Monthly Archives: March 2016

Official Alexa on a Raspberry Pi

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how to Access Alexa on a Raspberry Pi. At the time, it was about how some very smart hobbyists were able to get it all to work.

Less than two weeks later, we have an official Alexa-Raspberry Pi guide from Amazon.

I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is that you can build something like an Amazon Tap (not always listening) for $60. The bad news is that it appears to be a good amount of work and a high-level of technical expertise to make it happen.

It’s not the prettiest device around:

However, if you are looking for a project where you can learn a lot about computer hardware and Alexa, this may be a good fit.

Alexa (Echo) and Nest Thermostats are Friends… Finally!

Finally, perhaps the two most popular smart home devices work together without a messy IFTTT. I just completed linking my Nest thermostats devices.

I got the news yesterday through the weekly Amazon Echo newsletter. Unfortunately, the set-up was a little more difficult than it said,

“To control your thermostat with Alexa, go to your Alexa App and link your device. Then just ask…”

There’s an additional step of telling Alexa to “discover” your devices. So even though you might be linked, you may not necessarily good to go. Fortunately, this is easily solved by scrolling down that smart home page and using the Discover Devices link at the bottom of the page.

After that, everything works beautifully. As far as I can tell, there’s nothing too new. Alexa has worked with other thermostats over the last couple of months… so this is just another example. However, it’s a very popular example.

Personally, it is great to be able to make use of Alexa/Echo’s smart home features. I haven’t been able to justify the prices for lights and bridges. The prices are coming down, and maybe in the coming months I’ll be adding more Alexa/Echo enabled smart home features.

Sonos Future Depends on Alexa/Echo?

For more than a decade Sonos music players have been the pinnacle of whole home music systems. Unfortunate for me, I haven’t been able to afford them in my budget. I’m not why, but things are no longer going well at the company. Maybe people are buying too many Chromecasts and using their smartphones.

In any case, the CEO of the company is featured in this Verge article saying that Sonos’ future will echo Amazon’s Alexa. While the speakers may still be top quality, the natural language artificial intelligence of Amazon’s Alexa Voice Service combined with the 7-directional microphone of the Echo is a winner.

The article mentions that the Echo Dot or similar device might be the best fit for Sonos. It isn’t the first time we’ve heard a Dot/Sonos combination solution being suggested.

It’s another example of how the once-kooky product, Amazon Echo, is changing entire industries.

Why I Won’t Buy an Amazon Tap (Yet)

When Amazon announced the Echo Dot (thoughts), I rushed to register and create this site.

How do I feel about the Amazon Tap? Not the same.

The reason I love the Echo line of devices is that it is hands-free and always listening. The Amazon Tap does neither. I love portability, but it comes at the cost of having to keep the battery charged and having to activate it like a smartphone voice assistant.

Amazon can make the Tap great by creating another version that does two things:

  1. Becomes an Echo When Docked – When it is docked to a power source, it should have the ability to be hands-free and always listening like the Echo. This would allow Amazon to sell me charging docks for around my house and perhaps a couple of Taps for family members.
  2. Can be Always Listening when Portable – I know it will drain the battery… perhaps quite fast. However, if I’m only going out for a few hours, I might not mind. This would be especially true if I have multiple docks as noted in above idea.

The other thing that isn’t clear with the Tap is if it needs a mobile hot spot to use Alexa Voice Services. It sounds like it does. However, it should be able to connect through Bluetooth and use my phone’s LTE or Wifi connection to route the request. This saves me the effort of putting my phone in mobile hot spot mode.

While you may be able to use the speaker on the go without being connected a mobile hot spot or Alexa Voice Services, that makes it a pretty plain Bluetooth speaker.

Alexa Adds New Fitbit Skill

It seems like every company is looking to integrate with Alexa nowadays. Add Fitbit (NYSE: FIT) to the list. The popular fitness tracking devices has sold an estimated 21 million trackers.

As a longtime owner of a Fitbit Ultra, I was able to set-up the Alexa skill in just a few seconds. I just visited the echo site, clicked on “skills” on the left side, searched for “Fitbit” and activated it. It quickly took me to my Fitbit login where I gave the Echo permissions to everything except my friends. (I don’t have a lot of Fitbit friends, but Alexa doesn’t need to know them anyway.)

It sounds like “work” when I type it out, but it was really easy. I was soon asking Alexa:

“Alexa, ask Fitbit how I’m doing today”

The response was more in-depth than I imagined. I got my step count (15,000+ woo hoo!), and word that I passed my daily active rate as well as having been active for the last 90 minutes. (Yes, keeping up with two toddlers will do that.)

I think it is easy for some to criticize Amazon Echo for not being super useful, especially with this skill. I think most Fitbit users would have a smartphone or a computer that they could easily get the information from. I’m obviously a fan of Alexa and the Echo so I might be in the minority here.

More and more, I’m finding my head buried in a laptop or a cellphone. The Echo bucks this trend by allowing me to get the information without getting sucked into notifications and temptations of Facebook. It most certainly isn’t worth buying an Echo for checking your Fitbit stats, but it’s a very nice perk considering the rest of the features that come with it.

Get in Shape With Amazon Alexa

When I first purchased an Amazon Echo, I certainly didn’t think it would be useful for getting me in shape. In fact, I was worried that it would do just the opposite. With the Amazon Echo available at my beck and call there’s often no reason to get up.

So imagine my surprise when I read about a new Alexa Skill called The 7-Minute Workout. Surely a 7-minute workout can’t be any good, right?

Well as this NY Times article suggests it can actually be pretty sound.

The downside is that workout isn’t easy. The upside is that at 7 minutes, accessible starting with just your voice, you lost a lot of excuses to be a couch potato.

Unfortunately the reviews aren’t nearly as good as they are for the Alexa devices themselves. It’s still better than nothing and hopefully the start of many more workouts in the future.

Access Alexa on a Raspberry Pi

I found the video below really interesting. It’s very technical, but the idea is that these developers used a Raspberry Pi or similar device to interface with Alexa.

While the developer says that it is cheap Amazon Echo, you actually have to push a button to make it work. You also have to get a microphone for the audio in. And then there’s the speakers for the audio out. So by the time you are done, you really have something like the Amazon Tap, but without the battery.

And of course it is going to look like a mess of cables and circuit boards.

Nonetheless, this is a great proof of concept. If you are looking to learn more about various hardware and software pieces work together with Alexa, this would be a great place to start.

Why You Should Get on the Amazon Echo Bandwagon

The short answer is, I’m on the bandwagon and it’s great! There’s plenty of room up here so come aboard!

Recently, Jim Wikert of Digital Book World wrote why he’s not ready to climb on yet. I don’t mean to single him out, but I think he brings up a good discussion point. Plus, I have a lot of friends who have the same opinion. Of course most of those people have never used an Amazon Echo. Even when I first started using an Echo, I thought it was mostly a glorified music player.

It seems to me that Wikert isn’t actually against the Amazon Echo, it just doesn’t fit into his lifestyle because he spends a lot of time in his car. That’s understandable. I work from home where I’m mostly alone. I rarely spend much more than 15-20 minutes in my car for the whole day… different things for different people.

Wikert continues to explain an Echo that would be useful to him. First he explains that like stand-alone GPS and fitness bracelets, they’ll be replaced by his phone. I don’t buy into his argument. Fitness bracelets and smart watches perform better than phones and have additional features in them to improve the experience. It’s almost like saying that I don’t need a microwave because I have a oven.

However, to bring this back to Amazon Echo, the key feature is the always-listening, no hands use. I don’t know when phone batteries will get there. I don’t know IF they’ll ever get there. There’s a reason why the Amazon Tap requires you press a button despite having a big battery and no screen.

That said, in a car environment that Wikert describes, there is power. It isn’t that hard to imagine an Echo Dot working in the car. That might be useful because of the microphone. It can connect via bluetooth to his car speakers and use his phone as a mobile wifi hotspot. This wouldn’t cost the $5 per month that Wikert is willing to pay, but probably a one-time cost of around $120 (including a D/C adapter). Yes it wouldn’t be mobile, but it would cover what seems to be his most common use case.

Now if you just want your phone to do it, there is an Alexa App. It is more about reporting what your hardware has already done than being a bridge to the Alexa service itself. However, it wouldn’t be overly difficult for Amazon to make that happen.

The question then becomes: “Isn’t that just what Google Now, Microsoft Cortana, and Apple Siri are?” I’m going to give Amazon Alexa the edge because it isn’t just an information service and it has demonstrated the ability to work with third parties. It’s “work” to get Google Now to work with Nest, a company in its same Alphabet umbrella. I don’t have confidence that Apple is going to open up their ecosystem to companies that compete with them like Pandora and Spotify. (Maybe I’m off-base here, I’m not in the Apple ecosystem.)

At the end of the day, I want all the things that Wikert wants (especially the dictation ability). I think we’ll get there, but let’s take a step back. Not much more than a year ago, the Amazon Echo was kind of a goofy device that didn’t do much more than play music. It didn’t turn on your lights, order you an Uber, or a pizza. It couldn’t change the temperature in my home. It couldn’t play Jeopardy. It can do all these now. (Okay the Nest functionality is coming this month.)

Let’s enjoy all the things we can do, especially when they are free of monthly fees.

Why You Should Buy an Echo Dot

When Amazon announced the Echo Dot, my initial thought was, “This feels like an extremely limited Amazon Echo.”

With a few days to reflect on it, I see it as something different. At a price of $180 an Amazon Echo is not an impulse buy for many people. Some people see it as an expensive music speaker.

We think it is much more, but we can respect other people’s ideas. With the Echo Dot, you can add Alexa capabilities to very cheap speakers such as these, which should be fine for a bedroom. Spending $110 for the combination is cheaper than buying an Echo and would still work mostly the same for the space.

I’ve been keeping my Echo in my living room, but I could by an Echo Dot and hook it up to my existing audio/video receiver. This would allow me to move the Echo to my kitchen. So rather than have two Echos at a total cost of around $360, I’d just need to buy one Echo and one Dot for a cost of around $270.

So now I look at the Echo as a way to save money. If you have another speaker around or want to go with something cheaper, you have that option. The rub is that the Echo itself has been available (very briefly) for under $100, so the $90 price for the Echo Dot feels premium.

If you’ve been wanting to jump on the Amazon Alexa bandwagon or add them to your house, I think it might be worth the money. However, I’m clearly a fan and it’s not up to me too tell you how to spend your money.

Update:

Rob Enderle from Technewsworld explains why the Echo Dot may be better than the Amazon Echo. I love the explanation that his wife prefers the $180 Echo to his $5,000 Sonos set-up. That’s one of the reasons why I fell in love with the Echo. It just works.

The upside of his argument? The Echo Dot makes his whole-house Sonos system “smart.”