Northeastern University Expands Amazon Alexa Access to Public Spaces
Northeastern University announced in June that it was offering the option to some students to have an Amazon Echo Dot smart speaker in their dorm rooms this fall. That program was designed to enable students to access information about their classes, accounts and student life by speaking with Alexa in their room. Today, Northeastern has announced an expansion of that program to include Alexa access in more than 60 public spaces throughout the campus. According to an article in the student news site, News@Northeastern:
“The Echo Dots are mounted on walls in residence halls, classroom and administrative buildings, the Marino Center, and the Curry Student Center. The devices are roughly the size of drink coasters, and each is marked with an oversized red Northeastern N…The devices serve as a one-stop-shop for students who need information about information technology, housing, student affairs, financial aid, dining, athletics, the library, career services, student records, and Northeastern police.”
Husky Helper Brings Alexa into Public Spaces
This is not a full version of Alexa. Behind the Echo Dots is Husky Helper (N.B. the name is an homage to the University mascot), an Alexa skill that provides information about campus services. N-powered oversaw the development of Husky Helper and the earlier project to deploy Echo Dots in student rooms. Joel Evans and Somen Saha co-founded the company earlier this year. Mr. Evans in an email interview today commented:
“By partnering with Northeastern, we were able to install Echo Dots powered by n-Powered around campus. These public-facing Dots are set up in public locations around campus, enabling voice assistance for students, faculty, staff and visitors. Anyone can walk up to a Dot around campus and without any training get answers to approximately 250 frequently asked questions, including information about events happening today and in the future. This is truly what conversational UI is all about. Later this year we’ll be enabling a personalized version of Husky Helper, where students will be able to get personalized responses about their classes, advisors, and more, all from their mobile devices.”
Amazon Makes a Play for Higher Education
Amazon now has three high profile implementations of Alexa devices in University settings: Northeastern, St. Louis University and Arizona State University. Why doesn’t Google have any comparable installations to date? It all comes down to Alexa for Business and its sibling Alexa for Hospitality. These solutions are designed to provide businesses with the opportunity to implement Alexa capabilities for a restricted set of functions. It also enables remote monitoring, administration and control of Echo devices. The combination of these features is required for any implementation in a public setting or where the device owner needs to restrict usage of the device to certain use cases.
Google doesn’t have a comparable offering to Alexa for Business and that is an important gap in its product portfolio. Baidu has developed something similar to Alexa for Business for its DuerOS assistant platform. However, that is only available in Mandarin and has yet to roll out publicly. So, Amazon’s only current competition for this type of implementation is proprietary voice assistant systems which typically do not come with ready-made devices and carry higher costs.