So, thanks to Black Friday I am now the proud owner of the Amazon Echo Dot. If I had my way it should be on every shopping list this Christmas – although I haven’t tried the new Google equivalent yet.
For those of you who don’t know, the Echo “dot” is the small brother of the Amazon Echo. Still confused? Well, essentially this gizmo allows you to speak to the internet – and for it to speak back. It works over WiFi so you can place it anywhere you have signal (and a power source).
The Dot is a much more sensible buy than the full Echo – it’s much cheaper and smaller and the only thing it doesn’t have is a whopping great built-in speaker. It still has a speaker though – and you can always plug a third party one in.
To get things started you have to say “Alexa….” then one of the many commands that are supported. For example, I can ask Alexa to read the news or what the time is. I can check the traffic on my commute or ask general knowledge questions (Alexa, how tall is the Eiffel tower?). My daughter loves it too as Alexa will check her spellings and help her cheat on her maths homework. My wife is even taken by the timer (Alexa, set an alarm for 20 minutes) which is handy for cooking.
Remarkably the speech recognition is near perfect and you don’t have to struggle to get Alexa to wake-up thanks to the built-in multidimensional microphone array. To stop things getting creepy you can also set Alexa to mute.
Of course, Alexa was designed to work with Amazon. Subsequently you could go ordering things into your basked and Amazon list – a feature which I quickly disabled for obvious reasons. If you have Amazon Prime then you’ll be able to benefit from free and unlimited music streaming. “Alexa, play me something by Little Mix”.
Some of the best uses for Alexa come when you add ‘skills’. These are bolt-on apps which then support a range of other devices. For example, you can get Alexa to record a voice memo for your family or control a device in your house (like a Philips HUE LED light bulb). Alexa plays nicely with my Nest thermostat with the loaded skill and I can just ask for the temperature to be set for it to happen. Lazytown dream!
For maximum fun, however, I must also endorse Samsung SmartThings Starter Kit (look out for a £130 price tag in January). This is a Zigbee/Zwave starter kit which includes the hub and various sensors.
The various sensors are connected over-the-air to a hub which is, in turn, connected to your network/internet/router. The Zigbee/Zwave network is still 2.4GHz but doesn’t show up like a normal WiFi signal. Although the reach was disappointing from my hub (about half the distance of WiFi) you can network the mains powered sensors together to act as ‘repeaters’. This mesh effect means that you can actually reach places where WiFi cannot.
So, not only do I know if my car is being stolen in the night (you’ll need the Dlink Zigbee Siren and a presence sensor) or my garage door is open – I also get an alert if somebody goes into my shed and I can turn my lights on when somebody walks into the living room. If I had the Dlink camera then I could stream video too….just imagine the fun you could have with a ‘connected’ Samsung Washing machine.
When Alexa and SmartThings hook up then you can create the conditions for an autonomous home. “Alexa, lights on”. “Alexa, TV off”. “Alexa, bank balance crisis”. I’m not sure how much of a geek I have become but this is taking me to new levels of nurd-dom. My poor family are beginning to think that the house is wired – and it sort of is.
Of course, my reliance on broadband (and Amazon) has just hit new heights. I’m just waiting for hackers to take control of my appliances am resigned to the idea that the CIA can know when I’m at home and to listen to my every word. I’m also starting to think more about power fail-over (every home should have GoalZero stuff).
How long will it be before the Internet goes down big time and the world curls up into a mess? My guess is, within my lifetime. Buyer beware!