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Bamboo Learning CEO Ian Freed. (Bamboo Learning Photo)

Kids and their parents are getting a new way to use Amazon Echo devices for learning about music. And it’s coming as an Alexa skill from the person who once headed Amazon’s Echo business.

Ian Freed, who left Amazon last year, today officially launched startup Bamboo Learning and its first Alexa skill, Bamboo Music. The skill allows families to learn music theory interactively with Alexa-enabled devices. After saying “Alexa, enable Bamboo Music” or selecting the skill through the Amazon Alexa app, children listen to musical selections and are introduced to music concepts such as notes, scales, chords, tempo, dynamics, and intervals. In addition, they learn to identify the sounds of musical instruments.

Individuals in a family can register for different accounts, and parents can optionally receive emails reporting progress which can be provided to music teachers. As skills are mastered, Bamboo Music automatically advances to the next difficulty level.

Freed headed Amazon’s businesses responsible for Kindle and then Echo devices between 2006 and 2015, overseeing products including Amazon’s Fire Phone. He headed up restaurant delivery for the company before leaving last year. He co-founded Seattle-based Bamboo Learning with Irina Fine, a 30-year veteran of elementary education curriculum development and teaching. Freed serves as CEO and Fine as COO and senior vice president of content.

Bamboo Music was created, in part, out of personal interest.

“I am one of those students who tried music long ago,” Freed told GeekWire. “I’ve tried it again as an adult, and I found one of the gaps for me was understanding how music fits together.” He described Bamboo Music as providing that understanding, and filling a need on the Alexa platform. “I did also feel that Alexa was missing longer, interactive kind of skills,” he said. “With this one, you’re going back and forth with Alexa, minimum of eight questions, you’re learning as you along, and we record your progress with badges.”

Fine said Bamboo Music could work for children as young as five, because it doesn’t require reading, typically a requirement to learn music theory. “Parents are searching for educational skills for Alexa, because so many people have Alexa in their homes now, and parents are trying to get their kids away from the screens and more interacting with the voice devices,” she said.

Bamboo Learning has videos showing both a 6- and an 8-year-old girl trying Bamboo Music.

The Bamboo Music skill is free, and Freed said they are taking a wait-and-see approach about any subscription features as they attract an audience, adding that there “may be ways to earn revenue for the company without charging consumers.”

For now, Freed says Bamboo Learning is a “very lean organization,” self-funded, with fewer than five employees as well as contractors.

“We’re quite excited about Bamboo Music because we think it offers something that is high quality, informative, and interactive for consumers,” Freed said of the startup’s first educational skill. “If we see other opportunities in other subject areas,” he said, they may create other skills.

Bamboo Music lets kids and adults earn badges for progress. (Bamboo Learning Image)

As to whether there will be a version of Bamboo Music specifically for K-12 schools, Freed said they may look at that opportunity if they can get a significant number of teachers interested, but Freed and Fine said the current version should work for consumers and music educators alike.

Interest in using Echo and other smart speakers for children appears to be growing. After taking part in the Alexa Accelerator, Seattle startup Novel Effect recently raised $3 million for its app that uses voice recognition technology to add sound effects and music to books as “soundscapes” during storytelling. And earlier this year, Amazon released the $80 Echo Dot Kids Edition.

Still, it’ll take a lot of work for Bamboo Music to stand out in a crowd of many thousands of Alexa skills. The startup is counting on targeted marketing, and word of mouth from both music students and music teachers.

“There are several tens of millions of music students and prospective music students,” Freed said, “And I think parents get quite excited about having their children use music.”

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