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Dec 222016
 

Voice-controlling home automation units is a great use for the Echo units.

I wrote, three weeks ago, about Amazon’s futuristic Echo and Echo Dot devices.  At the time I had only been using my Echo Dot for about a week, and I was underwhelmed by the overall experience, and disappointed at the shortfall between the science-fiction style potential of units and the real world actuality.

But, after three more weeks, I have to say the unit is growing on me.  And, talking about ‘growing’, so too is my investment in Echo devices.  I now have two of the Echo Dots, and three four (just added another one!) remote controllable switches.  They allow me to turn lights and other devices on and off simply by talking to the Echo unit, or remotely from anywhere in the world via my phone.  For example, I have a video home security system and sometimes it needs rebooting – that’s a frustration that can’t be solved when I’m away from home for several weeks, but now, no matter where I am, if the cameras go offline, I can reboot them just by remotely turning their power supply on and off.

Before going upstairs, I can say ‘Alexa, please turn the upstairs lights on’.  Well, all I need to say is ‘Alexa upstairs lights on’, but somehow it feels better with the please and as a proper sentence.  When I’m going to bed, I simply say ‘Alexa, turn all lights off’ – and if something startled me in the night, I could also say ‘Alexa, turn all lights on’.

I find the ability to ask Alexa for weather information is quicker and easier than checking my phone or computer.  ‘Alexa, weather’ is all it takes.  Or, ‘Alexa, what is the forecast for tomorrow?’ or ‘Alexa, will it snow this week?’.  And so on.  It is – sort of – fun discovering how one can phrase weather related questions and what answers will be forthcoming.

It is also great to have Alexa play music on command.  ‘Alexa, please play some Christmas music’ seems to work very well currently.

I like to be able to set alarms to remind me to do things, but as noted in the earlier review, it is frustrating there is no way to label such alarms.  More than once Alexa has sounded the alarm tone, and I’ve blanked out for a minute while trying to remember what I wanted the alarm to remind me to do.

If the Echo was a phone, there would be ‘an app for that’.  In the case of Echo, apps are called ‘Skills’.  But, even though there are something more than 4000 such skills (here’s Amazon’s list of skills), there is no skill that allows you to set reminders or timers or alarms and have a custom spoken advice provided when the alarm sounds to remind you of what the alarm is for.

The Unresolved Interface/Screen Challenge

This strikes at the heart of the issue I touched on in the earlier review – the need for a screen to supplement the voice interface.  Certainly, in this case, the need for the screen could be prevented by a simple bit of extra programming – why not just have the ‘skill’ record a sound clip of you saying what the event/alarm is for and play that back when the alarm is sounded.

So the largely needless frustrations of the Echo and its voice only interface still hover closely in the background.  Using it reminds me a bit of the brave early adopters a couple of years ago who forced themselves to pretend that their smart watch is truly useful and a net productivity boost.  I feel most smart watches remain gimmicky drains on productivity, and of little value because they don’t replace or combine other functions, they just add one more gadget to the list of ‘stuff’ you already have.  (See my recent article on smart watches.)

There are also cooking/recipe/drink mixing type skills, but these also seem to be more gimmicks that practical.  When you’re following a recipe, the ability to see the recipe, all at once, on a screen or piece of paper, really helps.  Having to listen to it being recited, and then replay it regularly, or perhaps, even more counter-intuitively, choosing to then write down a summary of the recipe on a piece of paper – why go to all this bother when one can just refer to the recipe directly on one’s phone or tablet?

Sure, asking about the weather is a good use, as is remotely controlling lights and other household appliances.  But when you have to go through a laborious ‘conversation’ complete with one or more misrecognized words that you have to correct in the process, just to do something you could do in half or quarter the time on your phone or computer, that’s not sensible at all.  Too many of the skills currently seem to be ‘proof of concept’ gimmicks rather than real world useful apps that are better/more convenient than similar apps on one’s phone, tablet, or computer.

But, on balance, my thinking now leans more to agreeing that there’s enough of use and value to support the small $40 – $50 investment in buying an Echo Dot.

Remote Controlled Plugs, Light Switches, etc

These new smart devices are starting to be truly useful, and make a great accompaniment to an Echo.  Sure, you can also control them through their own smart phone and tablet apps, but the indolent ease of just calling out ‘Alexa, turn on the bedroom light’ beats finding your phone, unlocking it, finding the lighting app, opening it, clicking the icon for the bedroom lights, and then putting the phone down again.

What sort of remote controlled devices might you want to get?

Light Switches

Note that there are plenty of different types of remote/wireless light switches available.  Some are regular on/off (ie single pole, single throw – SPST) switches, good for replacing single switch controlled lights.  Installing these is half simple but potentially half difficult.  Sure, you just unscrew the switch plate and then pull out the old light switch and install the new smart switch, but there are two potential challenges.

The first is that the switch needs to be able to power itself so it can be ‘listening’ for your commands, so you need not just the main ‘Phase’ line that a normal light switch has, but you also need to have a tap from the Neutral line too.  Hopefully your switch box has a neutral line running through it too.

The second challenge is the size of the smart switch.  Sure, it will fit perfectly into a regular box, but that assumes there isn’t a great big mass of wires all stuffed into the back of the box.  If there is, it becomes quite a tight fit.

In addition to regular on/off switches, you might have some lights in your house that have two switches controlling them – one at each end of the hallway, or at the top and bottom of a flight of stairs.  Such switches need to be ‘single pole double throw’; I’m not aware of SPDT remote light switch units, but I’m sure they’ll turn up soon enough.

The other type of light switch commonly found is a dimmer switch (SPST type).  There are some remote control dimmer light switches now available.

General Power Outlets

The easiest way of making a regular power outlet remotely switchable is simply to get an ‘extension plug’ unit that plugs into the socket, and which in turn other devices plug into.  That way there is no rewiring or replacement required, and it is easy to move the plugs around depending on what and where you wish to remotely control.

Unfortunately, increasingly we have smart devices that can’t be simply controlled by turning on and off the mains power to them.  Sure, turning off their power will always turn the device off, but many times, turning the power back on again won’t also turn the device back on too.  You need to see if such devices remember their ‘state’ such that, if they are on and running, then if the power is remotely turned off, not by their own on/off switch, but by in effect ‘unplugging’ them from the wall, will they restart again when they are ‘plugged back in again’ or will they need to then be restarted by pressing their switch.

Happily, it is easy enough to test that simply by unplugging, pausing, then replugging the switched on device and see if it turns on again.  If it does, it can be appropriately remotely controlled by one of these smart plugs.

Some of these remotely controlled plugs will also report information on how much power is being used through them, but much as we love meaningless data, we’ve resisted the lure of getting them.

Whether it is by voice through an Echo, or using your phone or tablet anywhere in the world, you can control your home’s thermostat.

Thermostats

The Nest is the best known smart thermostat, but there are many others, including ones that seem to be every bit as useful and functional as the Nest, but much less expensive.

Imagine if you go away for a week or two over winter.  Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to turn up the temperature a few hours before arriving home so you get back to a warm house rather than a freezingly cold one.  Or, in summer, you can start cooling the house down before your return, the same way.

Or simply, when at home, if you want to nudge the temperature up or down, you don’t have to get up and go to wherever the unit is.  Just call out to your Echo ‘Alexa, turn the temperature up two degrees’ (or whatever you wish).

Security Devices

There is nothing new about security cameras that wirelessly stream video and sound to you.  That is good, but it is only a one-way stream.  Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to remotely control the camera – to swivel around and zoom in, etc.  And, wouldn’t it be really good to be able to not only receive audio, but to send back your own voice if necessary, too.  (I use this with my dog – being able to watch her remotely and tell her ‘No!’ when she starts to think naughty thoughts has been tremendously valuable.

The other tremendously useful application is with a front door ‘bell’/intercom/video.  Imagine, when someone rings your doorbell, you can see them through a video camera and speak to them through an intercom – from anywhere in the world, not just the other side of the door.  This completely obscures where you are yourself.  It is a common tactic for house burglars to go from door to door; they’ll ring the doorbell.  If someone answers, they pretend to be selling something or looking for someone at the ‘wrong address’; but if no-one answers, they know the coast is clear and they can burgle the house.  Now you can give the impression of being at home – you can even turn lights on and off as part of ‘answering the door’ remotely.

Even better, if the person is an authorized person who you wish to allow to access your home, you can remotely unlock the door and allow them in, while monitoring them on internal security cameras and being available to answer questions.  Now you no longer need to destroy an entire day while waiting for a workman who, you are told, will arrive ‘some time between 9am and 5pm’; go to work, and spend your day as your normally do, and interact with the person remotely when they arrive.

Amazon have a large line-up of such devices at all price points and with a huge range of functionality.

Summary

You definitely want to start thinking about adding some ‘smart home’ remotely controllable devices to your residence.  Most of these can be controlled through an Echo unit too, making these fascinating and fun units even more useful.

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  2 Responses to “Amazon’s Echo Revisited”

  1. Interesting. These are all great developments. I was thinking about this, and I would like to see them be able to:
    -Turn off the water.
    -Turn the hot water heater to “vacation” and back to normal before one gets home.
    -Power cycle the internet modem and router every hour in case of the internet connection being lost.

    I’m sure there is a bigger list, but these are three I’d like to see.

  2. […] starting to wonder whether I love or hate my Alexa Echo device, having just struggled with it to set an alarm for 15 minutes.  The first time I said […]

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