Two weeks ago Amazon announced a new Audio Player feature that has significant implications for everyone, but is particularly important for long-form audio publishers. Previously, audio playback or text-to-speech by Alexa was limited to 90 seconds. The exceptions to this were a few media partners such as Pandora and Spotify that didn’t face this restriction. Now everyone is unlimited when they use the Audio Player interface. This is great news.
The previous restriction practically eliminated the opportunity for podcasters and music streaming services from reaching the 10 million Echo users that Pat Higbie discussed in this blog last week. The Audio Player also includes built-in commands that enable users to pause, play and skip audio tracks, as well as supports more advanced (and well-loved) commands, such as loop and shuffle. These are the essential features for consuming audio content through a voice-only user interface.
Benefits Go Beyond Audio Publishers
It is obvious that this change benefits audio publishers with long-form content. However, it also benefits other skill developers that may want to use streamed audio instead of the native Alexa voice. For example, a consumer product company might want to tell a story about how their product is used or provide how-to instructions for new customers.
While more than 90 seconds of Alexa reciting text-to-speech might not be an optimal user experience, you can imagine that brands are going to want to develop their own sound palette and mix in professional voice actors, music and other audio to develop a more immersive consumer experience. We are often confronted with the reality of a dwindling consumer attention span, but at the same time long-form audio is in the midst of a renaissance and the Amazon Echo is well positioned to serve that purpose. The new Audio Player is an important advance in Alexa functionality.
However, with new capabilities often come new challenges. The Audio Player has a more complex programming model than regular Alexa skills. It requires handling a number of built-in actions and events, as well as managing state across user interactions and external events (such as timers and alarms). The fine-grained control the API offers over playback is really very powerful, but it must be carefully programmed.
It also introduces a number of user experience considerations. Based on our work and testing so far, we are already formulating our best practices on how to intertwine Alexa’s existing conversational model with the new long-form playback features. We believe there is an opportunity to create some very innovative experiences. The state-of-the-art for this new user interface (UI) paradigm is quickly evolving and we want to help people to do more than just keep up. We want to help them define the best practices up front.
XAPP Has a Tool to Help Developers – Beast Mode
We know these challenges because XAPP is developing on Alexa everyday. In order to be even more efficient and productive in this work, we have built several in-house tools. We make these available to developers for free via an open source license. You and your development team can find them on bespoken.tools or through GitHub.
The Proxy Tool is the first release from Bespoken and it has a simple but ambitious goal: to make Alexa development frictionless. It does this by delivering the actual requests that come from the Alexa service directly to the developer’s laptop. There is no delay and no possibility for error between changing a line of code and having it immediately available to test. This rapidly accelerates development times in a Webhook-oriented world. We call it BEAST mode. A developer can rampage through code/test iterations without being slowed down by time-consuming server deployments, over-complicated and error-prone packaging scripts or even seemingly-innocuous-but-still-pesky service restarts.
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There will be more tools available through Bespoken in the coming months. I encourage you to check them out if you are a developer. If you are not a developer, be forewarned, it gets technical fast.
A Rapidly Growing Platform and Ecosystem
Amazon’s Alexa Skills Kit (ASK) provides a number of excellent development tools and people in the Alexa development community are adding new capabilities daily. We are happy to be able to join that group and make a contribution to Alexa’s evolution as a development platform. However, we are even more excited about the new Audio Player functionality. This new capability opens up many new opportunities for audio publishers and brands that want to build Alexa skills and will only enhance the user experience for consumers.
If you would like to learn how you can use the new Alexa Audio Player functionality or the BST Proxy tool to build your Alexa skill, click the button below and let us know what you are hoping to accomplish.
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