Inspiration

My inspiration to develop games for children has been always my son. Through him I know which games kids like and what they want. In addition, I've been developing animal online games as a 2D artist for the past seven years, so I've been involved with animals for a long time.

What it does

The Animal Navigator is an exciting educational skill for kids with the help of which they learn to associate well-known animals to their home countries. The children are challenged by having to quickly turn what they hear into pictures before their eyes, for example, in the game they are presented with a list of different animals and they need to be able to assign them to a country. The special thing about the skill is that Alexa plays the role of a likeable satellite girl and is not only in dialogue with the player, but also with the Professor Navigax (recorded with a voice actor). This gives the skill a personal, relaxed touch and counteracts the typical question-and-answer educational game.

How I built it

The game was build with Node.js and amazon AWS. My husband helped me a lot in the programming part as he already had previous experience with Alexa apps. It started solely as two massive lookup tables where animals, countries and similar animals where bundled. From there we created a console application to test all the combinatorial possibilities. After that all the countries and animals values were passed from the code to the Amazon Skill Builder and trained across several iterations to understand all the names and theirs synonyms. We got the sounds from Prof. Navigax recorded with a professional Voice Actor and we bought an animal sound bank for the animals sounds. The sounds were needing to be converted and their volumes adjusted via Audacity and ffmpeg. Another crucial part for the development was the iteration with Alexa voice simulator which we were needing to utilize to make sure that Alexa was spelling all the animal and countrie names correctly and when it was not the case we were needing to modify the spelling a little bit so she could pronounce it correct.

Challenges I ran into

Most part of the attention and development time was required at the research phase in which we created a correlational list of animals and theirs home countries - what was extra costly as we developed the app in two different languages and we were needing to browse all the animals via theirs biological names in order not to create any unwanted deviation. For example, it turned out that kangaroos live in southern England. Although (almost) nobody knows that, it had to be considered in the skill. And while the Europeans have two completely different names for American and European squirrels, the Americans simply call them squirrels. Since the skill was developed in English and German, this event required some textual skill too.

Now, from the technical part we had some major challenges with our voice over sounds due to the quality loss after compressed due to Alexa technical requirements. This resulted in us needing to re-record almost all the audios where the voice actor was needing to spell some words differently so it would come across in an "ok" quality after the compression from the required codec. Another huge challenge was to test the english version of the app as being in Germany once the resolutionsPerAuthority JSON response for slot ids and synonyms does not work with a foreign language in your country (ie.: English in Germany and German in the USA). This is a known problem in the Alexa forums and resulted in us needing to add a complete fallback system for when these results are not present.

Accomplishments that I'm proud of

I am glad that in a very short amount of time I was able to "spontaneously" implement a complex idea and that I got the same unprompted support and help from friends and family. Since Alexa and similar voice-controlled systems are still new and unknown to us game developers, we were very motivated to enter this "new territory" and get to know each other. Since a lot of work has been invested in logo, sounds and code, a very professional product was created which represents a harmonious unit through these important components.

What I learned

I've learned that having some textual work done is not enough to develop a skill. Developing a voice-over app prompt us edge cases that we were not used to and therefore a lot of experimentation and studies must be done. When developing a professional skill, we need to deal not just with the technical part but with very different topics too such as sound design, trademark protection, spelling correction, user experience and much more.

What's next for Animal Navigator

At some point, the Animal Navigator should also be available all around the globe too (what was not able to be done due to Amazon Kids Skill being limited just to the USA). Gradually, the skill will be supplemented by more animals. We think about using Vigi in further Skills too! And maybe even for adults as well.

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