This coming week my life will change and will supposedly never be the quite same again. I’m about to get my very own electronic personal assistant in the form of Amazon’s Echo device with Alexa.
Alexa will henceforth be my friend, my slave, my fount of all knowledge, ever listening waiting to obey my every command and capable of running my house for me. That’s the promise I’ve been sold on and I’m going to be one of the very first in the UK to receive my Echo as Amazon are going to rush it to me on release day, Wednesday the 28th.
I’m already starting to wonder what Alexa will actually be able to do for me though. I don’t live in London so there are no Uber cars that Alexa can summon for me – ordering a taxi is off the menu. Also food is problematic – Just Eat is Amazon’s chosen partner and whilst they might be great in the nation’s capital, around here there are only a handful of Indian restaurants and a kebab shop available to order from. It’s Sunday lunch time and they’re almost all currently shut anyway.
Still where I really want Alexa to help me is running my house and being my personal butler. That’s after all where these artificial intelligence devices should excel isn’t it? I’ve been sold a false promise though, my life won’t change that much as Alexa won’t be able to do very much for me at all. I’ve been trying to find ways to help Alexa make my life better but solutions are a bit thin on the ground:
Heating and hot water
Thanks to a British Gas company called Hive, I can order a Hive Active Heating pack for £249 along which will enable Alexa to turn on my radiators, adjust the temperature and heat the hot water.
There are a number of solutions for lights such as Philips Hue and Hive Active Lights (£19 per bulb). These will work just fine but are pretty much limited to a standard bayonet or screw fitting. If you’ve got the small bayonet or any of the other five sizes of Edison screw bulbs then there are no solutions. You can also forget all GU (Halogen and LED spotlight) bulbs along with fluorescent tubes.
It would appear that to automate half the lights in my house I either need to change almost all of the light fittings or wait until someone invents a smart switch to replace my standard light switches. Frankly, though there are solutions available, I want the same manufacturer’s kit as my heating and hot water so that I can use the same smart hub to run it all and interface with Alexa. Hive just don’t have the range currently.
Hive Active Plugs (£39 each) will enable Alexa to turn devices on and off for me, but here’s the disappointment. If I want Alexa to boil the kettle, I’ll need to have previously filled it with water. Turning my TV on will simply apply power to the TV but it will still be in standby mode. Active Plugs are good for things such as desk lamps which just have an on/off state, they’re not quite as good for anything else.
Of course I want to say “Alexa, put on the BBC news” or “Alexa, turn the TV on when Dragon’s Den starts”, but this it would appear is nigh on impossible.Telling Alexa to record a program because I’m going to be out or to display a web page on my TV to illustrate a search result she’s just described to me is a pipe dream for the future.
I’ve been searching for a smart set top box which Alexa could control but these simply don’t appear to exist. Just getting Alexa to turn on a TV is problematic, we know we can apply power to the TV but it would appear that you need an infra red (IR) blaster hooked up to Alexa to actually take the TV out of standby and select an input or a channel.
IR Blasters are just too unreliable – what if I stand in the way or it gets knocked out of alignment? Where’s the feedback to Alexa to confirm the action has been completed? Why is it all so complicated to configure in the first place and this is just the TV, we haven’t tried to hook up the inevitable set top box yet.
Conclusion: My life is not about to change forever
If on top of Amazon Echo, I spend an additional odd £500 quid with Hive I’ll get a certain amount of home automation. Alexa will be able to control my central heating and there’ll be a few lights and appliances Echo can turn on and off for me.
Home entertainment and displaying the web on my TV just isn’t going to happen in the short term so far as I can tell. Regardless of the price I’d be willing to pay, there just don’t appear to be any Echo friendly products which can give Alexa control my of TV and set top box.
We’ve asked Amazon for some advice and help on choosing devices which will work with Amazon Echo, but information is very thin on the ground. Even Amazon appear to have a very limited number of employees in the UK who really know how Alexa Skills and third party products integrate.
If you know of (or work for) any suppliers of home automation products compatible with Alexa we’d love to hear from you. Tell us how you could automate my life, if you could enable Alexa to control my TV and what I could retro fit to my house to make Amazon Echo a product worth having rather than as it sadly appears it will be, a bit of a novelty that doesn’t actually do very much.