Sunday, January 01, 2017

An Alexa-enabled Smart Home for Christmas

by Mary Harrsch © 2017

Note: This is a cross-post from my home page.

Back in 1995, Microsoft introduced an interactive help utility for Windows 95 called "Bob".  I was probably one of the few professional technology people who actually used "Bob" (As a dog lover I selected the helper incarnation called "Power Pup" though.)  "Power Pup" would keep track of my keystrokes as I worked in different applications and offer procedural advice on what it perceived I was trying to do at the time, prefaced by a little bark and a wag of his tail.  I found "Power Pup's" suggestions often useful and his friendly interaction a welcome break from the stress of administering a college-wide multiplatform local area network.  But, apparently, many of my colleagues thought he was "too cute" for the serious work of computing and "Bob" was relegated to the dustbin of failed products in fairly short order.

But I did not forget "Bob" and how artificial intelligence could be used to improve productivity while reducing social isolation.  So I began to experiment with conversational agents that utilized natural language programming coupled with knowledgebases to provide a more friendly computer-to-human interface.  With my interest in history, I decided to try to virtually recreate historical figures from the past that could converse about their culture with modern interested humans.  This resulted in the creation of a virtual Julius Caesar that was online for several years before I retired.  Caesar would answer questions about ancient Roman culture posed to him by visitors entering their questions in a text box.  He could give a textual answer or display related websites or online videos.  As text-to-speech technology advanced, I even experimented with software that would enable Caesar to answer questions verbally and explored voice recognition technology to see if it was viable for user input as well. But, when I retired I no longer had access to the server platforms needed to support projects like Caesar.  However, my interest in natural language programming and more friendly human-to-computer interfaces endured.

So, I followed the development of Amazon's Alexa-powered devices with a great deal of interest. But, I'm a rather pragmatic individual and at first so much marketing emphasis was placed on Echo's music management features that I wondered if there were more useful applications for a busy 21st-century household.

Then I began reading about wifi-enabled electrical connection accessories that could be managed with Alexa-enabled devices and thought about how convenient it would be to be able to turn on and off groups of lights and appliances with a few words rather than going around physically flipping switches. But spending almost $200 per device and the need to have a device in each main room was still an expensive proposition to gain a little convenience.

Then Amazon introduced the Echo Dot coupled with a holiday sale price of just $39.95 and I found resistance was futile as my Star Trek friends would say.  I was still a bit concerned about the accuracy of the voice recognition, though. So I started out with just one Echo Dot for the living room along with a couple of Wemo wifi-enabled plug adapters for the two main living room lamps.

I downloaded the Alexa app to my iPhone and discovered the Echo Dot setup was a breeze.  I opened the Alexa app, then opened Settings and changed my iPhone wifi connection to the detected Echo network and configured the detected Dot. Alexa also did not seem to have any problem understanding me.  I read through all of the "Try this" examples and began to configure some of the built-in features.

I really liked the "flash briefing" feature that lets you select specific news feeds for a personal news update which you can request at any time.  I selected NPR radio, BBC News, Tech Crunch and CNet (for technology news) and Discovery (for science news) as my personal news sources.  I also added the local weather forecast and the Alexa Try This feed.  Although I live in Oregon's Willamette Valley, I couldn't find any local news feeds but I think I'll add feeds from Seattle and San Francisco to at least hear major stories from the Pacific Northwest.

I also read that Alexa could interface with Google Calendar and keep you appraised of upcoming appointments.  I hadn't used an online calendar since I retired but knew how helpful this would be, especially when managing complex medication schedules and medical appointments.  So I configured my Google Calendar and paired it with Alexa.  Now, each morning after requesting my Flash Briefing, I ask what's on my schedule for the day and Alexa tells me.

I've also used the Google Calendar to keep track of upcoming programming on PBS that I may wish to record.   PBS sends me a physical schedule of their upcoming programming for a full month but at present, my DISH Hopper cannot see more than two weeks of scheduled programming at a time. Now, when I get my PBS schedule, I enter the programs I wish to record into my Google Calendar and Alexa lets me know each day if any are on that day.  I can then set my DVR to record them.

But the real "killer" app I was looking for turned out to be Alexa's Shopping List!  It never seems to fail that I realize I need something from the grocery store when I'm not in the kitchen where I keep my shopping list.  As I've gotten older my short term memory is not what it used to be either and it is not uncommon for me to forget what I was thinking about just a few minutes later as I walk from one room to the next.  So, imagine how helpful it is to be able to tell Alexa to add something to your shopping list as soon as you think of it regardless where you are! Of course, that meant I needed to add Echo Dots in my bedroom and the living room, too, which I promptly did. To access my shopping list once at the grocery store I just open the Alexa app on my iPhone and check off and delete each item as I add the item to my physical shopping cart.

Although my husband has the television blaring all day long, I did find a nice use of the music management features of Alexa.  Now that I have an Echo Dot in the bedroom, I can run a warm bath in the adjoining bathroom (Alexa's range is up to 20 feet), lay back in the tub and tell Alexa to play one of my favorite playlists from my Amazon Music account.  I did have a few hiccups configuring my Amazon playlists to work with Alexa, though.

I had already imported most of my music from my iTunes library to my Amazon Music account.  I had also set up playlists previously.  But Alexa did not seem to recognize my playlist names and would offer something from Prime Music (since I'm a Prime member) using my spoken words as a search guide. I ended up calling Alexa tech support and learned that Alexa does a better job of recognizing playlists if you name them "Your Name" then "Description".  For example, I had a playlist named "Holiday favorites".  I renamed it to "Mary's Holiday Favorites" then Alexa recognized it and played it for me.  That solved most of my playlist issues.  There were a few words, however, Alexa seemed to insist on using for search terms.  So, I experimented with different descriptions until she properly recognized the list.  I had a list named "Sentimentals".  I initially renamed the list to "Mary's Sentimentals" but Alexa still loaded some other Prime Music.  I renamed it again to "Mary's Mood Music".  Alexa still did not interpret it correctly.  So I finally renamed it to "Mary's Soft Rock" and Alexa now recognizes it.

When I received my Wemo wifi-enabled plug adapters for my living room lights, I realized just how powerful having a "Smart Home" would be.  Our living room does not have any overhead lighting so all lighting is provided by individually controlled lamps.  Each night I have to go around and turn each lamp on or off.  But, by connecting them with my Echo Dot, I now simply say "Alexa, Living Room On" and the entire living room lights up.

I had to first download and install the Wemo app onto my iPhone. Then I opened the Wemo app on the iPhone, changed my iPhone wifi connection in Settings to the detected Wemo network and configured each plug adapter.  Then I opened the Alexa app, selected the Smart Home option and grouped the two detected Wemo plugs into a "Living Room" group.

I hope to eventually replace some of my wall switches with wifi-enabled switches too since I have porch lights on different circuits in different parts of the house.  I would like to tell Alexa to turn on the porch lights and have all of them on at once without traipsing from room to room whenever I need to go outside after dark or have visitors arrive after dark.  I did read about a gotcha, though. I learned that many wifi-enabled switches require a neutral wire that was not normally included in wiring installed before 2011.  However, I have researched this issue further and it looks like there are switches out there that do not use the neutral wire.  I just have to be sure they will work with our home's wiring configuration.

I recently learned about a new app for Alexa called "Ask My Buddy" too.  It enables you to send a text, email or phone call to up to five family or friends if you need to alert them about a problem like you are incapacitated and cannot reach a phone.  It's sort of like "Life Alert" without the automatic 911 call or monthly subscription fee.  I wish it would allow you to send an individually specified text message but it only sends a message saying you need help.

I discovered another Alexa skill named "SMS with Molly", though.  It lets you send a short text message to someone in your preconfigured contact list by saying "Alexa, ask SMS with Molly to text Margaret "I'm Home Safely".  You need to sign up for a free account with SMS with Molly, add your contacts to your contact list then enable the skill using your Alexa App.  I think this app would be really helpful for seniors living alone that wish to let their family members know they are OK each day.

I've also decided to try the timer feature and see if I can get Alexa to verbally remind me to take my medicine at noon.  Most of my medications are taken in the morning or at bedtime and I have no problem remembering them as they are part of my morning and bedtime routines.  But when I get busy preparing lunch I sometimes forget to set my noon medication by my water glass so I take it with my meal.

After reading up on Alexa's timer and alarm functions I learned that timers are designed for one-time use while alarms can be set to be repeating.  So I set an alarm for noon each day and selected a pleasing alarm tone.  I wish it would let you specify a short text string that Alexa could read to you using her text-to-speech capability but at present it doesn't.  For my present needs, a tone is okay as there is only one thing for me to remember at noon.  However, for someone with more complicated medication schedules, it would be really helpful to have Alexa sound a tone followed by a short reminder message.  Hopefully, Amazon's engineers will enhance the alarm function soon.

So, my Echo Dots with Alexa are now very much an integral part of my day.  When I get up in the morning I say "Alexa, Living Room On" and the lights go on in the living room.  I walk in and sit down and say "Alexa, my Flash Briefing please".  I then listen to the news and get the latest weather forecast for the day.  Then I say "Alexa, what's on my schedule today?" and she tells me whatever I have scheduled in my Google Calendar".  As I prepare a meal and notice I'm getting low on coffee I say "Alexa, add Coffee to my Shopping List" and she tells me she has added coffee to my shopping list.  I drive to the grocery store and open the Alexa app on my iPhone select shopping list from the menu and load my cart.  At noon while I am preparing lunch, Alexa sounds a tone to remind me to set out my noon medication. In the evening, I take a warm bath to relax and tell Alexa to play "Mary's Soundtracks" and listen to my favorite movie music while I'm soaking.  Then when I'm ready for bed I say "Alexa, Living Room Off" and Alexa turns off the living room lights. I'm sure I'll find other useful applications, too, as more "skills" are developed by Amazon and third parties as well. I have a feeling this is just the beginning!






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