Having kids and being a developer can be a great experience, you are constantly reminded of how playful, creative and inquisitive they are. Their imagination knows no boundaries and it is a great challenge to try and learn from their curiosity and build on it and use it to create digital experiences that are both entertaining and educational.
Having worked with children's education and digital media for a long time Amazon Echo opened up a whole new world of exciting opportunities. Voice interaction creates exciting new possibilities, both for creativity and learning. Our kids love to use their phones and tablets to play games that simulate everything from cooking, to pet care and running hair salons. Having produced several popular games in that category Alexa inspired us to go a step further and allow for even more free interaction, using the voice interface to create exciting and playful worlds, where the imagination gets to work without preconceived visual designs or pointers. We feel that this is very powerful and have started creating a series of games, the first of which is Kids Kitchen.
What it does
In the kitchen you work side-by-side with Alexa to create crazy and wonderful dishes. Right now we offer cake baking, where you can conjure up cakes containing anything you can imagine, from aardvarks to zucchinis. You learn to do all the hard work that goes into making a tasty cake and learn to fry, boil, blend, whisk and use the oven timer! The decorations are limitless, and if you want to you can even offer the cake to someone special on their birthday.
How we built it
We decided early on to use AWS Lambda, as it allows for easy deployment and painless scaling. An added bonus was to have the Amazon Echo templates available, as these provide a good foundation for structuring the code and have the required security featured built in. Once we had established the interaction model we created a functionality specification and extended the sample skill with the interactions needed. The main user journey is linear and we implemented a simple state-machine that progresses the story in a linear way. The skill uses audio files for sound effects and we chose to host these on Amazon S3, as this provides allowed us for easy, scaleable deployment. Initially we built the interaction model using rigorous Intent/slot matching, where each step in the baking relied on a certain type of answer. We quickly realised that this is not how children interact with the skill in the real world. By switching to a straight storyline that allows for any answer the user-journey became much more fluid, and fun. This also allowed us to work around replies were misheard, having to re-prompt in order to get a valid answer.
Challenges we ran into
The interaction model for voice apps is radically different from similar experiences on tablets and phones, which creates interesting challenges. Not having the traditional touch-based visual cues requires a clear and open-ended interaction model, so that even young children can use this skill. Initially we focused on creating a playful space that offers a lot of options, but this ended up in a very generic open world, which was fun, but didn't offer a clear progression or gameplay. It can also be difficult to get accurate word recognition for small children, so instead of creating strict rulesets that require certain answers we decided to turn it around and base the experience on how children interacted with the application. More often than not they responded in an unexpected, but fantastical way, so we fit the narrative around this and made a linear storyline but, where unexpected answer make it more fun, instead of the opposite. We also chose to progress the interaction regardless of the answer, so that smaller children don’t get stuck - instead focusing on using their input in fun was, as well as encouraging them.
Accomplishments that we are proud of
Realising early on that a the lack of traditional screen-based interaction is a challenge, but can also be an opportunity. Allowing the child's creativity and imagination lead the way, instead of basing the interaction on expectations or rules created by adults.
What we learned
New platforms come with new challenges, but the voice-driven, hands-off interfaces allow for another level of playfulness and interaction, as we can let the imagination do the work.
What's next for Kids Kitchen
The kitchen will be filled with ingredients and exciting machines. We are going to have guests placing orders and you will have to cook hamburgers, muffins and ice-cream. You will have to chop vegetables, flip pancakes and even load the dishwasher. We are also very excited about extending the skill and serving up the creations for all to be seen on the Echo Show!