Home Automation

A game-changing new addition arrives just in time for the holidays.

A  short nine months ago, I wrote an article for the March 2016 issue of Biz New Orleans about the Internet of Things (IoT). While acknowledging some of the benefits of connecting devices together, much of my focus was on the fact that IoT, particularly in the context of home automation, is not quite ready for primetime due to a lack of standards, a lack of true integration, and the unreliability of many of the products.  

I hinted at, but did not explicitly point out, that even when everything works as it should, the process of finding my phone or tablet, unlocking it, launching an app and then finally controlling something is often less convenient than simply flipping a switch. In other words, home automation can be more gimmicky than useful.

All of which, I think, is about to change.

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When the Amazon Echo was first announced two years ago, I thought it, too, was a gimmick. Two hundred dollars for a voice-controlled speaker did not get me excited. It wasn’t until Amazon announced the new $50 Echo Dot on Oct. 3 of this year, followed by the Google Home launch event the next day, that I started seriously thinking about what voice control in the home really means. What I realized is that it’s precisely what can make home automation consistently more convenient.  

I began to tackle the question of whether that realization is an abstract idea to stow away for the future or today’s reality. Soon my six pack of Amazon Echo Dots arrived, and “Alexa” became the new member of the household. (Amazon’s announced Sonos integration kept me from waiting for Google Home to be released at the time).

Setting up Alexa is easy for anyone reasonably technically inclined. The first out-of-the-box tasks that everyone seems to mention are getting weather reports, tracking grocery lists and tasks, and setting kitchen timers, all of which work as expected.  

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My kids have also found it useful while doing homework. “Alexa, what’s 53 times 78? Alexa, what’s the definition of ‘forthcoming’?”  

So far, so good.  

Next, I started connecting Alexa to other devices. My experience with the Philips Hue, Logitech Harmony and Yonomi “skills” (Yonomi enables Sonos control until the official Sonos integration is released next year) has been mostly positive. While each took some tweaking to get everything working reliably, in each case the difficulty lay entirely with the app or device being controlled — not with Alexa.

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And the key difference is that the end result is worth the effort.

Before, when the smart lights didn’t always respond, we just stopped using them as smart lights and went back to flipping switches. Voice control, as opposed to mobile app control, supplied the motivation to invest in more bulbs to improve the network’s reliability.

Similarly, before Alexa arrived, I hadn’t bothered trying to automate the entertainment center. Having lost count of the number of times I showed the less technical members of the house how to set the TV and receiver to the correct inputs to watch what they wanted to watch, I figured investing time and money on a smart remote would likely be met with skepticism, if not outright hostility. But Alexa was the motivation to buy a Logitech Harmony Hub, and now we have “Alexa, turn on the TV.” “Alexa, turn on the Wii.” “Alexa, turn on NBC.” Who can argue with that?

Alexa is not perfect — too much background noise will throw her off; there’s a lot that she doesn’t yet know how to do; and if you don’t know the right phrase, she won’t understand you — but she is ready today to start making your life just a little easier.

Steven Ellis has spent the last 16 years working at the intersection of business and technology for Bellwether Technology in New Orleans, where he serves as the company’s vice president.


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