Home automation used to be a thing of science fiction. It seemed like something that only high-tech companies and labs had installed to stop intruders, rather than encourage convenience and energy efficiency.
In recent years, home automation has been given another name: “Smart Homes.” While this can refer to a multitude of features ranging anywhere from solar panels to water conservation, the most prominent method is via voice-activated electronic systems. Over the holiday season you might have even seen a commercial or two for some of these systems, those being the Amazon Echo and the Google Home.
These were among some of the most popular Christmas gifts for 2016 and with good reason. Smart homes are no longer an expensive pipe dream, but a fairly reasonable reality that just about anyone with Wi-Fi and a smartphone can utilize.
My experience with smart home technology had been minimal at best for the past year or so. I knew the components involved and what features it could offer, but didn’t have anything of my own to truly play and learn about the technology further. That was until this past Christmas where I got to setup an Amazon Echo for my girlfriend’s father. Since I’m the resident tech expert around their house, it was my job to get it up-and-running so I could get a better understanding that I could relay into simpler terms for her parents to understand.
And then my obsession began…
Upon booting up the Amazon Echo, it requires a quick syncing with the Alexa iOS/Android app before you can really do anything. For those unfamiliar with what the Echo does and looks like, it is essentially a cylindrical stationary speaker that you can talk to, almost like Siri, except the Echo actually understands you perfectly and replies with a much more human voice named ‘Alexa.’
At first glance, it may not seem like such a smart device, but talking to the Echo is just the beginning. Now that the Echo is synced with your home Internet, it’s time to explore its features and teach it a little bit about yourself. An initial piece of information that’s good to know is that if you subscribe to Amazon Prime, you will have near unlimited access to Amazon Music. There is a separate ‘Unlimited’ pass, but the Prime selection has just about anything you could possibly want it to play.
Telling Alexa to play music is one the first ‘commands’ you tell it to get a feel for your voice and to showcase it’s sound quality to the customer. Commands begin with “Alexa…play Luther Vandross” or whatever musician of choice.
While it may take a few tries to get the correct cadence, Alexa is pretty self-sufficient in understanding what you meant even if it’s not accurate. You will find that some musicians refuse to put their music on streaming services, so you’re out of luck if you want to listen to Apple Music or Tidal-exclusive artists.
Numerous music providers can be linked to your Echo, including Spotify, Pandora, iHeartRadio and TuneIn accounts. Once connected, your Echo learns your preferences in artists and genres as well as specific playlists you’ve made in those accounts. So if you share a Pandora account with a parent, you might want them to set-up their own for their Echo so it doesn’t bleed over and affect your recommendations.
*It should be noted that while ‘Alexa’ is the device’s birth name of sorts, the name can be changed to ‘Echo’ or ‘Amazon’ in case your name happens to be Alexa or Alexis.*
The next step for setting up the Echo regards the command “What’s my flash briefing?” Your flash briefing is a customized news command that will tell you today’s top headlines through a variety of news sources that you can pick as well as selecting your favorite sports teams. In my girlfriend’s Dad’s case, in the D.C. region, it’s going to be the Washington Post’s news as well as every D.C. sports team.
One of the final setup steps is identifying your home location so your Echo can give you accurate readings for weather, traffic and other 3rd party connected apps. Once your address is entered, its location services allow you to call an Uber, get directions or traffic delays and even order items to be shipped to or from your home.
Now that the basics of the Echo were all in place, I started exploring the extra features available straight from the Alexa app. There are a few other direct-to-Alexa productivity apps that can be connected, including your to-do lists through Todoist and Any.do, your calendar via Google Calendar and even a ‘find my phone’ feature through Trackr. While these features aren’t that advanced, I knew these were all aspects that would never be used by my girlfriend’s father.
By the time I had finished setting the Echo, I was hooked enough that I knew I had to have one in my apartment. This ongoing blog series will explore my expanding experience with smart home technology, specifically regarding the process as all directed through the Amazon Echo. With a seemingly endless amount of other features, I look forward to guiding you through everything the home automation jungle has to offer and if you have any questions, feel free to email me.