Home automation is the hottest thing in technology right now, and part of that industry’s prominence can be attributed to the Amazon Echo. Amazon isn’t just a platform for selling products these days, as it has long manufactured cutting-edge tech for mainstream consumers like the Kindle. And just recently it unveiled the Amazon Echo. Forget about using a web interface or even your smartphone to control your home automation devices. Now you have voice control – an AI named Alexa.

What Is It?

On the surface the Echo is simple—it’s a voice-controlled speaker. But upon closer inspection, that simplistic description doesn’t even begin to cover just what it can do for you and for your home automation. That’s because the Echo isn’t just a gadget. It’s basically an artificial entity. It even has a name.

When the Echo first came out in 2014, the reaction was mostly lukewarm. But that was because it was brand new. It soon became a big hit – like the Windows operating system or the smartphone.

Except with the Echo, there’s no lengthy learning curve. Now you don’t have to post “how do I (insert task)” question on various forums online. Alexa can do just about everything for you, and all you need to do is ask her by name. Just say her name and issue a command. She’s there listening for you to call her.

You can even interact with her so if you live alone it doesn’t feel all that lonesome. Feeling blue? Just say, “Alexa, tell me a joke,” and she will try to amuse you. Ask her a question, and she’ll research the answer for you. And that’s just a small sample of just how helpful Alexa can be. You just need to integrate as many home automation gadgets to its hub as you can afford, and they’ll all add to the “skills” that Alexa can do for you.

Design and Features

It’s a very basic looking gadget that’s cylindrical in shape. It stands 9.25 inches tall and its diameter is 3.27 inches. It’s also rather lightweight. Imagine a black Pringles can and you’ve pretty much figured out what it looks like.

Inside is 2.5-inch woofer along with a 2-inch tweeter. On top, you have a light ring and volume control, and under that you have 7 microphones with beam-forming tech and advanced noise-cancellation.

And so what all these mean is that you can talk to Alexa and she’ll hear you even if you’re playing music. The range is probably good enough that you can be heard from anywhere if you’re in a small apartment. And you can hear Alexa clearly too, as her voice offers 360-degree immersion for the room you’re in.

You just say “Alexa” followed by a command, and she’ll do as you command. That means she’s always listening for her name in whatever you say, and that takes a lot of power. It’s why the device comes with an electric plug, because batteries may not last all that long with this kind of constant monitoring.

When you want Alexa to stop whatever it is she’s doing, you also don’t have to specify it. You can just say “Alexa, stop!” and she’ll stop.

To make the Echo work as intended, you’ll need Wi-Fi Internet at home. It uses dual-band dual-antenna Wi-Fi so streaming is much faster and you suffer from fewer dropped connections. Then it also offers Bluetooth connectivity, so that the speakers can broadcast any songs playing from a tablet or smartphone.

When the Echo debuted in late 2014, it understood very little and it didn’t have much functionality. Amazon didn’t even let customers post their reviews on their website. But today, Amazon offers a lot of services and functions, and the Echo’s functionality has been amplified by many 3rd-pary manufacturers offering other services and integrations. Basically, you can use the Echo as a hub, or integrate it with another hub so you can use the hands-free vocal-control to manage your home automation system.

Devices with Echo Integration

Now that you have your Echo, what devices can you get that can integrate with it? Here are some options available, with many others already in the pipeline:

  • Voice Remote for Amazon Echo. This is the companion accessory for the Echo you should first get, especially when you live in something bigger than a cramped apartment. It can be frustrating if you’re beyond the effective range of hearing, and that means you’ll just have to use the Echo app instead. Or as an alternative, you can use the Voice Remote.
    This gadget essentially offers a microphone feature for the Echo. It provides you an app that let you use your smartphone as a microphone on demand even if the microphone feature has been turned off in the main Echo unit. As a bonus feature, you don’t need to say Alexa’s name when you give her a command.
  • Ford Sync. You get the Echo’s core features right in your Ford automobile, along with some driving-related features as well. All you need is the Ford Sync infotainment system. Then it’s like you now have the KITT 2000 (except it’s now Alexa) who can tell you if you need gas or an oil change. You can even have her start the car or adjust your home automation devices while you’re in the car.
  • Other automotive smart devices. If you don’t have the Ford Sync, you can use the Automatic device that connects to your car’s diagnostic port. With Garageio, you can have Alexa close and open your garage doors.
  • Smart Home Hubs. This is the main bridge that connects the Echo to all your other smart devices at home. Essentially, you connect the Echo to the hub, which is in turn connected to all the other devices. The hubs compatible with the Echo include Samsung SmartThings, Insteon, Wink, Vivint, Alarm.com, and a whole lot more.
  • Lights. Some lights can integrate with the Echo directly. These include Philips Hue and LIFX smart bulbs. With these smart light bulbs, Alexa can activate lights or even adjust them according to some preset conditions.
  • Switches. These are smart devices into which you plug your “dumb” appliances, and Alexa can turn them on and off for you. The outlets that can connect to Alexa directly include the Belkin WeMo and the TP-Link HS100.
  • Thermostats. The Ecobee3 Smarter WiFiThermostat was the first of its kind to directly link to Alexa. It was followed by the popular Nest Learning Thermostat and the Sensi WiFi Programmable Thermostat. You can now also have Alexa set the lights and fan speeds of the Haiku Home Ceiling Fan.
  • Sprinkler system. With the Rachio smart sprinkler system, you can tell Alexa to control the sprinkle zones and compensatefor any weather condition.
  • Alarm systems. Alexa can arm the Scout Alarm system directly (without a hub) when you’re away or when you’re at home, which can have different settings. She can even call for help!
  • Phone systems. Now you can have a phone conversation with Alexa as your speaker phone. You don’t have to hold anything to your ear.

Services and Skills

This is a very long list, and pretty soon it’ll probably seem like you’re trying to list all the programs you can run on your smartphone or Windows PC. But some of the more common services include:

  • Play music. Aside from playing your smartphone or tablet music, it can also access Amazon Prime Music, iHeartRadio, Pandora, Spotify, and TuneIn.
  • Connect through IFTTT. This is the service that enables you to connect to other smart devices even without official Alexa integration. IFTTT stands for If This Then That.
  • Read an audiobook out loud. It can even use its text to speech feature for your e-books.
  • Help with your finances. With the Capitol One Bank service, Alexa can now check your account balance, monitor your spending, and make bill payments.
  • Get an Uber.
  • Order pizza from Domino’s.

Alexa already has more than 100 skills right now. She can set the music and the lights, lock or open your doors, and wake you up in the morning. More and more third-party apps are launching various new skills for Alexa—and you can just sit there on your couch or lie in your bed, and relax.

Talking with Alexa

In some ways, Alexa does have a personality beyond the somewhat Canadian-ness of its voice. Amazon has preprogrammed it to respond to various questions that some people like to ask her. Alexa used to respond to such question by saying she doesn’t understand, but now she offers several amusing answers to questions such as:

  • Are you smart? (I try my best.)
  • Are you single? (I am attached. To the wall.)
  • Do blondes have more fun? (That’s a question for someone with hair.)
  • Who’s the fairest one of all? (More fair by far are you than all, so says the mirror on the wall.)

You can find a whole lot more responses to various questions and comments when you go online.

Playing with Alexa

If you’re bored, then Alexa may be able to play some games with you. These are mental games, however, so you’ll have to use your imagination a bit.

  • One game you can try out is Tic Tac Toe. To begin a game, you have to say “Alexa, ask Tic Tac Toe for a game.” Then you can start by marking the position, such as center, top right, or bottom left.
  • You can also play blackjack once you’ve enabled the skill Beat the Dealer. Then say “Alexa, ask the dealer to play Blackjack,” and she’ll speak your cards and ask if you want to hit or stand. She’ll then tell you what the dealer had.
  • Alexa can also play a form of 20 Questions. You have to think of a character, then Alexa will ask you a series of yes/no questions. You’ll be surprised to discover how hard it is to keep her from guessing who your character is.
  • You can even have Alexa roll an imaginary pair of dice for you. You can play imaginative Craps, or have it roll a dozen 9-sided dice for your D&D games.

And there’s a Simon says feature too. So if you have a son named James, you can say, “Alexa, Simon Says James, do your homework,” into your Voice Remote while you’re in another part of the house. Your son will then hear Alexa say, “James, do your homework.” It’s not really a game, but for parents this can be a fun feature nonetheless.

Areas for Improvement

Of course, it’s not yet all that perfect. You can’t change her voice into a man’s, nor can you change Alexa’s name to other than “Amazon” or “Echo”. Wouldn’t it be cool if you can call her HAL? And what about having James Earl Jones’s voice and you can ask “Lord Vader” to do stuff for you at home.

It can be tiresome having to say “Alexa” all the time. It can also lead to some misunderstanding if you have someone with you called Alex, as Alexa may think that you’re calling to her when you’re not.

Conclusion

Having Alexa in your home is like being Tony Stark with Jarvis helping you, or as if you’re a Starfleet officer with the onboard ship computer complying with your commands. Now you’re the lord of your castle, and Alexa is your loyal and obedient servant. Whatever you say goes, and the feeling can be undeniably empowering. So get your Amazon Echo and discover the many joys of having your own genie in your own home do things for you.

It may not help with getting you off the couch, but then again the point of home automation is to make life easier for you. And Alexa definitely understands the point of her existence as well. Like the members of the Bene Gesserit (ask Alexa about this), she exists only to serve.