Last year, Internet of Things was all the rage. Great. But can I not use my smartphone to communicate with my devices? Now, this might sound a little crazy, but will I be able to speak to my house at some point in the future? How cool would it be to ask your AI-enabled house to read your e-mails the moment you get back from work, just like how the intelligent computing system, “Samantha,” does it for Joaquin Phoenix in the 2013 sci-fiction movie “Her!”
From Iron Man’s Jarvis to the supercomputer in Star Trek, our movies have long envisioned the dream of human voices controlling human-machine interactions, and oh boy, we are getting there. With Amazon’s Echo, we are about to leave behind our days of awkwardly okay googling at our Android smartphones and getting misheard every one in four times.
Touted as a rival to Apple’s Siri, Google’s Assistance, and Microsoft’s Cortana, Amazon Echo is a voice-activated, networked device that comes with a seven-piece microphone array, allowing it to pick up one’s voice from anywhere in its vicinity with impressive accuracy.
In a way, Amazon Echo is our one step forward to what our near-future movies have shown us till now, and it essentially packs the functionality of three devices in one.
Features of Amazon Echo
Voice-controlled Wi-Fi and Bluetooth speakers let you play music available on Amazon, Spotify, Pandora, iHeartRadio, and TuneIn, that can also be controlled via a smartphone, tablet, or a computer connected over the Bluetooth. Besides its ergonomic cylindrical design allows it to fill the room with 360° omnidirectional audio.
A smart voice assistant, Alexa, that answers queries, sets timers, reads you books, does calculations, tells you the weather or what’s on your calendar, and other things you might expect from Siri, Cortana, or Google Assistant. It also features third-party app integrations, or “skills” that, for instance, help you access rail apps for train times or news apps to give you flash-style updates on what is up.
So the next time you have friends bouncing over to your place on a weekend and you are waaay too bummed to look through a recipe on your smartphone, then simply bark, “Alexa, read me a 7 minute Jamie Oliver recipe,” at Echo from your kitchen and she gives you the recipe options available. (Though for this to happen, you will need to add the Jamie Oliver skill to your Alexa app.)
Now this one’s even more exciting, Echo is also a smart-home controller that helps you turn devices on and off, set lighting moods and scenes, and other internet of things functions by simply saying: “Alexa, turn on the living room light.”
Its far-field voice recognition allows you to speak to it from anywhere across the room, even when it’s playing music or your washing machine is ripping through the peace of your house to glory. It basically works by having its array of microphones isolate sounds coming in from a particular direction by canceling out noise from other directions.
But in order to get Echo to control your lights, switches, thermostats, sprinklers, garage doors, and what not, you will need to pre-install WeMo, Philips Hue lighting systems, Samsung SmartThings, Wink, Insteon, Nest, Ecobee smart home devices, among other devices in your homes first.
Amazon Echo comes in two versions, a cylinder priced at $179.99 and a cheaper version, the Echo Dot priced at $49.99. Both come in black or white.
Getting Alexa to Work
Echo’s Alexa sounds a lot like Samantha from the movie Her (FYI, that was Scarlett Johansson’s speaking through the length of the movie), and sometimes gives you the eerie impression that perhaps the walls are talking to you. And in case you decide to buy the Amazon Dots too, you should begin by placing them appropriately around your house first. Rooms are the most preferred location for installation, might not work that well in the hallways though.And, it would be a good idea to wall-mount the Dots; whereas, the Echo could be placed on any central surface in your room. (Btw, Amazon Echo and Dots function independently of one another.)
Next, fire up the Alexa app on your smartphone, sync it with your devices, and start talking to her!
Alexa’s head is basically in the cloud (pun intended) that enables her to constantly learn and add more fantasy-worthy functionalities over time. Remember to speak to her as much as you can, this will allow her to adapt to your speech patterns, vocabulary, and personal preferences better.
There’s just one little catch though, you will have to give a unique name to each one of your smart devices. So simply asking Alexa to “turn on the living room lights” would not do it. And just in case you and your friends or family have personal preferences when referring to the lights in your living room, you can create logs of several group names in the Alexa app. This lets Alexa know which lights you want to be switched on when she hears “Lounge” or “TV room lights.”
Okay, but what if you don’t want the light opposite your telly to light up? Can Alexa differentiate between them? She’s known to struggle with numbers at first, so to make things easier for her, you can name your lights alpha, beta, charlie, delta, tango, or anything else under the sun. Going by what I suggested, you might just end up sounding like a huge Call of Duty fan though.
“Alexa, turn on the dining room light delta charlie, operation dinner is a go!”
And conversing with Alexa in the night time may get hilariously tricky too. We all know how we love to sneak in some ice-cream in the dead of the night, so in that case, how do you tell Alexa to turn the lights on in the hallway without waking up the entire house?
Whisper it to her, and she will shout back with the loudest “OK,” an equivalent of “SPEAK LOUDER.” So in this case, it may be a better idea to sync Alexa with the pop switches on your other smart devices too.
Now in order to get Alexa to help flip channels for you on your telly, get one of those SmartThing Hubs for your house, hook all your smart devices and Echo and Dots to this one, and voila! Watch TV in style, bud.
Want to synchronize the lighting scene in your living room with Bowie’s Scary Monsters (Super Creeps) on a Friday night? Just add the Sonos system and the Harmony hub into the mix, and go ahead and creep your neighbors out with changing light scenes and some awesome sounding alien art-house rock!
Now I know you’ve been itching to find out how not to have Alexa respond to everything that you say in the house. In the beginning, you will find her lights firing up and pulsating in response to whatever’s being spoken, try asking her to shut up, and you’ll see that she shuts up like a good kid. Or you can hit “mute” when you don’t want her to listen to you.
Amazon Echo is a big leap ahead in the AI-assisted Smart Homes technology, and this particular convergence of wireless communication, real-time analytics, machine learning, commodity sensors, and embedded systems is poised to make a splash in the IoT market very soon. Once you get Amazon Echo in your homes, you will discover that there are more uses of this brilliant piece of contraption than it claims it has.
Though, on the other hand, it can be right up appalling to bring a networked listening device right inside your homes. Though Amazon says that the device never records anything, it only starts transmitting data to the cloud after hearing the trigger word, “Alexa.”
Smart homes are on a rise, and the time couldn’t be more ripe for you to dive straight into the world of AI-assisted home innovations. Learn machine learning at AcadGild and start building your own AI-based operating systems today!