Have you heard boasts from friends and acquaintances about their oh-so-modern, and ever-so-high-tech “smart homes”? Do you wonder what they’re talking about when they mention having smart alarms, reminders, locks, music systems, appliances, cleaning tools, learning aids, calendars, and more?
Have you ever felt a bit intimidated at not knowing exactly what all the fuss is about? Now is your chance to get caught up on the 411 of what smart homes are all about, and how you can turn your house into a “hub of intelligent technology” without spending much money at all. How is that possible?
It’s possible because of some very amazing tech devices and software from Amazon, called Alexa and Echo. They sort of naturally go together because they’re made by the same company, but there is a difference. You see, “Alexa” is the formal name of the AI (artificial intelligence) software that runs the show, while the “Echo” is the name for a line of products, like small speakers, that let you hear and interact with Alexa via your own voice. Alexa uses advance AI features to find information and uses electronic systems to help you set and control devices in your home.
In short, Alexa is the brains of the system, and the Echo is the device or devices you use to communicate with Alexa. That’s why you often hear people in smart houses say things to their Echo speakers/microphones like, “Alexa, tell me the current temperature in Cleveland.” They’re using the Echo built-in microphone to transmit their voice to the Alexa’s brain, after which Alexa looks up the information and has the Echo speaker transmit the answer to you in just a second or two, “The current temperature in Cleveland is 40 degrees Fahrenheit.”
Now that you know what Alexa and Echo are all about, the obvious question is, “How do I use these clever pieces of technology to turn my own home into a super-powered smart house?” Well, even though the technology behind the Alexa software is hugely complex, putting it into operation in your house or apartment or dorm room is not. If you can read simple installation directions, own any kind of computer, and have a few minutes to spend setting things up, you’re good to go.
What might you want to do? Creating a smart home means making your own decisions about how you like to live. With Alexa and Echo in place, you can set sophisticated alarms and reminders about all sorts of things and the system will tell you, using the Echo voice speaker, at the appropriate time.
In fact, you can connect every appliance in your home to come on and shut off whenever you wish, sort of like setting a programmable thermostat to turn your heater on when the temperature goes below a pre-set level. But with a smart home, it’s not just the thermostat you’re dealing with, but every single electrical device in your home, from stereo systems, TVs, fans, lamps, garage doors, smart locks, refrigerators, other computers, printers, coffee machines, air conditioners, outdoor security lights, surveillance cameras, and more.
So, you see, it’s all up to you. Once you have Alexa installed on a computer in your home, or just on your smartphone, you can decide how many or how few electrical devices to hook up to the system. Some people only use Alexa as a voice-command information tool, while other people choose to hook up every household device to the system and literally make their living space into a modern-day “intelligence center.” Take your pick. Use Alexa however you wish.
Here’s a brief rundown of some common ways people use Echo and Alexa to get through a typical day, beginning with waking up in the morning. The infographic will walk you through each phase of creating your very own smart home 🙂
The beauty of Alexa’s AI software is that it allows you to use your own voice to create alarms to wake up in the morning. Actually, you can use the alarm system to remind your of anything throughout the day, not just to wake up. In the Alexa app, go to the “Reminders and Alarms” section and you’ll be able to manage all your choices from there. You’ll be able to create custom responses and much more.
This reminders feature of the app is actually one of the newer features. It’s set up essentially like many of the other voice reminder systems and works pretty much the same way. You start out by making a so-called “generic reminder” by speaking the words, “Alexa, create a new reminder,” into the Echo speaker/microphone. The system will ask you what the purpose of the reminder is and when it should be set for. You can short-cut this step by just saying something like, “Alexa, remind me to call my brother Mike next Tuesday at 4:15 p.m.”
Alexa recognizes the words “reminder,” and “alarm,” and all derivatives of them, as well as times, dates, minutes, hours, years, etc. That makes it easy to set any kind of reminder or alarm you need. Just remember to begin your command with phrasing like, “Alexa… reminder… alarm… for… o’clock….day of the week.” It’s even possible to ask the system something like, “Alexa, what are my reminders for tomorrow?” or “Alexa, what reminders are there for this weekend?”
Note that all reminders only work on the speaker/microphone device your tell them to, not every mic/speaker in your house. You can also create reminders and alarms manually, without speaking to the system. Just go to the app on your phone or computer, open it, tap the hamburger icon (it’s on the upper left), and choose “Alerts and Alarms.”
Then simply tap, “Add reminder.” After that, you’ll need to give the reminder a specific name, time, and date. Finally, tap the device name on the top and choose the Alexa device you want to add the reminder to. Don’t forget to click “save” when you are through!
This part of the app is pretty self-explanatory and will walk you through setting up new reminders and alarms, editing the ones your have, or deleting them if you change your mind. So, now is the time to tell the app what you want your morning to look like. Tell it to wake you up at a designated time with a voice alert or alarm.
Are you a forgetful type? Would you like to give Alexa a single command like “Start my day” to get your morning off to a good beginning? It’s simple to do this sort of thing for any time of the day or night. For example, you can go to the Settings section of the app and click on “Routines.”
From there, you’ll be able to make a list of as many functions, all customized, as you want. For example, you can include multiple things under the reminder “Alexa, start my day.” While in the “Routines” tab of the app, simply tap the plus sign in the top right and you’ll be able to create a fresh routine. Add your special command, like “Alexa, let’s begin the day,” and then list out what actions you want Alexa to take based on that command. You could tell the app to start your coffee machine, tell your the local weather report, and turn on the kitchen lights whenever you say, “Let’s begin the day.”
It’s easy to see how fine-tuned you can make your commands. You can teach Alexa to do just about anything based on any command you give it. With customized reminders throughout the day, you can have Alexa play music, ring an alarm, or sound a buzzer before it tells you, in words, what you need to do at that very minute. The control is in your hands because you are the one who decides what Alexa will do in order to jog your memory when the time is right.
Think of it like making a written plan of your day, any day of the week, but instead of putting it on paper, you’re putting it into a highly sophisticated AI system that works like a humanoid robot to tell you what you need to do from minute to minute. You’ll never forget an appointment again.
You can connect any smart device to Alexa, including things like refrigerators, ovens, TVs, lighting, mirrors, thermostats, door locks, and more. The kitchen is one place where Alexa really shows its intelligent muscle because it can virtually organize any cooking or meal prep activity to make it less of a chore and less of a hassle.
Tell Alexa to remind you when your smart fridge is low on a particular food item. If you want, you can have the system set up meal and menu suggestions based on your preferences, whether you’re a vegan, vegetarian, want low-sodium choices, or prefer to eat anything at all. In addition to being your personal sous chef, Alexa can easily control your TV based on your pre-set preferences, like coming on two minutes before your favorite show and shutting off as soon as it is over.
If you have installed smart lighting, Alexa can command every light in the house based on your desires. That way, you can minimize electricity usage and lower your utility bills. There are many ways, in addition to this simple method, to make your home a more efficient user of energy with the help of Alexa. One is by using Alexa to control the thermostat based on outdoor temperature.
If it’s very hot outside, you can set Alexa to bring the AC on until the indoor temperature reaches a designated level. That way, you’ll only be running AC or heat when the outdoor extremes are reached, and thus won’t ever be wasting electricity. Combining a smart, programmable thermostat with the Alexa system is an ideal way to turn your living space into both a smart home and a green one.
Do you like to have a clean house but hate vacuuming? That’s a common sentiment. This feature of Alexa will help you remember to order cleaning supplies, turn on the robot vacuum, create a cleaning schedule, send out your dry cleaning, remind you to do the laundry, and help you develop a master plan for keeping everything spotless.
Simply say, “Alexa, start the Cleaning Buddy,” From there, the app will walk you through a pre-set system for setting up a comprehensive cleaning schedule for laundry, dishes, bedding, the refrigerator, floors, carpets, bathrooms, other rooms, windows, etc. The app will also help you set up your Roomba or Neato robot vacuums, schedule their cleaning days, and help you order cleaning supplies via voice command from Amazon. For that last bit of magic, you’ll need to go to your Amazon account and set up voice-purchasing.
With cleaning chores, as is the case with all other tasks you want Alexa to do, once you go into the app and find the main tab for that particular function and tap it, the system will logically guide you through each step. That way, you don’t need to worry about every little detail. All the “intelligence” is built into the app, which is one reasons they call Alexa an AI, artificial intelligence, software application.
If safety and security are important to you, you’ll love this part of the app. You can use voice commands to set smart locks to open and close based on specific times, or only when you give the order in real time. Plus, Alexa can control your smart camera to notify you when it detects motion on your front or back porch. Likewise, the system can be set to announce the presence of someone on your doorstep.
Go the the Alexa app menu, tap the “Smart home” tab, click on “devices,” and then choose “lock.” After that, all you need to do is select the “edit” tab and follow the prompts. Tapping “camera” will let you choose your preferences with regard to the security camera. Don’t forget to save before closing the app so that your security preferences are make permanent, at least until you decide to change them in the future.
If you like to cook but aren’t exactly celebrity chef material yet, Alexa is your best friend in the kitchen. In addition to all the other chores the app helps you with, listed above, Alexa is your very own cooking coach. You can ask the system, “Alexa, what is a good recipe for Irish potato soup?” It will give you the basic ingredients and tell you how long it takes to prepare the soup.
If you have a smart fridge, Alexa will be able to help you decide if you have enough of the basic ingredients to get started. If not, it will create a shopping list for you so you can head to the store and buy what you need right away. Then, once you’re back in the kitchen, Alexa will walk you through the recipe step by step so your soup turns out exactly right. Alexa can deliver answers to your questions via text on your computer screen or via voice. It’s up to you to decide how to interact with Alexa.
Alexa does so much, it’s hard to keep it all straight in your mind if you’re new to the system. Here’s a quick review: Amazon’s Echo is a special kind of smart speakers brought onto the market in order to allow voice-controlled interaction with Alexa, which is the world’s best-known IPA, intelligent personal assistant. When you say, “Alexa” out loud, the system recognizes and understands your commands after that point.
As noted in detail above, you can do all sorts of things with your voice when you speak directly to Alexa via an Echo speaker/microphone device. For example, you can find out about the weather, order things online, listen to your favorite music, set alarms and reminders, and organize a cleaning routine.
Another important task you can use Alexa for is setting “parental controls” to make sure your children can only access parts of the system that are safe for them. In addition to the built-in parental controls that come with Alexa, you can add many others depending on your needs and desires.
To set parental controls on your Echo device, you’ll need to create an Amazon Household account and log into it. From there, go to “accounts and lists” and click on “your account.” Under the “shopping programs and rentals” tab, you will need to click “Amazon Household,” and then, “Add a child.” After entering the child’s details, you’ll be able to easily set up controls under “manage your content and devices” in order to restrict your child’s access to any content you’ve previously purchased. You can also control the specific devices they’ll be able to use to access particular content.
Parental controls are the most effective way to control what your kids can order. It’s nice to know that you can prevent them from buying inappropriate content of any kind. Further, these controls let you restrict a child’s access to devices when they should be asleep or doing their homework, for instance. For some of the more advanced parental control functions, users need to subscribe, for a small monthly fee, to an Amazon app called Free Time, which has its own dashboard and easy-to-navigate controls settings.
It’s easy to create routines in the app just by setting voice commands for all your smart devices. The Amazon Smart Plug will help you to control devices like stereos, lights, coffee makers, cameras, TVs, and more. All you need is the Alexa app and a voice-enabled device like Echo.
The really cool thing is creating “routines.” That’s when you instruct the system to do one thing after another action takes place. Here’s how you do it:
On your mobile device, go to the Alexa app menu and choose “routines.” Then click on the “plus sign” icon on the upper right. Select the wording, “When this happens” and then decide how you want to “trigger” that routine. If you want something to happen based on a motion sensor, you’ll need to select whatever contact or motion sensor you have already installed. From here, choose “Add action” and pick whatever action you want to be the final stage of the routine. You can even tell the system to notify you whenever a sensor is triggered while you are on this panel of the app. Finally, you’ll have to choose which device controls this particular routine by selecting “From” and selecting the device. You are all done after you tap the “create” command.
After you make the decisions about your new smart home, what’s next? Well, most people who decide to create a smart home do so gradually, a step at a time. One reason for this strategy is that it gives you time to get accustomed to each fresh addition to your tech “family.”
A common, simple thing for many homeowners is lighting. Using Alexa and Echo to turn lights on and off based on a predefined schedule only takes a few minutes. In fact, if you set the system to stick to a strict schedule, except when you use your voice to over-ride it, you can save a serious amount of money on your utility bills. Another facet of this early phase of building the tech for your smart home is the thermostat. After that, it’s pretty common to include a smart lock on your front and back doors into the Alexa system, as well as the kitchen appliances you use the most, like toasters, blenders, and microwave ovens.
By taking it slow and adding a few pieces to your smart home system every month or so, you’ll have a fascinating array of high-tech features to show for your effort by year’s end. Probably, you’ll want to incorporate improvements, fixes, and new features as they come onto the market. Since Alexa made its debut in November of 2014, the company has added hundreds of items to the mix. So, once you get your smart home the way you want it, stay tuned to Sound Out Media for the latest Alexa and Echo news. The story of the Echo Family is going to continue…
Hi, David Lahav Here. I'm Sound Out Media Founder and a BIG music gadgets geek. I love everything from futuristic music instruments to the silliest pig-shaped headphones. Welcome to my world!