Virtual Assistants and Smart Speakers

Virtual assistants are 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 skills, in much the same way that installing apps expands the capabilities of a smartphone or PC.

Most have a component that runs on a local device, such as a speaker or a smartphone, which listens for a “wake word.” Once the wake word or phrase is uttered, it begins recording your request, and sends that request to a cloud service for processing and fulfillment.

There are rumors floating around on the internet that these assistants are always listening and sending back data to their cloud services (“I swear Facebook is listening to my conversations!”), but these are largely unfounded. In the case of your smartphone, constant recording and streaming of audio would have a significant impact on data usage and battery life, and is decently hard to do without the phone’s operating system alerting you in some way.

Besides, Facebook, Google, et al don’t need to listen to all of your conversations when there is so much data readily available to buy or gather.

 

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.

 

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, say “Alexa, enable Houston Public Media Flash Briefing”, or 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 within the Alexa app.

 

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.”

 

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 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, XR, XS)
  • 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 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 on the HomePod.

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.

 

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.