Storyline lets you build and publish Alexa skills without coding

Thirty-nine million Americans now own a smart speaker device, but the voice app ecosystem is still developing. While Alexa today has over 25,000 skills available, a number of companies haven’t yet built a skill for the platform, or offer only a very basic skill that doesn’t run that well. That’s where the startup Storyline comes in. The company is offering an easy to utilize, drag-and-drop visual interface for building Amazon Alexa skills that doesn’t require you to have knowledge of coding.

As the company describes it, they’re constructing the “Weebly for voice apps”- a reference to the drag-and-drop website building platform that’s now a popular route for non-developers to generate websites without code.

Storyline was co-founded in September 2017 by Vasili Shynkarenka( CEO) and Maksim Abramchuk( CTO ). Hailing from Belarus, the two has hitherto operate a software development bureau that built chat-based applications, including chatbots and voice apps, for their clients.

Their work resulted them to be submitted with Storyline, explains Vasili.

“We realized there was this big struggle with creating conversational apps, ” he says. “We became aware that creative people and content inventors are not really good at writing code. That was the major insight.”

The company is targeting brands, businesses and individuals who want to reach their clients- or, in the case of publishers, their readers- using a voice platform like Alexa, and later, Google Home.

The software itself is designed to be very simple, and can be used to create either a custom skill or a Flash Briefing.

For the most basic skill, it only takes five to seven minutes , notes Vasili.

To get started with Storyline, you sign up for an account, then click which type of skill you want to build- either a Flash Briefing or custom ability. You then offer some basic information like the skill’s name and speech, and it launches into a canvas where you can begin creating the skill’s conversational workflow.

Here, you’ll see a block you click on and customize by entering in your own text. This “wouldve been” first thing your voice app says when launched, like “Hello, welcome to…” followed by the app’s name, for example.

You edit this and other blocks of text in the panel on the left side of the screen, while Storyline presents a visual overview of the conversation flow on the right.

In the editing panel, you are still click on other buttons to add more voice interactions- like other questions the skill will ask, user replies, and Alexa’s reply to those.

Each of these items is connected to one of the text blocks on the main screen, as a flow chart of sorts. You can also configure how the skill must be held accountable if the user says something unexpected.

When you’re finished, you can test the ability in a browser by clicking “Play.” That style, you can hear how the skill sounds and test various user responses.

Once satisfied that your skill is ready to go, you click the “Deploy” button to publish. This redirects you to Amazon where you sign in with your Amazon account and publish.( If you don’t have an Amazon Developer account, Storyline will guide you to create one .)

This sort of visual skill developing system may be easier to manage for simpler skills that have a limited number of questions and replies, but the startup says that even more advanced abilities have been constructed utilizing its service.

It was also used by two of the finalists in the Alexa Skills Challenge: Kids.

Since launching the first version of Storyline in October 2017, some 3,000 people have signed up for an account, and have created roughly the same number of abilities. Around 200 of those have gone live to Amazon’s Skill Store.

Storyline isn’t the only company focused on helping business build voice apps without code these days, however.

For example, Sayspringlets designers create voice-enabled apps without code, as well, but instead of was published ability directly, it’s meant to be the first step in the voice app creation process. It’s where designers can flesh out how a ability should work before handing off the coding to a development team.

Vasili says this is a big differentiator between the two companies.

“Prototyping tools are great to play with and explain ideas, but it’s super hard to retain users by being a prototyping tool- because they use the tool to prototype and then that’s it, ” he explains. With Storyline, customers will stay throughout the process of launching and iterating upon their voice app, he states. “We can use data from when the skill is published to improve the design, ” notes Vasili.

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Voice interfaces beginning to find their way into business

Imagine attending a business meeting with an Amazon Echo( or any voice-driven device) sitting on the conference table. A topic starts about the month’s sales numbers in the Southeast region. Instead of opening a laptop, opening a program like Excel and find the numbers, you simply ask the device and get the answer instantly.

That kind of scenario is increasingly becoming a reality, although it is still far from common place in business just yet.

With the increasing popularity of devices like the Amazon Echo, people are beginning to get used to the idea of interacting with computers using their voices. Anytime a phenomenon like this enters the consumer realm, it is only a matter of time before we see it in business.

Chuck Ganapathi, CEO at Tact, an AI-driven marketings tool that uses voice, type and touch, says with our devices changing, voice makes a lot of sense. “There is no mouse on your telephone. You don’t want to use a keyboard on your telephone. With a smart watch, “were not receiving” keyboard. With Alexa, “were not receiving” screen. You have to think of more natural ways to interact with the device.”

As Werner Vogels, Amazon’s chief technology policeman, pointed out during his AWS re: Invent keynote at the end of last month, up until now we have been limited by the technology as to how we interact with computers. We type some keywords into Google employing a keyboard because this is the only way the technology we had allowed us to enter information.

“Interfaces to digital systems of the future will no longer be machine driven. They will be human centric. We can construct human natural interfaces to digital systems and with that a whole environment will become active, ” he said.

Amazon will of course be happy to help in this regard, introducing Alexa for Businessas a cloud service at re: Invent, but other cloud companies are also exposing voice services for developers, constructing it ever easier to build voice into an interface.

While Amazon took aim at business immediately for the first time with this move, some companies had been experimenting with Echo integration much earlier. Sisense, a BI and analytics tool company, introduced Echo integration as early as July 2016.

But not everyone wants to cede voice to the big cloud vendors , no matter how attractive they might make it for developers. We saw this when Cisco introduced the Cisco Voice Assistant for Spark in November, using voice technology it acquired with the MindMeld buy the previous May to provide voice commands for common meeting tasks.

Roxy, a startup that got $2.2 million in seed fundin November, decided to build its own voice-driven software and hardware, taking aim, for starters, at the hospitality industry. They have broader aspiration beyond that, but one early lesson they have learned is that not all companies want to give their data to Amazon, Google, Apple or Microsoft. They want to maintain control of their own client interactions and a solution like Roxy devotes them that.

In yet another example, Synqq introduced a notes app at the beginning of the year that uses voice and natural language processing to add notes and calendar entries to their app without having to type.

As we move to 2018, we should start ensure even more examples of this type of integration both with the help of big cloud companies, and companies trying to build something independent of those vendors. The keyboard won’t be rendered to the dustbin just yet, but in scenarios where it makes sense, voice could begin to replace the need to type and offer a more natural route of interacting with computers and software.

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Josh.ai raises $11 million for a premium home automation system with a smarter AI

One of the promises of voice-based calculating is the ability to attain home automation simpler something that major tech companies, including Amazon, Apple and Google, are now tackling with their own voice assistants and smart speakers. But their solutions are still somewhat clunky, both in terms of the software interface for configuring your smart home and the voice commands you use to take actions. Thats where the startup Josh.aicomes in.

The company has now created $11 million to design a better voice-controlled system for smart homes, and will afterward this year release its own hardware dedicated to this purpose.

Headquartered in Denver with offices in L.A ., Josh.ai is the product of serial entrepreneursAlex Capecelatro, CEO, and Tim Gill, CTO. The two previously worked together on a social recommendations app Yeti, which had begun its life as At The Pool, andwas sold back in 2015. Gill, who had previously founded and sold Quark( Quark XPress ), had joined Yeti as a technical advisor, and wrote a number of the algorithm being implemented in the app.

Following the sale of Yeti, the two teamed up again to work on a project in the smart home space something they were both interested in for personal reasons.

Gill, for example, had spent years developing his own home automation system his version of Mark Zuckerbergs Jarvis to run inside the large residential property he was building in Denver.

He was well underway in building the house and understanding what the competition looked likewhat the product offerings looked like, explainsCapecelatro. And he was pretty dissatisfied with what was out there.

Meanwhile, Capecelatro was also constructing a home for himself in L.A ., and running into the same problems.

I was just amazed that all of the big automation systems Crestron, Control4, and Savant they cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the[ user interface] looks like its from the 90 s, he says. It was weird that for a ton of money in my home where you want to have a delightful experience, the best offerings on the table merely werent that good.

The founders insured a need in the market for something that sits above mass market solutions, like Apples Home app, or Alexas smart home control, which focus more on tying together after-market devices, like security cameras, smart doorbells, or smart illuminates like Philips Hue.

They founded the startup Josh.ai in March 2015, and shipped the first product the following year.

The solution, as it exists today, includes a kit with a Mac mini and iPad, and software that runs the home. After plugging in the Mac, Josh.ai auto-discovers devices on the network. It can identify those from over 50 manufacturers. For example, it can control lighting and shades like those from Lutron, music systems like Sonos, dozens of brands of security cameras, Nest thermostats, Samsung smart TVs, and even more niche products like Global Cachs box for controlling IR devices( such as your not-so-smart TVs ).

The automatic speech recognition( AKA speech-to-text) portion of Josh.ais system is handled in the cloud, while Mac mini manages the natural language processing to know what your commands mean.

What builds Josh.ai unique “wasnt just” its software interface, but how users interact with the system. You speak to the voice deputy Josh to tell the home what to do.( You can also change its name if thats an issue, or even pick from a variety of male and female voices and accents .)

Josh, or the wake word youve chosen, precedes your command, which can be spoken use more natural language. The system is better than many when it comes to construing what you entail, by nature of its single-purpose focus on home automation.

For instance, you can tell Josh to turn it off , and it will know what it entails because it remembers what it had turned on before. Or you can say, its hot in here , and Josh will know how to adjust your thermostat.

It can also deep-link to streaming video content, so you can ask to watch Planet Earth, and Josh will turn on the TV, switch to the right input, launch Netflix, then start playing the show.

Josh.ai supports scenes, as well, allowing you to configure a number of devices to work together like suns, shades, music, fans, thermostats, and other switches. That route, you can say things like turn everything off , and Josh knows to shut down all the connected devices in the home.

Where the system gets really smart is in its ability to handle complex, compound commands entailing controlling multiple devices in one sentence.

You can say to Josh, play Simon and Garfunkel and turn on the suns , for example. Or, play Explosions in the sky in the kitchen, and play Simon and Garfunkel in the living room . Other systems could get tripped up by the and and the in the in the artists names, but Josh.ai understands when those terms are a transgres between two commands, and when theyre part of something else.

The current system which was largely designed for high-end homes is sold by professional integrators at around $10,000 and up, depending on the components involved. To date, the team has sold more than 50 and fewer than 100 installations.

Josh.ai can work over your Echo or Google Home, if you prefer, and includes interfaces for iOS, Android and the web. But the company is now preparing to launch its own, farfield mic answer in a new hardware device thats built specifically for use in the home.

While the new hardware will perform some basic virtual assistant kind chores telling you the climate, perhaps( the company isnt corroborating specific features at this time) the main focus will be on home automation.

Above: a tease of the new device

The hardware wont be a cylindrical shape like Echo or Google Home, but will be designed with an aesthetic appeal in mind.

It also wont be super cheap.

It will still be a premium product, but it will be a lot less than where the present product is. And the idea is this will enable our mass market rollout in probably a year to eighteen months , notesCapecelatro, speaking of his plan to keep bringing Josh.ais technology to ever larger audiences.

Josh.ai, a team of 15 soon to be 25, lately closed on$ 8 million in new funding, largely from the founders personal networks. The investors names arent being disclosed because theyre not institutional firms. To date, Josh.ai has raised $11 million, but has not yet added anyone to its board.

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