Alexa enters home automation

Alexa is Amazon’s intelligent voice service for the home. Computer Weekly explores its potential for home automation

The Echo Dot is Amazon’s £49 entry into the world of voice assistance for the home. In essence, it provides a gateway to Alexa, Amazon’s voice assistant.

It has a tiny built-in speaker and microphone and offers bluetooth audio connectivity to connect to larger speakers. There are numerous apps, or skills, that Alexa can use, offering various degrees of usefulness and entertainment value.

Out of the box, you can ask Alexa questions such as “Alexa, what’s the time?” or “Alexa, what’s the weather like?” and it will respond appropriately, based on your location. You can also ask it to set a timer, do sums or currency conversions, and it will play internet radio stations or Amazon Prime music.

It can tell jokes that are on par with those found in Christmas crackers, and will sing festive songs, providing endless entertainment for a six-year-old child.

Alexa can also link to your Google calendar, so you can ask it to tell you what meetings you have. For more complicated queries, Amazon relies on helper apps from third parties. The usefulness of these will depend on the level with which the app developers have integrated voice control into their software.

Alexa can also control home automation products such as Philips Hue lights, Wemo and SmartThings devices, as well as Nest and Hive central heating controllers.

Control of these devices relies heavily on device makers supporting Alexa, or community-minded developers sharing their code hacks in open source repositories such as GitHub.

Faking a Philips Hue to control more things

One such project is HA-Bridge. This is a Java server that emulates a Philips Hue bridge. It can run on any device with a Java runtime environment, including Raspberry Pi.

HA-Bridge essentially fools Alexa into controlling devices as if they were Philips Hue lights – which means you can switch them on and off and dim/set light intensity. It can send HTTP put and get commands to devices that will accept them, and can be made to run scripts.

In my set up, I can ask: “Alexa, switch on bedroom radio” or “Alexa set bedroom radio to six” to power on and set the volume level of my internet radio. To switch on the TV, I would say: “Alexa, switch on Freeview”.

Getting these things to work requires a bit of Googling and trial and error. For instance, on GitHub there is an HTTP application programming interface (API) for internet radios that use a chipset from Frontier Silicon. 

Towards the end of December 2016, IFTTT became available in the UK, as did support for Logitech’s Harmony Hub universal remote control. These make it relatively easy to extend Alexa’s skills without the need to delve into code hacking. Therefore, it is now possible to ask Alexa to switch on BBC iPlayer or get it to do things such as flicker Hue lights in response to the timer you asked it to set, counting down to zero.

Early days for Alexa

Amazon has put a lot of effort into trying to get the public interested in Alexa. However, it is early days.

With Echo Dot, Alexa offers the tantalising opportunity of personal voice control at a relatively low entry cost, but don’t be fooled by the initial outlay.

You will need to spend at least £180 for the Philips Hue starter kit and hub to get going for voice-controlled lighting, while a Logitech Harmony universal remote for voice-activated TV and home entertainment will set you back a further £180. The cost of Wemo or Samsung’s SmartThings IoT products, which will also work via Alexa, quickly add up.

However, if you already have these things, Alexa can extend their usability and provide integration between different home automation systems. For instance, it is far easier to ask Alexa to dim the lights than use the Hue app.

If you are happy to figure out how things work and don’t mind Googling, then something such as HA-Bridge extends Alexa’s usefulness without breaking the bank.

For instance, I can control Somfy electric blinds and curtains through Alexa, thanks to my three-year-old internet-connected HomeWizard hub, which conveniently communicates via HTTP. Getting it to work with the tech available off-the-shelf today would probably cost several hundred pounds.

Software is key

Amazon is spending a lot of time getting developers up to speed on how to write effective voice-controlled user interfaces, which means migrating existing apps is not going to be a straightforward job. How the user will communicate with the app needs to be thought through, and this is very different compared with a GUI experience.

Some of the apps available, such as National Rail, are simply interactive voice-response applications reworked for Alexa. While this offers a way for the app to be available as a skill on Alexa, the user experience is extremely poor compared with what is possible when voice control is designed from the bottom-up into an app.

In November 2016, the company’s annual developer conference, Re:invent, dedicated a number of stream to Alexa APIs and voice control.

Voice control in the home has the potential to become seamless and intuitive. But it is going to take an awful lot of industry collaboration to make it work seamlessly out-of-the-box.

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