This summer, HBO’s first Amazon Alexa skill took users on a voice-only journey through “Westworld,” the hit sci-fi/western show. The premium cable channel’s second venture into artificial intelligence is for a decidedly less attentive (though no less discerning) audience--preschoolers.
The new “Esme & Roy” voice skill features characters from the animated children’s show, which debuted on HBO in August. It is produced by Sesame Workshop, the creator of “Sesame Street.” (That acclaimed kids’ program has aired on HBO since 2016.) Aimed at children three and up, the skill mirrors the show, allowing kids to pick different adventures for Esme, an accomplished “monster-sitter,” and her friend Roy, a giant yellow monster with a silly streak.
The characters are voiced by the same actors from the show, Millie Davis and Patrick McKenna, so kids won’t be thrown off by voices that don’t sound familiar. Esme offers five options for excursions: Underwater, Outer Space, Circus, Sky and Jungle. The “Sky” scenario, for example finds the duo preparing for a flight in a hot air balloon and prompts players to shout out colors or objects they can spot from the sky.
“We’re thinking about how to create digital experiences for children, but to do it in a way that is educational and that’s not contributing to the screen-time dilemma that we all face as parents,” says Sabrina Caluori, SVP of digital and social media at HBO.
Unlike “Westworld: The Maze,” this skill features explicit instructions meant to acclimate kids to the voice environment. Esme explains that players need to speak one at a time. Voice prompts are signaled by a chime (like the sounds that accompany a page-turn in read-along books) that lets kids know it’s time to speak up. A slight delay is built into the conversation, since kids may take longer to respond. A trailer for the skill from HBO (above) explains other capabilities, like sing-along songs, which are a staple of the show.
Much of the dialogue was written by Sesame Workshop, and conversation design studio Xandra corrected bugs. Agency 360i, which spearheaded writing and coding for the “Westworld” skill, acted in a “consulting” role, Caluori says. At the same time, HBO has been in the process of growing its own in-house voice capabilities, training and recruiting people who can not only create but also update applications with new content. These people will need to “think about experience design in a voice-first environment,” she adds, “because we think that’s going to be an important and growing space.”
No word on what HBO properties are next in line for an Alexa skill, (though “Game of Thrones” or Vice seem like obvious candidates with built-in audiences). “We’re also thinking about what an HBO brand-level experience could look like on these devices,” Caluori says.
Could that mean multiple properties accessed through a single portal, or even in-universe crossovers between shows?
“At this point, anything’s possible," she says.