Alexa's Space Upgrade

That’s right! Alexa is headed to space and I was able to speak with one of the designers, Justin Nikolaus, that’s helping to build that experience.

Sitting down with Justin Nikolaus, Senior UX Designer at Amazon, reminded me that there are times in life where you can get exactly what you ask for. In Justin’s case, that meant being able to bridge the gap between his passions for design and space exploration. Justin has been partnering with ex-Astronauts at Lockheed Martin, current-Astronauts at NASA, and the team over at Cisco to design a space-conscious Alexa experience for the upcoming Artemis I mission. Alexa will be embedded into the Orion Spacecraft and work alongside Cisco’s Webex platform. In a sense, Justin is taking the phrase “Alexa everywhere” to an entirely new level.

An out-of-this-world experience

Designing for space meant thinking about some problems and use cases that were completely novel to the team. While, the current Artemis I mission will be not have a crew onboard, that didn’t stop Justin and the team from considering the impact that the Alexa technology could have for Astronauts. He spent years interviewing and learning directly from Astronauts to discover what their experiences have been throughout their careers.

These are completely net new experiences that we can think about and design ... We have the advantage of staying still when we're on Earth, but in space there's this tendency to just float around. If you wanted to type something, once you tap the keyboard, you start moving away from it.

During his research Justin remembers an anecdote of an astronaut on the International Space Station that had to write notes on his leg because his note pad had literally drifted away while he was working and he needed to take down an important piece of information. Justin noted, “if Alexa was available, then you wouldn’t need to worry about taping down notepads or even bringing one with you.” Diving deep into the the daily life of an astronaut was critical to building the experience for the project. Justin interviewed multiple astronauts, flight controllers and directors at NASA to ensure what he was building was both relevant and accurate for future astronauts. Without this research Justin wouldn’t have realized some of the most powerful use cases for voice interactions in space.

Another major complication astronauts encounter in space is the lack of connectivity, which is usually ‘mission critical’ when it comes to getting information from Alexa. This project used local voice control technology, which allows Alexa to function in areas with limited-to-no connectivity. The team isn't keeping that technology a secret either. They are taking the learnings from that use case and plan to develop Alexa to work better in cars and other remote environments across the world.