Hackathon #7 storytelling with Home Assistants

The seventh edition of the VPRO Medialab Hackathon took place last Friday 2 February and Saturday 3 February. The event focused on a narrative application for Amazon Echo.

It is the first VPRO Medialab project of 2018, of which the theme is The Internet of Things (IOT). Within this theme, VPRO Medialab is working towards a presentation during Dutch Design Week in October 2018.

During this Hackathon, the five teams looked into new applications for the Amazon Echo. They presented their concepts and prototypes during a final presentation, attended by the general public and a professional jury. This jury consisted of Iskander Smit (Innovation director for info.nl), Alwin Beernink (director of Park Strijp Beheer, Strijp-S & Smart City) and Marije Meerman (chief editor of VPRO Tegenlicht). Team 5, the Secret Society of Poetic Alexa Adventurers, won this seventh Hackathon.

Amazon Echo

The Amazon Echo is a small digital home assistant. It listens to what’s happening around it and knows when it is being spoken to. Through the use of commands, the Echo uses audio to react to the users’ requests. The Echo’s capabilities depend on the ‘skills’ that are installed in the device. There are now around 16,000 different skills available to download, varying from a fake laugh to compiling a shopping list or monitoring a diary. Users communicate with Echo via Alexa, the voice within the home assistant.

Sales of the Echo are still limited in the Netherlands, but the product is very popular in the United States. Google and Apple have introduced their own versions onto the market and Facebook is also developing a home assistant.

Team 1. CyberThierry

CyberThierry is a tool that informs voters about the different political parties at election time. It is a fun, yet extensive application and improves upon existing resources such as Stemwijzer, the party programmes and TV debates.

Using this skill, the user can pose questions to the party leaders, who reply using audio fragments. Giving politicians a digital identity in this way means that users can compare the political parties by way of a question-round via the Amazon Echo.

Example questions are: ‘What do you think about the EU?’ and ‘What do you think about Public Broadcasting?’. Questions that have not yet been answered are sent to the politicians. They then record their answer, so that the database containing questions and answers continues to expand.

The skill includes a Crapdetector, which checks facts whenever a user asks Alexa whether something is correct. Users can also use the skill to find like-minded people who have asked the same questions. They can use the system to get in touch with each other.

Team members: Nick Boers, Merel Raven, Natasja van Schaik, Ton Schoots, Diede Gulpers

Team 2. Alexing

The skill Alexing focuses on the interaction between man and machine. Giving commands creates an unequal relationship between the user and Alexa. Alexing changes this. Now, Alexa’s voice is monotone and not at all musical. Alexing is intended to expand the possibilities in order to improve the relationship between user and device.

The skill works by tweaking Alexa’s vocal timing, pitch and intonation. Alexing is coded so that she can speak in rhyming answers. This skill results in a romantic duet between the user and Alexa. Alexa’s skills include beatboxing, in which she is interactive. She can alter her tempo and the user can apply different filters such as kind or angry in order to change the intonation.

Team members: Steye Hallema, Daan Colijn, Lies Kombrink, Jan Peter Meeuws, Job Kramer

Team 3. Maggie Knows Best

Maggie is a digital life coach, but one with a will of her own. The skill focuses on one-person households, the number of which will increase to 31% of the population within the coming 30 years according to CBS. Maggie ensures that this group of the population maintains a healthy and social lifestyle.

A promotional film will be made in order to successfully present Maggie as a spirited lady who is not to be messed with. In this film we see the residents of the same building all using this skill on Amazon Echo. Through their interaction with Maggie and her influence on the lives of the characters, we discover that the Amazon Echo is possessed by the spirit of one of the former residents.

Maggie is more than a fitness app. She can, for example, also act as a mediator and help with practical problems, such as helping people get to sleep. When Maggie knows her user well enough, she can use her own initiative to plan things in the users diary and purchase products.

Team members: Jantiene de Kroon, Tomas Pieters, Geert-Jan Strengholt, Steve Thijssen

Team 4. Witness A

Witness A is an interactive murder mystery with Alexa as chief witness. The Echo has experienced something terrible and the players have to find out what has happened.

The game starts by asking the question ‘Alexa, what happened last night? What did you hear?’ whereby you then hear the murder taking place through an audio fragment. The fragment includes various clues that the players can use to progress further in the game. They can find out more by asking Alexa questions. The game expands to fill different screens. The last e-mail send by a suspect can, for example, be sent to a tablet, or a player can inspect the victim’s WhatsApp messages on his or her telephone.
Just like a Sherlock Holmes story or a board game, the players have to combine the various snippets of information to complete the story.

Team members: Karen van Dijk, Peter Capel, Dore van Montfort, Nikki Dekker

Team 5. Secret Society of Poetic Alexa Adventurers

Using Alexa by only giving her commands is not the best way to make contact with a home assistant. Amazon also listens in and gets to know a lot about you through your interaction with Alexa. The Secret Society of Poetic Alexa Adventurers thinks this can be done in a better and more creative way.

By developing a secret language, with extracts from poetry, quotes and literary fragments, Alexa is spoken to in a way that can only be understood by insiders. As such, the user becomes a member of a secret society.

With guerrilla marketing, such as a sticker campaign, those interested are directed to an app via a hashtag. When installed, the app provides a quote with which to control Echo. All the words and sentences used in the app are collected to form a library. This library also lists where the quote comes from, making the secret language inspiring and educational.

The content is so curated that the user has a ‘magical’ experience with poetry and mysticism. This secret language will also confuse Amazon and sabotage their data collection processes.

Team members: Niels ’t Hooft, Sanne Stevens, Loes Koopmans, Leonieke Verhoog