Smart-ish Home

Amazon Echo and Google HomeA few weeks before Christmas, Scott came to my place with an Amazon Echo as an early Christmas present for us. Then I got a Google Home from my sister and brother-in-common-law for Christmas! And then Scott got me a starter kit of wifi-enabled light bulbs that can be controlled by the Echo and/or the Home. So (a) I was spoiled at Christmas and (b) I can now walk around my condo speaking various commands and having things happen and I feel vaguely like I’m in Star Trek. Except that what these “smart home” devices can do is far more limited than all the things I want them to do. As one of my colleagues at work, who also has a Google Home, said, “I’m not too worried about the robots taking over yet.”

Things that I can get my smart home devices to do just by saying words aloud:

  • turn on my wifi-enabled light bulbs ((Which are currently in the lamps in my bedroom, living room, and office.)), either individually or collectively
    • I especially like being able to say “turn off all the lights” when I’m either going to bed or leaving the condo, rather than having to go around and turn off each one individually like a sucker
  • dim, brighten, or change the “colour temperature” of the light1
  • hear the news2, the weather forecast, or the score in the Canucks game
  • turn on the radio
  • find out the hours for a business I want to go to3
  • how long it will take me to get somewhere by transit or driving
  • write a voice memo4
  • add stuff to my shopping list
  • set an alarm or a timer

I’ve also set up my bedroom lamp to slowly come on in the morning to simulate a sunrise, in the hopes that it will ease me into waking up.

Stuff my smart home devices do, but poorly:

  • Google Home can add an event to my Google calendar5, but it seems to struggle with translating my words correctly, so I usually have to go in and fix it. And I have trouble getting out all the words that it wants6 in the way it wants to hear them, though I suppose I will get used to that.
  • Give me information that I ask it for – sometimes it gets what I’m asking it for, but often it just gives an “I don’t understand” response.

Stuff my smart home devices won’t do that I want them to do:

  • control the thermostat (because I don’t yet have a smart thermostat)
  • make my coffee
  • do the dishes or the laundry
  • feed the cats
  • clean the litter box
  • take more than one command at a time!

That last one is irritating, because sometime you want to do something like: turn on the lights, set them to cool white, turn on the music and set the volume to 50%. But the Echo or the Home won’t respond to all those commands if you issue them in one sentence – it will only do the first thing. You have to say each thing individually and you have to say “Hey Google” or “Alexa” before each one. Similarly, I can’t get Google Home to add more than one thing to my shopping list at a time. I read online that if you pause between each item, it will add them as separate items, but that didn’t work for me. When I tried, it only managed to separate out one item:

Unsuccessful attempt to get Google Home to add multiple items to my shopping list at the same time

I tried say “comma” in between each word, but it listed everything as one item with commas:

Unsuccessful attempt to get Google Home to add multiple items to my shopping list at the same time

And I tried saying semicolon, but then it just wrote out the word “semicolon”!

Unsuccessful attempt to get Google Home to add multiple items to my shopping list at the same time

Also, it irritates me that I can’t change the default voice on either device. I changed the voice of Siri on my iPhone to a British male ages ago because I don’t like that digital assistants default to use female voices and reinforce stereotypes of female subservience, but neither the Amazon Echo nor the Google Home will let you do that7.

Anyway I’m sure these things we get smarter as more and more people use them (and yes, I know that I now have two giant corporations listening to everything I say). For now, I think I’m going to get myself a few more my wifi-enabled light bulbs so that I can use my voice to control all the lights that are a pain in the butt to switch on and off right now and some “smart” outlets to control a few other devices. Now if only they would invent a wifi-enabled self-cleaning litter box!

  1. I don’t have the light bulbs that have all the different colours, because I can’t imagine I’d often want red, blue, green, etc. lights, but the bulbs I do have can vary from a cool to a warm light, depending on the mood you want. []
  2. I like to get my morning “news briefing” as I’m getting ready for work in the morning. []
  3. E.g., what time does the Safeway close today? []
  4. I use an IFTTT applet that records all the memos that I say to it throughout the day and then emails them to me at 10 pm []
  5. Using an IFTTT applet. []
  6. The event name, date, time, and the right trigger words to get it into the right calendar (as I have several different calendars in my Google calendar (e.g., a work calendar, a personal calendar, a teaching calendar, a sports calendar, etc.) []
  7. Apparently you can switch the voice of the the Google Home assistant to male in the US, but not yet in Canada. []