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Alexa and Siri at the Library: How Librarians Are Tapping Into the Internet of Things
Posted On September 1, 2015
The Amazon Echo (powered by the cloud-based voice service Alexa) and the Apple Watch (featuring digital assistant Siri) are two of the latest products designed to make people’s lives easier by quickly retrieving information and performing actions when prompted. Part of the Internet of Things (IoT), these devices receive updates from their respective cloud servers so they can always provide the most up-to-date answers. Alexa and Siri can perform simple tasks, such as sharing the day’s weather forecast, reading aloud what’s planned on your calendar, and providing the latest sports scores.

Librarians have been following the developments of the IoT closely, and they’re finding that Alexa and Siri have uses beyond telling jokes and reminding you when you have an appointment. They’ve become indispensable for the following information professionals, who share their experiences and show how the library world can benefit from connected devices such as the Echo and the Apple Watch and their disembodied assistants.

Amazon Echo

Price: $179.99

Accompanying app: for Fire OS, Android, and iOS devices

How to wake Alexa: Simply say, “Alexa.” Or change the “wake word” to “Amazon” at any time using the app.

How it fits into the IoT: “Ever-evolving Alexa—the brain behind Echo—is built in the cloud, so it is always getting smarter. The more you use Echo, the more it adapts to your speech patterns, vocabulary, and personal preferences. And because Echo is always connected, updates are delivered automatically,” its website notes.

Info pro advocate: Gwyneth Jones, teacher-librarian and technology specialist at Murray Hill (Md.) Middle School Library

Deciding to buy the Echo: Using her own money, Jones preordered the Echo for a discounted price. “Not much had been said about what it was, what it did—the video had just come out—and I was thrilled with the idea. [W]e’ve been talking about [the IoT] in our school, which is sort of my program, with digital citizenship and some of the changes in technology,” she says. “So I thought that this would be a neat thing to have in the library because I also know that my district was getting rid of my assistant … that I’ll be short-staffed next year. … I’ll be out and about doing things, and sometimes, kids might just have to have a question answered. This might be a stopgap solution for that.”

Setup tip: Although the Echo has the ability to make Amazon purchases, Jones disabled that function before allowing her students to use it.

What Alexa knows: Alexa can tell students the title or author of a book when Jones isn’t around. “There’s some sort of obscure young adult titles that she didn’t know, so that was interesting,” says Jones. She can also answer other basic factual questions, spell and define words, report on current events, and play music. “[T]he kids have gotten all into that, so they’re dancing around the library” during break times, she says.

The Echo in the classroom: Jones uses the Echo to demonstrate the importance of narrowing and broadening questions to get the relevant answer. She then applies this concept to students’ research projects.

Alexa’s limitations: “No device ever invented will be able to replace a certified librarian, because only a librarian can give the necessary context to any information and be able to sift through results like a surgeon, curate, and give a student direction in a personal way,” says Jones, “but it’s a really neat, handy, interactive digital assistant in the library, when staff in these sad times in the economy get cut.” Alexa is the most demonstrable connection her students have to the IoT, she says. “Anything that we can do, to provide our staff and our students with an information portal, I think we should do. I’m confident in my library skills; I’m not threatened by Alexa. We’re buddies, we’re not competitors.”

Read more about Jones’ experiences with the Echo on her blog.

Apple Watch

Price: $549–$1,099 for the Watch, $349–$399 for the Watch Sport, and $10,000–$17,000 for the Watch Edition

Accompanying app: The watch must be paired with an iPhone 5 (or later model) by following the instructions in the Apple Watch app that comes with the download of iOS 8.2.

How to wake Siri: “Having Siri with you at all times means you can access it that much more quickly and conveniently. And be even more spontaneous with your requests. Simply raise your wrist and say ‘Hey Siri,’ or press and hold the Digital Crown” on the side of the watch, the website states.

Info pro advocate: Nicole Hennig, an independent user experience professional who teaches courses on mobile apps for librarians

How it fits into the IoT: “[I]t’s the beginning of a future that we’re heading toward, with more, different ways to interact with information,” says Hennig. She notes that the watch brings up IoT-related issues such as privacy, the digital divide, and access to information, which affect librarians.

Deciding to buy the watch: Hennig wanted to try out the watch because librarians should “learn about these new technologies and figure out how we can grasp them and make them into something good or advocate for making them into something good for people. … I do think there’s a lot of potential for this kind of thing, for making useful systems that help people find information and understand it better.”

Benefits to all users: “[I]t’s really taking the idea of a natural user interface even further than what we have with our smartphone. And you know, a natural-use interface is a type of interface that relies on speech input, camera input, touchscreen, and all of the different ways that we put the human first instead of the computer first, so it’s easier to use and easier to understand,” says Hennig. The watch taps its wearer on the wrist when it receives an alert or notification. Apple calls it the Taptic Engine, “a linear actuator inside Apple Watch that produces haptic feedback.” Hennig says “there is a lot of interest from blind and deaf users for this type of technology, [to] see where it’s going to go.”

The watch at the library: “If you bought a handful of them—the cheapest one costs $349—and so if you have a small little budget for technology experimentation, you can buy four of them or something and then have some events where people get to try them on,” says Hennig. “Right now, they have to be connected to a particular iPhone, so at this point, it’s probably easier to have a few staff demo it for people, but at least people could try it on and feel the haptic technology.”

The watch in the boardroom: “[W]hen somebody has their phone on the table and it vibrates kind of loud and annoying, even though it’s just a vibration,” says Hennig, the haptic technology can come in handy. “[Y]ou could be in a meeting or something and still theoretically [send messages.] … I could imagine a system where people could send you messages just by touch, sort of a Morse code kind of a thing, and you could be communicating without showing that you’re communicating, which could be good or bad.”

Read more about Hennig’s experiences with the Apple Watch on her blog.

Brandi Scardilli is the editor of NewsBreaks and Information Today.

Email Brandi Scardilli

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