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Xuchen Yao, co-founder of KITT.AI.
Xuchen Yao, co-founder of KITT.AI.

Amazon makes it easy to create new “skills” for its Alexa voice-command system that work on its own devices, with step-by-step tutorials and even a free T-shirt for those who add to the thousands of abilities “she” already possesses. The skills work on Amazon’s own Echo, Echo Dot, Tap, Fire TV and Fire TV stick devices.

And because Amazon has released the Alexa API, those skills will also work on Alexa-enabled hardware from other companies. By year-end, for example, Alexa is expected to be part of a Samsung refrigerator and some Ford cars.

(We’re not talking here about lightbulbs, fans, ovens, door locks and items Alexa can control. We’re talking about Alexa-enabled devices that incorporate Amazon’s voice-controlled assistant as a feature.)

But one piece missing from third-party Alexa devices, and from some of Amazon’s own devices as well, has been the ability to “wake up” Alexa by saying her name. For the most part, hardware developers have had to require end-users to tap or otherwise physically activate Alexa-enabled devices, rather than being able to just say “Alexa.” Only with special permission from Amazon were third-party developers allowed to use the wake word, and that permission was rarely granted, said Xuchen Yao, co-founder of Seattle startup KITT.AI.

Now KITT.AI’s Snowboy product, which debuted in May, has been optimized to detect the “Alexa” wake word and can be used to initiate an interaction with the Alexa Voice Service API.

That means hardware makers outside of Amazon can use the “Alexa” wake word to turn on their devices. Amazon touted the new capability in a recent blog post. It’s an important step for the proliferation of Alexa-enabled devices, Xuchen said.

Snowboy has capabilities beyond simply detecting a single wake word or phrase, according to a promotional video. For example, developers might want wake words like “Hey, FIDO” (short for the hypothetical Friendly Interface Digitally Obedient system). Ideally, no internet connection would be required for the wake words to work, and there would be no need for the developer to create her own speech-recognition software.

Snowboy is an internet-accessed service that lets developers choose a wake word (or phrase) and train a neural network to recognize it by saying it three times. It then provides a code snippet that drops into the code. The snippet runs on hardware as basic as the Raspberry Pi.

Available through GitHub, Snowboy is free to hackers for personal use, but not for business-oriented personal or commercial use. It’s already being used by more than 2,000 registered developers and has been trained in the use of 1,000 unique wake words.

KITT.AI, originally incubated inside Paul Allen’s Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence (AI2), launched last year and in January landed funding from Founders’ Co-op and Amazon’s Alexa Fund. It also received investment from Madrona Venture Group.

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