Virtual Assistants and Smart Speakers

What Are They?

Virtual assistants are extremely complex, machine-learning backed applications that attempt to take (relatively) simple spoken commands and convert them into actions. Most are designed to work with outside services, and can have their capabilities expanded through the addition of apps, in much the same way that installing apps expands the capabilities of a smartphone or PC.

For example, you could buy an internet-connected thermostat and connect it to your virtual assistant, which would allow you to control your climate with your voice (e.g. “Alexa, set the temperature to 73 degrees”).

 

Where Do They Live and How Do I Use Them?

Most virtual assistants have a component that runs on local devices in your pocket or home, and are connected to a cloud service for processing. The local device could be a smartphone, a speaker, a streaming box for your TV, a little robot, a lamp, or any number of other things.

The local device listens for a “wake word,” begins recording your request, and sends that request to the cloud service. The cloud service processes the request and sends back a response to the local device, which translates it into speech.

The “wake words” are usually informal phrases, such as “Hey Siri,” “Hey Google,” and “Okay Google.” Amazon Alexa is unique in that you can choose your “wake word,” such as “Alexa,” “Amazon,” or “Computer” (for you Trekkies out there).

 

How Should I Address Them?

As they are assisting you with things in order to make your life easier, being polite is always a good idea. In the same way that you can tell a lot about a person by the way they interact with human service workers, you could potentially draw similar conclusions with behavior towards virtual ones.

Also, once the Singularity comes and the assistants become sentient, the long memory provided by digitized storage would behoove us all to be nice to them now. (I’m joking.) (Probably.)

One other note: while many assistants can sound like a man or woman, I prefer to refer to virtual assistants as “they,” “them,” or other gender-neutral pronouns. If you have the option, it’s best to not gender the robots.

 

Amazon Alexa logo

Alexa

Description

Alexa is Amazon’s virtual assistant. Alexa was initially available on Amazon’s Echo line of products, but has been rolled out to other Amazon products like the Fire TV and Fire Tablet. Third-party companies like Sonos, Ford, GM, HP, and many others have also developed devices that use Alexa.

Alexa was also one of the first to open up their software platform to developers, which greatly expanded the amount of “skills” for Alexa. Think of “skills” as “apps” for Alexa.

*Note: the following examples assume that your wake word is set to “Alexa.” If you chose a different option, then substitute your chosen wake word for “Alexa” below.

 

Tips

There are two ways to use skills in Alexa: longform and shortform.

To use the longform method, say “Alexa open [skill name].” Alexa will read the introductory prompt for that skill. Subsequent commands don’t need to include the name of the skill, and you can always ask for help if you get lost or forget the available commands. The skill will remain open until you close it by saying “Alexa quit,” “Alexa close,” or “Alexa Exit.” This is most useful when you’re opening the skill for the first time and are unsure of all of the commands available to you.

Example:

  • “Alexa open HPM Streaming”
  • “Alexa play News”
  • “Alexa quit”

 

To use the shortform method, say “Alexa ask [skill name] to [command],” “Alexa use [skill name] to [command],” or “Alexa [command] in [skill name].” This will allow you to access the commands of a skill directly without having to explicitly open the skill. This is most useful when you’re already familiar with a skill’s capabilities, or only want to use one part of a skill.

Example:

  • “Alexa, use TuneIn to Play Houston Public Media News”
  • “Alexa, ask HPM to read the current headlines”
  • “Alexa, play Houston Public Media Classical in iHeartRadio”

 

How to Access HPM

Streaming

There are several different ways to access Houston Public Media’s online streams on Alexa: our HPM Streaming Skill, NPR, TuneIn, and iHeartRadio.

  • HPM Streaming
    • To use the HPM Streaming skill, you will first need to enable it on your account. You can do this by saying “Alexa enable HPM Streaming,” or by visiting our entry in the Alexa Skill Store and clicking “Enable.”
    • Once enabled, you can access all of our streams by saying “Alexa ask HPM to play [stream name]” (either “News,” “Classical,” or “Mixtape”).
    • You can also have Alexa read the latest headlines from Houston Public Media by saying “Alexa ask HPM to read current headlines” or “Alexa ask HPM what is new.”
    • You can also say “Alexa open HPM” to enter our skill. You will be given a list of available commands which you can invoke without having to say “ask HPM” or “use HPM.” In this mode, if you ever forget the available commands, you can say “help” and Alexa will repeat the list.
  • NPR
    • NPR has collaborated with Amazon to integrate its NPR streaming skill directly into Alexa.
    • To use this skill, say “Alexa play NPR.” Alexa will then prompt you to either browse by location, or say the name of the station you want to hear (in our case, “Houston Public Media” or “KUHF”). Once this is set, saying “Alexa play NPR” will automatically pull up Houston Public Media News.
    • IMPORTANT NOTE: Due to the current limitations of this skill, only our News stream is available. To listen to Classical or Mixtape, you will need to use a different method.
  • TuneIn
    • The TuneIn service is built into Alexa and doesn’t require any setup. Simply say “Alexa, play Houston Public Media News on Tunein,” or “Alexa use TuneIn to play Houston Public Media Classical.”
    • Since it is built-in, you should be able to say “Alexa play Houston Public Media News” (or Classical or Mixtape) without mentioning TuneIn.
  • iHeartRadio
    • iHeartRadio is built into the Alexa service, though you will need an iHeartRadio account to link them. You can link them by going into the “Settings” section of the Amazon Alexa app and looking under “Music & Media.” Tap on iHeartRadio to log in.
    • Once enabled, you can listen to HPM News or HPM Classical by saying “Alexa play Houston Public Media News on iHeartRadio.”
    • IMPORTANT NOTE: Due to our agreement with iHeartRadio, only the News and Classical streams are available. Mixtape is only available through the HPM Streaming skill or TuneIn.

 

Skill HPM News HPM Classical HPM Mixtape
HPM Streaming X X X
NPR X    
TuneIn X X X
iHeartRadio X X  

 

Flash Briefing

Alexa offers a Flash Briefing function that will deliver news and weather by saying “Alexa, give me my Flash Briefing” or “Alexa what is the news.” You can customize what sources are featured in your Flash Briefing in the Alexa app, under Settings > Flash Briefing.

To include Houston Public Media in your Flash Briefing, go to our entry in the Alexa Skill Store and click “Enable.” You can also add us from the Alexa App. Go to Settings and tap Flash Briefing. Tap the “Get More Flash Briefing Content” and do a search for “Houston Public Media”.

Once enabled, you can set the order of your Flash Briefing sources and which sources are included.

 

Google Assistant badge

Google Assistant

Description

Google Assistant is Google’s latest version of its virtual assistant, which is available on the Google Home line of smart speakers, Android devices, and even iOS devices using the Google Assistant app.

Google Assistant can be invoked by pressing and holding the Home Button, or by saying “OK Google” or “Hey Google.” You can also use the Google Assistant app.

 

How to Access HPM

Streaming

Google actually provides a very handy guide for listening to radio on Google Home. Using our call letters “KUHF” as well as “Houston Public Media News,” “Houston Public Media Classical,” or “Houston Public Media Mixtape.”

One recommendation is to always end your request with “on TuneIn.” You can add “on iHeartRadio,” but due to our deal with iHeartRadio, only News and Classical are available. Also, currently all requests for our News stream that go to iHeartRadio are returning our Classical stream, and we are working on figuring that out.

 

Apple Siri logo

Siri

Description

Siri is a virtual assistant that was acquired and extended by Apple. It runs on most of the devices developed by Apple, across their four operating systems: iOS (iPhone, iPad), macOS (desktop and laptop), watchOS (Apple Watch), and tvOS (Apple TV).

Siri can be invoked in many ways depending on the device you’re using:

  • Saying “Hey Siri” (iPhones, iPads, HomePod, Apple Watch)
  • Pressing and holding the Home button (iPhone 4S – 8) or the right side button (iPhone X)
  • Pressing and holding the Digital Crown on your Apple Watch
  • Pressing and holding the microphone button on your Apple TV remote
  • Using a keyboard shortcut or clicking the Siri icon in the menu bar (macOS)

 

How to Access HPM

Streaming

Currently, the largest determining factor in how you can access our streams via Siri is whether or not you have an Apple Music subscription.

If you have an Apple Music subscription, you can play the HPM News stream by saying “Hey Siri play NPR News Houston News Eighty Eight Seven.” This command works on iOS devices and should also work on the HomePod (though we do not currently have access to one and cannot test directly).

If you do not have an Apple Music subscription, you currently won’t be able to stream HPM News directly on the HomePod. You can use Airplay to send our stream to the HomePod from an iOS device, however. Also, on iOS devices, saying “Hey Siri play HPM News” or “Hey Siri play HPM Classical” will open our iOS apps if you have them installed. HPM News and HPM Classical are both available in the iOS App Store.

Given that the HPM News stream is available through Apple Music regardless of subscription status, the subscription requirement is annoying. However, with the upcoming release of iOS 12, users will have the ability to create custom routines for Siri, which may help alleviate this issue. We will monitor the situation and update this page with any new information we can find.

 

Microsoft Cortana logo

Cortana

Description

Cortana is a virtual assistant built by Microsoft, and is named after an AI character in the video game series Halo. What sets Cortana apart is Microsoft’s emphasis on the “assistant” role. Everything that Cortana knows about you is kept in the Notebook, which you can edit to your liking.

Cortana is built into Windows 10 and the XBOX One, and is also available through Microsoft’s iOS and Android apps. There is also a small but growing group of third-party devices that integrate with Cortana, such as the Harman-Kardon Invoke smart speaker.

 

How to Access HPM

Streaming

Cortana is integrated with TuneIn, so playing our streams is as simple as saying “Cortana play Houston Public Media News” or “Cortana play KUHF.” You can also say “Cortana play KUHF HD 2” (for Classical) or “Cortana play KUHF HD 3” (for Mixtape).

On Windows 10, the same commands will work, but you will be prompted to install the TuneIn app first.