Thursday, March 17, 2016

Now you can ask Amazon's Echo about your Fitbit stats


It was only a matter of time until someone integrated a fitness gadget with Amazon's Echo -- we should have guessed that Fitbit would be first. Starting today, you'll be able to ask any of Amazon's speakers about your Fitbit performance with a new Alexa skill. Once enabled, you can say "Alexa, ask Fitbit how I'm doing today" for a basic overview of your activity. But even more intriguing, you can ask Alexa things like how you've slept, or how much activity you've tracked, for any of the previous seven days.

Sure, it's pretty easy just to glance down at your Fitbit device, but the ability to ask about even more complex stats makes this a pretty compelling Alexa skill. Amazon's virtual assistant will even take the role of a coach with encouraging and inspirational comments, all of which will take the time of the day into account. Asking about your step count in the morning, for example, might get Alexa to say "you've got to start somewhere."

"As we look at how this integration could evolve in the future, there is an endless world of possibilities from fitness coaching and nutrition tips, to guidance before bedtime to help you get a more restful night's sleep," Tim Roberts, executive vice president of interactive at Fitbit, said in a statement.

I haven't had a chance to try out Fitbit's Alexa skill yet, but on paper it seems like the perfect use of Echo's voice smarts. It's much easier to ask about something like the amount of calories you burned yesterday and get a quick reply, rather than open your phone, find the Fitbit app, and drill down to the appropriate screen. It's even more useful than the voice-powered food and activity logging that Fitbit brought to Microsoft's Cortana last year.


How a startup is making it easy to build virtual reality worlds


My most recent virtual reality experience was created by a 9-year-old. That's according to Martin Repetto, CEO of Voxelus, a platform that lets you build, share and play your own VR games. As I roam through this Minecraft-like world, steered by a Gear VR headset, Repetto tells me that a kid is the one who designed what I'm seeing. But for Voxelus, which launched last year at the Oculus Connect 2 conference, there's a clear goal: to let anyone, young or old, make VR games without a single line of code.

At GDC 2016, Voxelus is expanding on that idea by offering a marketplace, something that Repetto refers to as the missing piece in his company's ecosystem. As it stands, Voxelus' free software is available for Mac and PC, giving people an open canvas to design games for virtual reality. These are compatible with both Gear VR and the Oculus Rift, meaning you don't have to worry about making different versions for each system.

You can also keep polishing your games even after you've made them available on either platform, and creating a world is easy as dragging and dropping items into a sandbox. Naturally, given the aesthetics of the platform, I asked Repetto if Voxelus was inspired by Minecraft, to which he replied with a strong "no." That said, Repetto notes there's a lot to learn from Microsoft's open-world title, adding that his team's intentions are to "have a sandbox with a meaning." He says, "Minecraft controls the aesthetics, [with] Voxelus you can go above and beyond."

According to Repetto, 400 worlds have been created to date using Voxelus, featuring multiplayer elements and 3D worlds like the few pictured above. Given that its software is free, Voxelus had to find a way to bring in revenue, and that's where the newly announced marketplace comes in. To simplify this process, the startup also created its own cryptocurrency, which developers are able to use to purchase any of the 7,000 VR assets available so far, including bridges, castles, houses, trees, spaceships, teleporters and more.

Repetto describes Voxelus as Clash of Clans for VR, but he says the platform, and the games born out of it, aren't meant to compete with the AAAs of the industry. "[We] just want to make something for people to play and have fun," he says.