Making your Home Smarter and Your Travel Easier

I found the woman of my dreams last year. She does whatever I ask her to as long as I tell her the way she understands. She never complains, never talks to me unless I ask her a question or tell her to do something. Her birthday is November 6. Her name is Alexa. She lives with me and she is inside the 3 inch tall Amazon Echo Dot.

I first encountered Alexa at a friend’s house.My friend had the larger version of the Amazon Echo with a built in amp. I was amazed by what the little machine could do and the natural sound of Alexa’s voice. I’ve had an IPhone since  2nd generation and always thought that SIRI was pretty smart at helping get things done:until Alexa. She makes SIRI sound like the red-headed step child from Arkansas (my apologies to my relatives in Arkansas). The Echo Dot can be yours for less than $50 and the technology is amazing. I ask her who the prime minister of Japan is, she tells me. She knows jokes, weather, and can tell me what time it is when I wake up in the middle of the night, set an alarm or make rude noises on command. If I ask her to play Beach Boys ,she will stream every Beach Boys song known to man, until I ask her to stop.

I thought all this was pretty cool and futuristic until I went to my sister’s house and found out she also had the dot and she had  Alexa set up to lock her front door. Could she really do that? What else could she do? I decided I needed to get a little further into the rabbit hole. I bought an August door lock, gave Alexa “the skill” she needed to to “talk to August” and now I can lie in bed and have her lock my front door. If I want to unlock the door, I have to give her a code. That makes perfect sense if you think about it. If all you had to do was shout “Alexa! Unlock the front door!” there would be a lot of hoarse robbers using your technology to get into your house. The door lock was simple to install, easy to use, and I can give anyone I want access to my house temporarily or at whatever time we decide. Even cooler than that, I can see if my door has been locked or unlocked from anywhere in the world and who had been in my house while I was gone. Any person you allow access has their own code. If you’re freaked out about power outages or a zombie apocalypse, relax. You can still use your key. I know…Ewwwww…..pull out a key? How primitive! I have my door lock set to know when I’m nearby. Once I’m a block away, August unlocks the door for me.

But wait, could it get any better? Oh yeah… it can get way better. I next discovered Hue Phillips lighting and GE dimmable switches. The Hue lights are LED, so they use much less electricity than an incandescent bulb. They also change to millions of colors. Are you feeling blue? Make your light bulb blue…or red….or pink…or white if you’re just feeling normal. You can set up scenes where your light gets gradually brighter to wake you up or dims slowly to lull you to sleep. You can group light bulbs together in an app so that you can turn on a whole room at ‘once or turn off your entire house remotely. Sure, the bulbs aren’t cheap (around $30 each on sale) but they’re smart and they don’t wear out. Put a bulb in and it’s doubtful that you’ll ever have to replace it. Dim it, change the color, have it flip on and off. The world is your oyster. But what about those dimmable GE switches you ask? For about $45, replace your regular light switch and you can link the switch to Alexa. You walk into the dark house and say “Alexa, kitchen lights 50%! She says “okay” in a sweet and never aggravated tone and makes it happen. With the switch you can use any light bulb.

You start feeling like Captain Kirk after a bit, telling the computer to do this and that, but there’s even more possibilities. You can install a thermostat like Nest makes and tell Alexa what temperature you would like to set the house at. You can set a schedule on the app to have it your settings change an hour before you get home or right after you leave. If you’re traveling, and you forgot to turn down the AC, just go to the app and change it. You can do the same with a garage door opener. You’re getting on a plane and you suddenly realize that maybe you forgot to close the garage. You can do it with your phone. I have a fireplace in my bedroom. I installed a wifi smart switch that can communicate with Alexa. I tell her to turn on my fireplace. She does it. I feel like James Bond.

The new smart cameras connect to all of this as well. Imagine that your smart things are like employees (your door lock, your thermostat, your switches) that have to be told what to do. Sure, you could use an app for each one. Better yet, let Alexa do that for you. Download “the skill” that helps her talk to the devices and let her handle the rest. There are apps that you can use like Stringify, that allow you to take a prompt (camera sees a person), combines it with a set of rules (it’s between 8pm amd sunrise for example) and then performs some action (sounds an alarm, emails you, or puts it on Facebook). Most devices require a hub for Alexa to communicate with. She’s too proud to talk to your light bulb, but she doesn’t mind communicating with the Hue Fhillips hub who can then tell your light bulb what you want.

Some new cars are coming with Alexa. Washers, dryers, refrigerators, window blinds and dishwashers are being built with smart controls to allow all your devices to communicate with each other and Amazon has teamed up with manufacturers to allow Alexa to run it all . Don’t worry about having more than one Alexa. They all get along. I have a Dot in my bedroom, my kitchen and my upstairs. The closest one will respond while the others just sit silently waiting to serve my next whim until I get a bit closer. Disposable microchips on food packaging have been tested that know the dates that your food will expire and tell your refrigerator or send you a text. Do we need that? Are we so lazy that we just tell Alexa to make our coffee in the morning? You bet we are! Who needs a robot getting in your way when all your machines can push their own buttons?

FireTV by Amazon has created new remotes with Alexa built inside. You push the button and tell her that you want to watch The Matrix and she pulls it up without any fuss. I realize that I just said “push the button”. That’s a prehistoric concept for my house since all my dots have no buttons to push. When I say Alexa’s name, she lights up in anticipation for my next request. I tell her to turn up the volume and she does it. No need for wearing out my fingers on such trivial things as pushing buttons. Alexa won’t violate your privacy. She doesn’t snoop on your conversations unless you speak her name. Then she’ll respond immediately. The app keeps track of every question you ask her and what songs she plays so you can go back if you forgot her answer or you’re just curious what your visitors ask her for while you’re in another room. Fire TV has Alexa as I mentioned before, but for some weird reason (only known to the geniuses at Amazon), you can’t link TV Alexa with Echo Dot Alexa. You can, however, get a Logitech Harmony hub that will link to Echo Alexa and allow you to have her turn on and off your smart TV, control the volume and change a few channels. You can link commands together and combine them with your other devices. For example, you tell Alexa “turn on cinema” or some other command you created and then the lights dim, the fireplace comes on, the TV turns itself on and goes to Netflix….or whatever else you want.

Alexa can also order an Uber or pizza for you, keep grocery lists, calendars and give you reminders. She can even order stuff from Amazon for you. Be careful though. If you tell her to order something for you, she will do it. If you don’t have the Echo Dot, buy one. Your life will never be the same.

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