Smart speakers like the Amazon Echo and Google Home are becoming increasingly popular in U.S. households. A report from January estimated 39 million American adults own one and the rate of adoption is outpacing smartphones and tablets.
Saint Louis University in Missouri recently announced it would put over 2,300 Echo Dot smart speakers enabled with Amazon's voice assistant Alexa in every dorm room on campus. The Echo speakers will be operated through Alexa for Business, meaning they won't be linked to students' individual Amazon accounts, but run through a central account by the university. Each speaker will be equipped with a custom program known as a "skill" which lets students ask over 100 questions specific to the campus.
Students wondering, "'What time does the library close tonight?" can ask Alexa rather than call a faculty member or search online, SLU's chief information officer David Hakanson tells CNBC Make It.
The new tool can boost efficiency, says Hakanson. Online searches to answer common questions are multi-step processes that require students to pull up the SLU homepage on their phones or laptops, search online for the library and then search for the library's hours. "That can take two to four minutes, easily," says Hakanson, while students asking Alexa, "can get that response in five seconds."
The custom skill, which university administrators can update with new questions and answers, was created by Somen Saha and Joel Evans, the founders of a company called N-Powered. Saha and Evans founded N-Powered in March while designing an Amazon Alexa skill for students at Northeastern University, anticipated to roll out this fall.
Interest in voice technology on college campuses is growing, Evans tells CNBC Make It. In addition to Saint Louis University and Northeastern University, Arizona State University set up its dorms for engineering students with 1,600 Echo devices donated by Amazon in 2017.
"Students have an expectation of being able to interact via voice," Evans says. "Voice is a natural fit here, as students can ask and receive an answer, instead of reminding themselves to get the answer later by either making a phone call and potentially waiting on hold or searching on [the] web."
As for privacy concerns, the questions and answers on Saint Louis University's skill only cover public information such as sports schedules or the names of upcoming campus speakers.
"This system is not tied to individual accounts and does not maintain any personal information for any of our users, so all use currently is anonymous," according to the university's FAQ page about the program. If students are still uncomfortable having a smart speaker in their room, they can just unplug it, the page suggests.
"We made a strategic decision to not start with personal data," Hakanson adds.
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This story has been revised to reflect that SLU students can use this Alexa skill to answer questions about university sports schedules.