Toronto’s Amazon Echo hackathon makes its voice-controlled assistant ‘Alexa’ more helpful

Over the weekend, more than a dozen programming teams came to Connected Lab’s head office in downtown Toronto to extend the capabilities of “Alexa”, the voice-based interface behind Amazon Echo.

The Echo is a small cylinder with a glowing light at its top, and it’s designed to be a device that controls your home experience – from playing music, to dimming the lights in a room, to reading news headlines, to making to-do lists. It also lets you easily order products from Amazon. And rather than having users type in what they want it to do, it takes orders through the Alexa voice interface.

Click for larger image of Amazon Echo

While Amazon Echo isn’t available yet in Canada, the hackathon provided designers and developers the first opportunity to explore the new device, and to build new capabilities (known as “skills”) for Alexa to perform.

For the hackathon, Amazon partnered with Connected Lab, a Toronto company that helps build technology products across the web, mobile, wearables, and IoT spheres, to host the weekend-long event.

“A product like [Echo] is really exciting because it’s the kind of thing that inspires people to want to build cool stuff,” said Damian McCabe, co-founder and VP engineering at Connected Lab. “Doing a hackathon around Alexa and the Echo is almost the perfect opportunity for us because we get to get a bunch of people in the room and get them inspired around a really cool product. It’s a great product, but there’s so much more that can be done with it.”

The winning team came from Toronto company TribalScale, who extended Alexa to manage a fridge. “My Fridge” tells users what’s in the fridge, what recipes can be made from its ingredients, and what’s about to expire.

Some of the other entries included an app that gives you dating advice (including a reminder not to forget breath mints and cash), and a budgeting app called “How Screwed Am I?” that uses banking information to tell the user if they’ve been making too many frivolous purchases.

Above all, the hackathon helped demonstrate the possibilities of voice-based interaction with computers. 

“Voice-based technologies will soon play a big role in how we use new products and services, from inside your car to your living room,” said Mike Stern, CEO of Connected Lab. “This is an amazing opportunity to explore the future of connected technology through the Amazon Echo and Alexa.”

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David Hamilton
David Hamilton
As a journalist, I delve into topics where technology and society collide. I’ve written for Canadian newspaper The National Post, and posted more than 3,000 articles on technology related to the Internet as a staff writer for trade publication the Web Host Industry Review. And I host and produce a podcast called Techish.

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