Amazon Echo and SmartHomes


Amazon Echo and SmartHomes
By David Webster, RGB’s Chief Technology Officer
Wednesday 26th October 2016

Now that Amazon have released the Echo and Echo Dot (2nd Generation) devices for the UK, it is worth considering how this will impact on how home owners can now interact with their SmartHomes…

The Amazon Alexa voice assistant is very good (but not perfect) at recognising spoken commands and can act on many of them directly. For example playing music, listening to radio, weather forecasts, shopping lists, alarms, etc. However Amazon have created a way for Alexa to communicate with many other devices and information or content services by means of software extensions known as “Skills”. Using the Alexa App, it is an easy matter to browse all the available third party skills and to enable them for use. For example there is a Nest Skill that allows Alexa to cleverly set the Nest Thermostat temperature with spoken commands. I can report that this works well, but the spoken commands have to be said in a way that Alexa can understand. It took me a while to discover that even when you have only a single Nest Thermostat, Alexa insists that you reference it by its own name and not by “temperature” or “Nest”. In my case I had given the Nest Thermostat the name “Hallway” when I had set it up with the Nest App, and this is what Alex expects me to use for sending it voice commands. So now to set the temperature I can say “Alexa set Hallway to 22 degrees” and it will do so and then confirm the action with the Alexa voice. (By the way the voice synthesis is extremely natural sounding – even on the smaller speaker in the Echo Dot).

Other SmartHome Skills already available include Philips Hue, Hive, WeMo, Samsung SmartThings with more to follow. Sonos Skills are scheduled for 2017 and many others such as Lutron Homeworks QS are expected soon.

I can understand that some people will question the usefulness of all this and that it is already possible to do similar voice control tasks with their phones but this rather misses the point – Amazon Echo is capable of working at a distance from the person speaking. This makes using Alexa so much more convenient, natural and accessible. For those users that are technophobic (I can think of a few) or incapable of using a phone or tablet, a world of control is now possible to them for the first time and the implications for Alexa in assisted living environments are very clear.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the Echo devices, is not so much how well the technology works (remarkable though this is) but more the fact that they are so affordable. For general and smarthome VUI (Voice User Interface) applications the Echo Dot at £49.99 it is not unthinkable to have one of these devices in every room of the home!


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