Sunday, June 28, 2015

Welcome to your new home, Alexa! The Amazon Echo.

Why would anyone get an Amazon Echo? The bluetooth speaker quality isn't worth the cost. And there is already Siri and Google Now on your phone to handle voice requests.

Those were generally the comments you would see when the Amazon Echo is mentioned. And I must admit, I also felt the same way when then Echo was announced. I did not plan on getting one. But once they started integrating more features and allowing it for use in home automation, I realized what I had been missing out on.


What features does the Amazon Echo offer?


As mentioned, the Amazon Echo has the same features as Google Now and Apple's Siri. You begin by calling it, with either "Alexa" or "Amazon," and then you can ask it general knowledge questions like who is the current president or how many ounces are in a cup. You can give it your location and where you work to further be able to ask questions like what the weather is or how is the traffic to work.

You can also tell it to begin playing music. Amazon Prime users will be able to stream music stations from Amazon Prime Music. Other sources include Pandora, iHeartRadio, and TuneIn. And no, unfortunately Spotify is not supported. Asking Alexa "play music from Spotify" will respond with "Stay tuned. We are working on including other music services." One workaround is that you can tell the Echo to connect to your phone at any time through Bluetooth, "Alexa, Connect to my Phone," and then the music controls like "Alexa, next" will work on any music app active on your phone. And then "Alexa, disconnect from my phone" when you are done.


In terms of home automation, it has built in support for Philips Hue lightbulbs and Belkin WeMo devices. For example, I have my Air Humidifier attached to my Belkin WeMo switch. If I ask Alexa "Turn on my Air Purifier," it will switch the power on and the device will begin working.

Like other users, I keep my Echo in the kitchen as that is the place to get the most out of the hands-free voice control. And if I want the voice control in my room, I use the remote that came with it. The remote does not use IR. So even though I am across a few walls, I can still speak to Alexa with the included remote and it works the same (although I cannot hear any replies since the remote only has a microphone).

Integrating with IFTTT


If you follow my blog, you would know that I am a heavy user of IFTTT for home automation. The good news is that Amazon has added IFTTT support for the Echo. But the bad news is that the support available is not really much. The triggers available are:

  • Ask/Add/Edit/Delete from your To Do List.
  • Ask/Add/Edit/Delete from your Shopping List.
  • Ask about a sport team's score or next game.
  • New song played
  • Alarm or Timer going off.

So far there are only two features that I have found to be useful:
  1. When I add an item to my To Do List, add it to my iOS Reminders.
  2. When I add an item to my Shopping List, add it to my Evernote 'Grocery List' checklist.

Is it worth it?


I can see where, even though I find the feature list to be great and I am sure Amazon will continue to expand on it, some users will still not find any need for the Amazon Echo. And I think that is fine. But I am enjoying waking up in the morning and telling it to play a news radio station, start playing music when I am in the kitchen cooking, or for quick unit conversions when measuring my food for MyFitnessPal. Many said the Bluetooth speaker isn't good, but I think it sounds great for what it is. 

Amazon has also recently released an SDK for the Echo (called ASK), which has now opened up the opportunity to use voice in your home automation projects. This is huge! And you bet that I have already started working on the integration with my thermostat.


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