In the Alexa world, “Skills” are like apps. You can can enable and disable skills, using the Alexa app or a web browser, in the same sense that you install and uninstall apps on a Fire TV, phone, or tablet. Skills are created by third-party developers using the Alexa Skills Kit and allow you to expand Alexa’s capabilities beyond what Amazon has built into their voice assistant. It’s unclear at this point if the new Alexa capabilities coming to the Fire TV next month will include the ability to add skills, or if only the core functionality will be available. With Amazon’s recent rebranding of their Echo app into an Alexa app, it seems inevitable that Alexa skills will eventually make their way to devices other than the Amazon Echo, so here’s a brief overview of how Alexa skills work.
Skills are enabled and disabled through Amazon’s Alexa web portal or through the Alexa app available from the Amazon Appstore, Google Play Store, or the iTunes App Store. Currently, there are only 14 skills available, so they are simply listed on a single page in alphabetical order. I’m sure as the number of available skills grows, Amazon will eventually create categories. All skills are free, but that may change in the future.
Skills come in two main flavors distinguished by the way you interact with them. The two types of skills can be described as app skills and listener skills. Each skill has a unique “invocation name” which distinguishes it from other skills. It’s what Alexa listens for to identify that your voice-command should be directed toward one of the skills. The invocation name is almost always the skill name.
The app style of skill is launched with the phrase “Alexa, open/launch/start [SKILL NAME].” Once launched, the skill will usually prompt you for a response and listen for that response. At any point you can respond with “stop” to exit the skill. For example, the “Guess The Number” skill, which is a simple number guessing game, is launched by saying “Alexa, open Guess The Number”. Alexa will then open the skill and immediately say “Guess a number between 1 and 100” and then immediately listen for a response. Because you are in a skill and Alexa is waiting for a response, you can simply speak a number instead of having to say “Alexa, [A NUMBER].” With each number guessed, Alexa will tell you if the number is higher or lower and then listen for the next number until you guess the correct number or say “stop.”
The other type of skill, which I’m calling a listener skill, allows you to speak the skill name plus a command for the skill in one phrase. These are usually in the form of “Alexa, ask [SKILL NAME] [SKILL COMMAND].” Alexa will then launch the skill, and respond with the skill’s response usually not continue listening for additional commands for that particular skill. One of the newest Alexa skills is Trove, which follows this format. Trove will read off the latest news headlines for any topic. You simply say “Alexa, ask Trove about [TOPIC]” and Alexa will read off 5 news headlines that match the requested topic.
Here is a list of the 14 skills currently available for Alexa:
- BART Times – BART Times provides the times of the next BART trains between your home and destination stations. You can also get Service Advisories and Elevator Status info.
- Bingo – With the Bingo skill, Alexa will call the numbers for you. Each number is repeated and sent to the Alexa app as well. Get a free Bingo card at lovemyecho.com.
- Cat Facts – If you’ve ever wanted to know more about your feline overlords, Cat Facts is for you! Get fun cat facts at any time. Almost one hundred facts available!
- Craft Helper – Can’t remember exactly how to craft an enchantment table or a dropper in Minecraft? Craft helper can give you the recipe fast, and all you need is your voice.
- Crystal Ball – Crystal Ball is a fortune teller skill. Alexa prompts you to first focus on a yes/no question, and then say when you’re ready to hear the answer.
- Famous Quotes – Simple skill that reads you famous quotes from history and movies.
- Guess The Number – See how many tries it takes you to guess a random number between 1 and 100. Alexa will tell you to guess higher or lower until you get it.
- High Low Guessing Game – This is the number guessing game of “higher or lower.” In this game, Alexa chooses a number and you try to guess it or you can play the other way around.
- Math Puzzles – Math Puzzles is a fun way to challenge yourself and your friends. You’ll hear a series of numbers and you must guess the next logical number in the sequence.
- Scout Alarm – Controlling your Scout security system has never been easier. Ask Alexa to arm and disarm, retrieve recent activities, or check in on the status of a sensor.
- StubHub – What’s going on this weekend? Just set your home city, and then you can ask what’s going on tonight, this weekend, or on a specific date. You can also ask what’s happening in another city. It’s your direct access to StubHub – just by asking Alexa.
- Tide Pooler – Do you live in a coastal city and spend time by the water? Rely on Tide Pooler for tidal information for major coastal cities.
- Trivia Alex – Trivia Alex is a fun multiple-choice trivia game to play at home with up to 4 people and your host Alex. It includes over 300 questions in various categories.
- Trove – Get the latest headlines on any topic with Trove!
It seems unlikely skills will be available for Alexa on the Fire TV when it first arrives next month. My sources at Amazon tell me the Fire TV team is already working on a big update to Alexa for the Fire TV that should expand Alexa and more deeply integrate it into the Fire TV. With any luck, we’ll see the true power of Alexa, skills and all, arrive on the Fire TV before the end of the year. In the meantime, we’ll be able to enjoy Alexa’s core feature set very soon.