically identical to that of a non-disabled person. In addition to this, it requires nothing more than the ability to ask a question or make a request and is therefore ideal for technophobes, the bamboozled or daunted, or anyone who simply struggles with technology.
Top skills to use in January 2019:
7-minute workout: Worried you've overdone it a bit this Christmas, or have you made a New Year's Resolution you're determined to keep this year? Try "Alexa, open 7-minute workout". This skill, as its name suggests, provides you with a 7-minute workout consisting of 45 exercises (not all in the one session) at three levels of intensity; low-impact, standard, and advanced. You can have accompanying 'chilled' or 'energetic' music or just a silent timer and you can ask for "help" at any time to have the exercise explained. At the end of the exercise you take a break and let Alexa know when you're ready to move on.
Tomato helper: If you're struggling with focus, you may want to try the 'Pomodoro technique' this takes a period of two-hours and divides it into four lots of 25-minutes with a five-minute break in between, followed by a longer break at the end. "Alexa, open tomato helper" will access the skill (be careful to get the name right or your Alexa will just set a regular timer). You can request a "silent timer" as the default timer 'ticks' and can get a bit annoying. At the end of the 25-minute pomodoro an alarm will ring and you simply say 'next' for the five-minute break, then 'next' when the alarm rings again and you start the next pomodoro.
Sleep and relaxation sounds: As its name suggests this skill provides background noise to help you sleep, although equally, you can use it to drown-out a noisy flatmate. The skill has a free version with a selection of sounds from 'ocean' to 'cat purring', to the sound of crickets that can lend a tropical feel to the coldest of nights; "Alexa, ask sleep sounds to play [name of sound]" will access the skill. You can follow this with a sleep timer to have the skill switch off after a while rather than play all night; "Alexa, set a sleep timer for x minutes".
Connect your calendar: Rather than a specific 'skill', connecting your calendar (iCal, Google, Office 365, etc) via the Alexa app will mean that you can ask; "Alexa, what's in my calendar?" and Alexa will read out your next calendar entry. If this happens to be "meeting, tomorrow at 9:00am" and you're worried sleep sounds will have you sleeping too deeply, you can always say; "Alexa, set an alarm for 7am".
Daily News Briefing: This skill allows you to pick and choose to have the news headlines from a whole host of news providers read out to you. Some services use human newsreaders, others Alexa will read out. You can pick your favourite providers and across a broad selection of themes from world news to entertainment, sports to fashion, and many more. There are many different ways to ask for your news feed (referred to as your 'flash briefing'), but the easiest to remember is; "Alexa, what's the news?" If fake news is a concern, why not try "Alexa, open the fake news game" and Alexa will play a real/fake news story game with you; a news story summary is read out and you have to decide whether it turned out to be real or fake.
Want more skills?
Our own Head of Digital Inclusion, Robin Christopherson, hosts a daily podcast called 'Dot to Dot' in which a new skill or built-in feature of the Echo is demonstrated each and every day. Taking around five minutes, make it a New Year's resolution to check out Robin's Dot to Dot podcast on iTunes or simply search for it on your podcasting app of choice.
AbilityNet can help
AbilityNet is a UK charity that helps people to use technology to achieve their goals. If you have questions about disability and technology you can call us on 0800 269 545 or email email@example.com.