New voice in the room - blind veterans use Alexa

You may have heard of Alexa – the virtual assistant created by Amazon – but how much do you know about it?

A few years ago a new voice appeared in the homes of some of our veterans, and its name was Alexa. Since then it has played a big, often indispensable part in our rehabilitation programme.

For those of you who’ve never encountered Alexa, it’s a cylindrical device with a speaker that’s voice activated. To wake it up you need to say a word – most people just say ‘Alexa’ – and then it is able to perform a whole host of different functions.

“Our veterans use Alexa for everything ranging from learning about the weather that day to listening to Rod Stewart,” says Blind Veterans UK’s Natalie O’Rourke, who is based at our Brighton Centre.

"Alexa lends itself well to our veterans' needs, especially in terms of voice skills. They have really taken it to their hearts."
Natalie O'Rourke

As well as answering questions and helping with day to day issues, Alexa is also capable of making phone calls, allowing veterans to easily stay in touch with the outside world and combat the isolation that many of them feel. In many ways it has replaced the traditional handset.

“I think technology is such a marvellous thing. Alexa will tell me the time. I also ask her what the weather is going to be like, so I know if I need to take a raincoat. That’s very useful,” says veteran Win Amos.

How the Alexa can look at our Brighton centre

Sharpening skills

Each function on an Alexa is called a ‘skill’. As of April last year, there were 90,000 skills available for download on an Alexa-enabled device – including one fitted with the Synapptic app. Naturally that is more than one person needs, so our veterans have access to a smaller suite of skills, some of which can be personalised.

“We’ve created blueprints for different skills for our veterans,” explains Natalie. “For example, one of these features a member of Blind Veterans UK staff talking through a recipe.”

Despite the many facets of the device, Alexa’s most popular feature is the ability to play music.

“I can ask it [Alexa] for music from the fifties or sixties. Yeah, it’s brilliant,” laughs Bill Burrage. Like many, he has got to grips with his device, giving it a female persona based on the voice it uses to respond.

“She [Alexa] is amazing actually. I asked her once, I said, ‘Are you married?’” he adds.

If all this sounds complex then you can have the chance to get to grips with an Alexa if you visit our Brighton Centre, as all the rooms there are equipped with one. Our Llandudno Centre will be following suit in the near future.

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