Several weeks ago, I placed an order to purchase the Amazon Echo and anxiously awaited its arrival. In about a week, it appeared in the mail and it quickly found a unique place among dozens of other IoT devices in the home lab. For years I’ve worked with voice controls and motion sensing products as alternative natural interfaces; however, the Echo’s “always-on” ability was interesting. Voice control has come a long way over the past several years as intelligence, accuracy, processing power, and economics have all dramatically improved to enable viable solutions. However, commercial voice control products still have a way to go; anyone who has used Siri on the iPhone or Google Now knows the frustration of failed responses to queries. On any given day, the average success rate may fall in the 70% to 80% range depending upon the simplicity of requests. Not great, but that’s significantly better than even 5 years ago. The Echo with Alexa is Amazon’s entry into the voice controlled personal assistant arena and, of course, I had to check it out.
The Echo was packaged nicely in blue box and a plastic sleeve. The included instructions were very simple; plug it in, download the app, and follow the instructions. It couldn’t get any easier than that. Fortunately, the pairing sequence successfully connected to my Wi-Fi connection and Alexa was soon ready to take commands. Unfortunately, I had a tennis match to run off to for a few hours and left Alexa on my desk in plain sight. When I returned to continue working with Alexa she didn’t recognize my Amazon or Pandora music profiles. I asked her whose profile she was using and she replied, “I only have one profile and it’s Parker’s profile”. My son (a high school senior) had taken over my new Echo! After a short conversation with my son, he explained that he and Mom were so excited to try out Alexa that they followed the instructions, downloaded the iPhone app, and associated the device to their profiles. I knew they were good with technology, but come on… I’ve got work to do : ) Lesson learned; keep the cool stuff out of reach of family and techno-kids. Although, it was pretty fun to see their excitement and interest.
The effort to switch Alexa back to my profile was a little more painful than I thought. The normal process is to follow the install instructions by initiating the “Add New Device” option in the iPhone app, then initiate the pairing on the Echo by pressing the action button for 5 seconds. Unfortunately, the Echo never went into pairing mode and did not display its Wi-Fi ID as normal. After several attempts, I ended up having to factory reset the device using a paperclip on the bottom of the device. If in doubt, reset the device and start over.
Getting to know Alexa
Alexa is known for her expertise in news, weather, sports, music, lists, math, spelling, and trivia. My first task was to ask Alex to play music. She responded by requesting me to link my Amazon and other music accounts in Settings. The Alexa app easily connected to my Amazon, Pandora, and iHeartRadio accounts within minutes. Alexa does have a few snags in the way commands are requested. When I asked Alexa to play my music she said, “I don’t see any songs in your music library, you can find songs in the Amazon music store.” After some modification, I found that asking her to play music by a specific artist or a specific downloaded collection works better. When trying to play live radio, I found issues asking for a specific station like WSB or WABE radio. Alexa often responds with, “WSB (or WABE) radio is not currently available on TuneIn Radio.” Yet, when requesting the radio frequency numbers of 95.5 or 90.1, Alex is able to satisfy the requests. In the app there are many stations and artists available to select manually if desired. There is a voice training option in the settings that is highly recommended to help train Alexa to your voice and speech patterns.
The app allows you to set up which news services briefs to include and report upon request. You can receive headlines from several news sources and receive technology or sports briefs in the same stream. There are many podcasts from which to choose and weather reports are consistently provided upon request. Alexa is really good at adding items to your shopping list. Sometimes requests she doesn’t understand are added as to-do or shopping list items. “OK, I’ve added Bon Jovi to your shopping list.” No, I asked where I can buy bon bons! Minor details. The shopping list is convenient, as anyone can add items and the list is easy to review verbally or in the app. Alexa is pretty good with math and spelling as long as you are speaking directly in her direction. Unfortunately, she couldn’t tell me who won the Federer versus Djokovich match in the Australian Open. Ask her how much the Earth weighs or how many miles we are away from the sun. Check out some of the humorous questions and responses already posted on YouTube. She is smarter than a 4th grader.
Automation with Alexa
The next step was to control my Nest thermostat and other home automation devices via Alexa. Currently, there is no direct interface between Alexa and Nest so options are to connect each to a common platform and hope they work, or write custom code in the Alexa Skills Kit or the Nest Development Kit. I opted to start with the common platform route and specifically wanted to test the IFTTT integration before moving on to other platforms and coding. Setting up scenarios (or recipe) in IFTTT is of medium complexity depending upon the use case. The first recipe I created in IFTTT was to set the Nest thermostat to a specific temperature using a voice command from Alexa. After selecting the Amazon Echo Channel, users are asked to connect to the Alexa app, then to define triggers and subsequent actions. Triggers are specific spoken words or phrases that will kick off commands to Nest. Currently, there are only a few commands available for turning on the Nest fan and setting specific temperatures. As a result, multiple recipes need to be created to handle multiple temps and actions. There will likely be more commands supported in the future. Performance was pretty good. In most cases the Nest responded within a second after Alexa recognized the command. For the casual user, this works well. The Nest does rate limit after a dozen commands within a short period of time, so while testing the integration it’s common for Nest to not respond until enough time expires to reset the limit. Continuing with integration with SmartThings and Hue lighting.
Amazon recently reported more details on their plans for the product. The Echo recorded a huge growth rate in sales over the latest quarter largely due to holiday sales. U.S. customer reviews have been overwhelmingly positive with an average 4.5 out of 5 star ratings. Amazon has created a $100 million fund to encourage developers, manufacturers, and start-ups to create innovative solutions utilizing human voice. They have opened up its voice service to hardware makers to integrate to Alexa and provided a free SDK to help make it quicker to develop voice controlled solutions. There is still a lot of room for improvement but some of the building blocks are there to enable an ecosystem for creating innovative voice controlled solutions. Novice users can perform several useful tasks out of the box while developers have access to a development kit with samples, as well as the AWS Lamda web services. For those considering purchasing an Echo, just know that it does a very good job with routine tasks, requests, and reading audible books; however, some patience is needed to help Alexa increase its voice recognition accuracy. Actually, the Echo install process is easier than posting photos to this blog. Enjoy!