Alexa, open “Westworld.” When HBO launched a dedicated skill for Amazon’s Echo smart speakers earlier this summer, it gained a lot of praise from fans and critics alike. With two hours worth of dialogue and many different paths to travel, the “Westworld: The Maze” Alexa skill quickly became known as one of Hollywood’s most ambitious experiences for smart speakers to date.
The creative minds behind “Westworld,” however, remained virtually unknown — until now. The Alexa experience for HBO’s show was produced by Xandra, a Brooklyn-based startup that describes itself as a conversation design studio, and that has quietly been creating some of Hollywood’s best smart speaker experiences.
Xandra was founded by Zach Johnson, who told Variety during a recent interview that he was introduced to conversation theory around 15 years ago while working on an e-learning project for the U.K.’s Ministry of Defence. The idea that the conversation between a human and a machine could be a two-way street, helping both sides get smarter, stuck with him — and came back to the surface when Facebook and other companies started to give developers tools to build their own chat bots a few years ago.
Many brands and entertainment companies immediately jumped on the idea of chat bots, but ended up producing experiences that were not much more than stunts with little regard for actually making it compelling to the end user, recalled Johnson. “I thought there needed to be a focus on user experience.”
So when Johnson hired staffers for a startup to build bots and other conversational experiences, he didn’t simply tap into Silicon Valley’s developer community. Instead, he made use of the fact that the underlying technology was being built by big tech companies with deep pockets, and hired playwrights, actors, and musicians — creatives who knew how to tell a story. “When we design a conversational experience, we are approaching it the same way that we would do a theater play,” Johnson said.
Xandra’s head of audio experience design Kevin Dusablon at work.
One of the first clients of the company was AT&T’s Audience Network, which had Xandra build a chat bot for its adaptation of the Stephen King novel “Mr. Mercedes.” The bot, which was built in partnership with the creative ad agency Mistress and communicated in the voice of the serial killer star of the show, exchanged tens of thousands of messages with fans.
With the growth of voice assistants, Xandra has increasingly been building experiences for devices like the Amazon Echo or Google’s Google Home smart speaker. One of Xandra’s goals these days is to refine game mechanics and plot choices for conversational interfaces, Johnson said.
In the case of the “Westworld” Alexa experience, this included questions about key characters and recurring motifs from the show. Remember what Dolores drops after her recurring shopping trip? Or the last name of the show’s most prominent bandit? Then you can proceed to the next level, otherwise you’ll have to try again. Designing and testing such an experience takes around 12 weeks, Johnson said.
Ultimately, the experience has to be good enough for players to keep coming back, and either discover new content or hone their skills to become better at solving a challenge. “We think of it like a console-quality video game, without the video,” Johnson said.
With voice assistants evolving quickly, Xandra is now also focusing on helping its clients make money with their experiences by adding paywalls and paid add-ons. The company is also increasingly looking to add screens to its experiences to extend them to devices like Amazon’s Echo Show and Google Assistant-powered smart displays. Eventually, the company wants to extend its work to augmented reality devices and even humanoid robot assistants that may at some point roam around your home, waiting to engage in conversations with you.
That may, admittedly, sound far out — but so did the idea of smart speakers just a few years ago. These days, chatting with a voice coming from a small puck in your kitchen is increasingly becoming normal — which opens up opportunities for Hollywood and others to tell a whole new type of interactive story, argued Johnson. “These hardware devices are kind of like a Trojan horse.”