Students receive free Echo Dots to test new skills

By Jose Zepeda , Staff Writer

Free Amazon Echo Dots were given to 200 University Housing residents to test out new Alexa commands developed by a team of undergraduate students at the University.

The Echo Dots, distributed by the University’s Social Research and Technology Innovation Lab, are being used to collect data on commands related to the University, such as checking dining hall menus, University Housing laundry machine availability, University sports team updates, Mass Transit District bus schedules and library hours.

The Alexa-Illinois Group, a team in SRTI, spent a summer creating skills, which are actions users can command Alexa to do.

Curtis Donelson, data analyst for University Tech Services, said the Alexa-Illinois Group had around six undergraduates spend their summer developing skills. The students were given free range in developing the new skills.

Donelson said he asked the students, “Hey, what can you guys build? You’re students, what do you think you would want, especially living in the residence halls?”

The students using the Echo Dots are part of a six-week pilot program that will look at how often each skill created is being used. No personal information will be collected in the process.

The Alexa-Illinois Group chose University Housing residents to receive the Echo Dots because many of the skills are related to Housing services and because residence halls house freshmen who could use the Echo Dots to ask questions related to the University.

Noah Krakman, freshman in Business, applied to receive one of the free Echo Dots.

“I will try out the laundry availability command and the library hours commands because they might be useful to me,” he said in an email.

However, Krakman believes some skills created by the Alexa-Illinois Group aren’t necessary.

“I don’t think the dining hall menus are useful,” he said. “That’s something much better read visually than heard from a voice because there’s just so much text.”

Regarding the Echo Dots, Donelson said students will be able to keep the devices after the pilot program is over.

Donelson said in the future, the Alexa-Illinois Group will continue to improve the current available skills and add new skills. He also wants to put Echo Dots at MTD bus stops for students to use, particularly when they do not have internet access.

“You (would) go up to the Echo and say ‘When is (Yellow) coming in?’ or ‘How do I get to the Urbana Walmart?’ and it would give you step-by-step instructions,” Donelson said.

Donelson said putting Echo Dots at every bus stop would require a lot of the devices, and he hopes to partner with Amazon to get Echo Dots donated.

The 200 Echo Dots going to University Housing residents were bought with the group’s own money. The retail price for the device on Amazon is $49.99.

“We were like, ‘We just want to get moving,’ so we just bought them on our own,” he said.

The Alexa-Illinois Group set up an email account where the recipients can send in suggestions for new skills as well as give feedback on current skills.

“What we’re trying to do is see: Are students using this, and is it working correctly for them?” Donelson said. “Are they getting what they want out of them?”

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