Within a week of each other I decided to splurge and get me a Roomba and an Amazon Echo. I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords. Back in the day you needed a team of Gatsby-esque servants to wait on you hand and foot. Now, I have a robot to sweep up after me, and a robot who’ll act as a personal assistant. All for the fraction of the price.
For those who don’t know, the Amazon Echo is a little cylindrical device you place in a convenient place in your home (ours is in our living room near the front door). You can talk to it and it’ll do things like play music for you, tell you the weather, tell you last night’s sports scores, tell you a stock quote, tell you the latest news, and so much more. It’s actually pretty cute and its speaker can pack a whollop of sound if you want it to (you can also tell it to speak louder or softer).
I was skeptical when I first heard of it. As much as Apple tried to make Siri into “my personal assistant”, most of the time she still gets things wrong. It’s the same with Google’s “OK, Google”. It seems that both companies have tried too hard to be all things to all people out of the gate and have fallen laughably short.
Worse, one of the fatal flaws of using your phone as a voice-responsive personal assistant is that in order for your phone to respond to commands like “Hey Siri” or “Okay Google” they need to be plugged in at all times or they’ll drain your battery.
Something I appreciate about Amazon Echo is that they sat back while Apple and Google stumbled over each other, learning from both their mistakes. For one thing, the Echo doesn’t pretend to be able to answer every single question known to man.
Instead, she’s programmed to answer only the most common questions. Here are some questions I recently asked her where she gave me a perfect answer.
- Alexa, what temperature is it outside?
- Alexa, what’s the weather tomorrow?
- Alexa, what was the score of the Yankees game last night?
- Alexa, what’s the latest news?
- Alexa, how many ounces in a cup?
- Alexa, play Pandora
- Alexa, add milk to my shopping list
- Alexa, add buy a new air conditioner to my to-do list
In case you’re wondering, “Alexa” is the name of a search engine company that started in 1996, two years before Google. If you’ve ever visited the Internet Wayback Machine Archive, you’ve seen Alexa in action. They never quite caught on as a mainstream search engine, but Amazon still acquired their technology in 1999 for $250 million in stock. If the creators of Alexa held on to their Amazon stock, their cut is worth over two billion dollars today.
While the technology press focuses on silly things like “does Siri, Google Now, or Alexa tell the funnier jokes”, for me it’s all about how well this personal assistant does the things I need. While I played with Siri and Google for a little while because they were interesting diversions, it’s Alexa that I find myself using more and more.
I took Alexa to the next level when I purchase a Belkin WeMo Light Switch and two Belkin WeMo Insight Switch. Specifically, I connected my dining room/foyer light to the light switch, and the living room light to an insight switch. Now, I could say commands like “Alexa, turn off the living room light”, “Alexa, turn on the dining room light”, or “Alexa, turn off all the lights”. It got a little bit of getting used to because the first time I’d do it she’d shut off all the lights and then a creepy “okay” would come out of the darkness. I wish there were a way to get her to stop saying that, but I’m finding out that’s just the way she is.
What’s really cool about pairing Echo and WeMo is that I can not only use Echo to give voice commands, I can also use the WeMo app to turn the lights on and off. Really handy if I’m coming home at night and want to turn the lights on from the car or if I’m in bed and forgot to turn off the living room light. Using IFTTT you can even set rules (turn on the lights if I’m within 5 miles of my house and the time is after sunset).
Once I got comfortable with Echo and WeMo controlling my lights the next thing I decided to do was to connect an air conditioner to WeMo. This gets a little tricky, as you need to find an AC that has manual controls where you can set it to power on when you plug it in (most units that are controlled by remote controls or buttons won’t work). Ironically, this meant shopping for a “retro” air conditioner that didn’t have timers, thermostats, or remotes.
I came across the Frigidaire 6,000 Btu Window Air Conditioner at Best Buy, who graciously price-matched it to $169.00 to match my local Home Depot. Unfortunately it looks like only 5000 and 6000 BTUs still come with manual controls so you’re out of luck controlling rooms larger than about 100-250 square feet with Echo and WeMo; you’ll probably need to splurge and go for something like the Quirky + GE Aros Smart Window Air Conditioner (or, since that’s getting such poor reviews, hold out for the next generation of connected air conditioners).
The one thing that makes me a little nervous about the WeMo are the reports that determined hackers can theoretically hack into your WeMo devices and start switching them on and off, even to the point of starting fires if you have devices like air conditioners attached. Belkin has released patches that ostensibly protect their devices from outside intruders, but they’ve been so tight-lipped that it’s really hard to tell if they’ve really cracked the problem. In fact, the first time I installed my Belkin Insight Switch to my living room light sure enough the light kept switching on and off randomly until I reset my router (it hasn’t happened since). Regardless of whether this was a bug or a hacker, had the same thing happened to an AC unattended, it could have been pretty dangerous. To at least partially protect me I’ve set an alert so that if the unit is shut on without my approval I’ll know about it.
So if you’ve been thinking about jumping into the world of “connected homes”, here’s a way you can do it for cheap–I did it all for under $500 much less, I think, than Jay Gatsby shelled out for his hired help. And of that $500, why not have a few bucks go to help a good cause through Amazon Smile?