Amazon Echo: great tech present for your tech-averse parents!

Never let it be said that I get serious about my Christmas shopping until about this date!

This year, my major suggestion is about a product that it took me a full year to buy after my mother-in-law of a certain age sent last Christmas’s check: never let it be said that I rush into purchases of any kind (I should explain that I’m like the Beacon Hill Brahmin lady who explained to a New York counterpart asking where she bought her hat: “We don’t buy hats. We have hats.” Similarly, I try to avoid buying absolutely anything: I just have what I absolutely need. A strange and complex bird, I am …).

The item in question? An Amazon Echo, which, characteristically, I bought refurbished for $50 off!

Amazon Echo

Amazon Echo

That leads me to a last-minute suggestion for an unlikely use of said Echo: introducing your tech-averse parent to the benefits of smart home and Quantified Self technology (AKA my “SmartAging” paradigm to keep seniors healthy and in their own homes instead of an institution).

 As I wrote a year ago, I think the neatest thing about the Echo in that regard (and, to a lesser extent, other voice-controlled IoT devices, although they’re handicapped because they just don’t have Alexa’s quick response time and already huge and constantly growing list of “skills) is that you don’t need to know any technology to use it: you just say “Alexa:….” and she does it!

While I knew the Echo had gone far beyond its original use to stream music, I had no idea until I bought it how robust and rapidly-growing it’s “skills” have become, and that it’s really a full-fledged smart home hub (why buy a dedicated hub that just sits there and doesn’t provide any of the Echo’s other benefits? Got me..).  It’s hard to keep up, but a recent Turbo Future article, “Amazon Echo: 15 Best New Features,” gives a pretty good overview, and it seems to me that most of them involve various services that can make it a lot easier, and definitely more enjoyable, for aging parents to continue to live in and manage their homes (although some judicious Christmas morning set-up by adult children may be in order for those seniors who avoid technology like the plague), because all you have to do is talk and listen! They’ll appreciate Alexa even more if their hands are full, which is often the case in the kitchen.

Here are a few of my favorites:

  • shopping lists: my wife doesn’t share my love of gadgetry, but we both love this simple service.  Say “Alexa, add flour to my shopping list,” and it’s instantly on the Alexa app on your phone, to pull out at the supermarket. As someone who dutifully makes shopping lists and then always forgets them, that’s worth the service alone.  I won’t buy my household staples from Amazon because, despite the savings, I don’t like the ecological impact that specialized service causes, but if that’s not an issue for you, you can order products directly from Amazon using Alexa.
  • ordering services: you can hail an Uber or order a Domino’s Pizza. For a senior who doesn’t have a car, that can be great!
  • music: obviously the prime market for Amazon’s and other streaming music services such as Pandora is millennials, but, guess what, you can even get Guy Lombardo (the soundtrack of my earliest years because of my parents’ 78’s) simply by asking Alexa.  The ultimate time machine!
  • books: if you parent has vision problems, audible books may be a boon, and since Amazon now owns Audible, this is also possible.
  • news: I’ve been trying to wean myself from the news since Something Bad Happened Last Month, but I’m still drawn like a moth to the flame, so I can get NPR instantly. A growing variety of other sources are also available.
  • smart home: I just installed two Sensi thermostats as I get deeper into smart home technology on the home front. Even though they have a great app that lets me adjust the temp when I’m away from home, it’s neat to just say “Alexa, turn down the heat two degrees” and have her do the work, not me! Next up? Adding my WeMo lights.
  • cooking: even though you can now get Echo’s little brothers (Dot and Tap) for use elsewhere in the home — or even outdoors — most Echos are found in the kitchen, and nothing is worse than flour-covered hands on a cookbook.  Now you can even ask Alexa for a great recipe for a certain dish, use it to make your shopping list, and follow the steps for making the dish, all just by asking her. Neato.
  • calendar: they may not be working anymore, but seniors have got a lot of appointments — the doctor, or my wife’s 95-year old aunt’s tango lessons (I kid you not!), so if you link your Google Calendar, Alexa will make sure you’re not late.

Equally important (and I suspect this will become more of a feature in the near future) the Echo can even help you stay on top of the other part of my SmartAging vision: improving your health, because you can access your Fitbit data.  There’s already a skill to help parents with kiddies’ ailments, from our Children’s Hospital, so why not one for geriatrics as well??

That’s just for now, and independent developers are adding new “skills” for Alexa at a dizzying pace.  So, if you still don’t have a present for Grannie? Get her an Echo, and since it’s from Amazon, she’ll still get it by the 25th!

 

Smart Disposables: Could This Be Birth of Internet of Everything?

Could EVERYTHING be “smart?” It may be happening sooner we thought, and with implications that are hard to fathom today.

That’s the potential with new technology pioneered by Shyam Gollakota, an assistant professor at the University of Washington.  For the first time, it would let battery- and cordless-less devices harvest signals from Wi-Fi, radio, or TV to communicate and power themselves.

Astounding!

For a long time, the most “out there” idea about IoT sensors has been Prof. Kris Pister’s “smart dust” concept, which aimed at a complete sensor/communication system in a package only one cubic millimeter in size. Pister argued that such devices would be so small and cheap that they could be installed — or perhaps even scattered — almost everywhere. The benefits could be varied and inconceivable in the past. According to Pister, possible applications could include:

  • “Defense-related sensor networks
    • battlefield surveillance, treaty monitoring, transportation monitoring, scud hunting, …
  • Virtual keyboard
    • Glue a dust mote on each of your fingernails.  Accelerometers will sense the orientation and motion of each of your fingertips, and talk to the computer in your watch.  QWERTY is the first step to proving the concept, but you can imagine much more useful and creative ways to interface to your computer if it knows where your fingers are: sculpt 3D shapes in virtual clay, play  the piano, gesture in sign language and have to computer translate, …
    • Combined with a MEMS augmented-reality heads-up display, your entire computer I/O would be invisible to the people around you.  Couple that with wireless access and you need never be bored in a meeting again!  Surf the web while the boss rambles on and on.
  • Inventory Control
    • The carton talks to the box, the box talks to the palette, the palette talks to the truck, and the truck talks to the warehouse, and the truck and the warehouse talk to the internet.  Know where your products are and what shape they’re in any time, anywhere.  Sort of like FedEx tracking on steroids for all products in your production stream from raw materials to delivered goods.
  • Product quality monitoring
    • temperature, humidity monitoring of meat, produce, dairy products
      • Mom, don’t buy those Frosted Sugar Bombs, they sat in 80% humidity for two days, they won’t be crunchy!
    • impact, vibration, temp monitoring of consumer electronics
      • failure analysis and diagnostic information, e.g. monitoring vibration of bearings for frequency signatures indicating imminent failure (back up that hard drive now!)
  • Smart office spaces
    • The Center for the Built Environment has fabulous plans for the office of the future in which environmental conditions are tailored to the desires of every individual.  Maybe soon we’ll all be wearing temperature, humidity, and environmental comfort sensors sewn into our clothes, continuously talking to our workspaces which will deliver conditions tailored to our needs.  No more fighting with your office mates over the thermostat.
  • Interfaces for the Disabled (courtesy of Bryndis Tobin)
    • Bryndis sent me email with the following idea: put motes “on a quadriplegic’s face, to monitor blinking & facial twitches – and send them as commands to a wheelchair/computer/other device.”  This could be generalized to a whole family of interfaces for the disabled.  Thanks Bryndis!”

Now imagine that a critical component of such a tiny, ubiquitous device was removed. Because it didn’t need a battery it could be even smaller and cheaper (because of cheaper and simpler radio hardware circuitry).

The goal is having billions of disposable devices start communicating,” Gollakota said (my emphasis).

You may remember that I’ve written before about my metaphor of a pre-IoT era of “Collective Blindness,” the universal inability to peer (literally or figuratively) inside things in the past, which forced us to create all sorts of work-arounds to cope with that lack of real-time data. Imagine how precise our knowledge about just about everything will be if Gollakota’s technology becomes commonplace.

.As Technology Review reported, the critical challenge is making it possible for a device lacking a traditional power source to communicate: “Transferring power wirelessly is not a new trick. But getting a device without a conventional power source to communicate is harder, because generating radio signals is very power-intensive and the airwaves harvested from radio, TV, and other telecommunication technologies hold little energy.”

The principle making the innovation possible is “backscattering,” reflecting waves, particles or signals back in the direction they came from, which creates a new signal.

The early results are encouraging. Gollakata has made a contact lens that can connect with a smartphone. Think I’ll pass on that one, but other devices he and his team have created include brain implants and “a flexible skin patch that can sense temperature and respiration, a design that could be used to monitor hospital patients.”  Marketers will love this one: a concert poster broadcasting a bit of the featured band’s music over FM radio!

Jeeva Wireless, Gollakata’s commercial spinoff, is using a variety of the technology, “passive Wi-Fi.” Devices using it can data up to 100 feet and connect through walls.

Tiny passive devices using backscatter could be manufactured for as little as a dollar. “In tomorrow’s smart home, security cameras, temperature sensors, and smoke alarms should never need to have their batteries changed.”

Gollakata sums up the potential impact: “We can get communication for free” (my emphasis).

That’s incredible, but in light of the continuing series of major DDoS attacks made possible by weak or non-existent IoT security measures, I must remind everyone that speed, power, and ubiquity aren’t everything: we also need IoT security, so I hope the low cost and ability to function without a dedicated energy source won’t obscure that need as well.


 

BTW: a MIT profile on Gollakata mentions one of his other, related, inventions, which I think would mesh beautifully with my SmartAging vision to help seniors age in place in better health.

It’s called  WiSee, which uses wireless signals such as Wi-Fi to “enable whole-home sensing and recognition of human gestures. Since wireless signals do not require line-of-sight and can traverse through walls, WiSee can enable whole-home gesture recognition using few wireless sources (e.g., a Wi-Fi router and a few mobile devices in the living room).”

I love the concept for seniors, because (like Echo, which I’m finally getting!!) it doesn’t require technical expertise, which many seniors lack and/or find intimidating, to launch and direct automated devices. In this case, the activation is through sensing and recognition of human gestures. According to Gollakata,“’Gestures enable a whole new set of interaction techniques for always-available computing embedded in the environment. As an example, he suggests that a hand swiping motion in the air could enable a user to control the radio volume while showering – or change the song playing on the stereo in the living room while you are cooking in the kitchen.”

He goes on to explain:

“…. that the approaches offered today to enable gesture recognition – by either installing cameras throughout a home/office or outfitting the human body with sensing devices – are in most cases either too expensive or unfeasible. So he and his group members are skirting these issues by taking advantage of the slight changes in ambient wireless signals that are created by motion. Since wireless signals do not require line-of-sight and can traverse through walls, he and his group have achieved the first gesture recognition system that works in those situations. ‘We showed that this approach can extract accurate information about a rich set of gestures from multiple concurrent users.”

Combine that with speaking to Alexa, and even the most frail seniors could probably control most of the functions in a smart home. Gollakota says that the approaches offered today to enable gesture recognition – by either installing cameras throughout a home/office or outfitting the human body with sensing devices – are in most cases either too expensive or unfeasible. So he and his group members are skirting these issues by taking advantage of the slight changes in ambient wireless signals that are created by motion. Since wireless signals do not require line-of-sight and can traverse through walls, he and his group have achieved the first gesture recognition system that works in those situations. “We showed that this approach can extract accurate information about a rich set of gestures from multiple concurrent users, “he says.

Incredible work, professor!

Amazon Leads IoT With Comprehensive Services, Platform & Devices!

Several months ago I predicted that Amazon’s Echo might become the IoT’s killer device, primarily because it is voice activated. It appears that prediction is coming true, which should give the entire consumer IoT a boost because Amazon is also providing a soup-to-nuts approach of devices, platform, and storage meeting a wide range of IoT needs, which puts a real emphasis on customer ease of use.

 Amazon Flywheel

Amazon Flywheel

Even more exciting from my perspective, is that part of that success may be due to something I was unaware of that fits beautifully with my “circular enterprise ” vision of the IoT: Jeff Bezos’ back-of-the-envelope sketch when he founded the behemoth, of what he called the “Amazon Flywheel,” It’s as good an illustration as I can think of regarding my vision of circular organizations and strategy — not to mention their profitability!

Even the WSJ got on board with an article about Amazon in regard to the IoT, although it focused solely on Echo and its voice app, Alexa, and ignored the all-important mechanics that it also provides.

 Amazon IoT Button

Amazon IoT Button

The latest step in fleshing out the ecosystem was the announcement earlier this month of the AWS IoT Button, modeled on its highly successful DASH button, which allows ordering more than 100 different consumer products from Amazon by simply pressing the button (the “button” is also now also available in virtual form as a software service, so that a number of products, such as a Whirlpool smart washing machine, will determine that the owner is running low on detergent, and automatically send an alert to her phone. A simple touch on the phone triggers a refill order from Amazon). The 1st edition IoT button sold out instantly!

It joins a comprehensive, and growing, package of IoT devices and services from Amazon that I suspect will quickly make it the platform of choice for the consumer IoT:

You get the idea: this is a conplete solution, from platform to cloud storage to devices to highly-personal (voice) interface.


 

And there’s that matter of the Amazon Flywheel that I mentioned previously.  I came across it in researching this post, in a blog post by John Rossman in which he referred to the Flywheel as “a long-tested systems dynamic view of Amazon’s core retail and marketplace business” (music to my ears: it was exposure to Jay Forrester & Peter Senge’s work on systems dynamics that first got me interested in cyclical processes, back in the late ’80s). He explains how this continuous loop leads to dynamic growth, especially in Amazon’s infrastructure offerings:

“When thinking through an IoT solution, what is most obvious is the end device.  But this is the classic “tip of the iceberg” in creating an end-to-end solutions.  The IoT Value Chain is defined by devices, connectivity, big data, algorithms, actions, and connection to the rest of the enterprise.  As more and more IoT Devices get introduced, a greater amount of data (both big and small) is generated. This data, once integrated with algorithms create a greater overall customer IoT impact generating more demand for more devices. All of these devices and services can be hosted on AWS and utilize their infrastructure capabilities leading to greater growth of the infrastructure. At this point, the loop looks familiar: infrastructure growth leads to lower costs, which means more services and companies rely on the infrastructure locking into a cycle of higher customer impact.  Amazon Web Services has several existing IoT enabling products include AWS Redshift, AWS Kinesis, AWS Machine Learning and recent acquisition of 2lemetry show that the big bet for Amazon is not in creating devices for its retail business, but in providing cloud infrastructure and software to thousands of companies needing to build IoT devices and capabilities.  This is the AWS IoT flywheel and the real business in IoT for Amazon.”

Yeah, but the bucks that it will get from Dash orders and from Echo ain’t shabby either. Keep up that cyclical thinking, Mr. Bezos!

 

PS: this also makes me more and more confident that Echo and Alexis can be the key to the robust “SmartAging” approach that I visualize because its use of voice will help seniors, especially the tech-averse, manage their health AND their homes and allow them to age in place healthily! Gonna have to get me some partners to go after Alexa Fund backing…

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Amazon Echo: is it the smart home Trojan Horse?

Could Amazon’s Echo be the Trojan Horse that gets the smart home and IoT inside our homes — and consciousness?

Typical Amazon Echo commands

I’ve always suspected Amazon was critical to corporate adoption of e-commerce in the ’90s because so many C-level executives were introduced to the concept by doing online holiday shopping for their families.  Just a hunch …

Fast forward to this holiday, and I suspect Amazon’s Echo will have a similar impact for the IoT and, in particular, smart homes (aided, no doubt, by the redoubtable Oprah, who gave it her imprimatur as one of her Favorite Things — which now, conveniently, has its own page on Amazon — for this year!).

In case you’ve been hibernating for the past few months, during which time the Echo has taken off, it’s the slim (9.25″ x 3.27″) cylinder that sits on your counter, and, after starting out largely to access Amazon’s streaming music service by voice, seems to take on new functions every week.

I suspect it’s the voice input that’s most important about Echo: because voice doesn’t require any technical skills.  I can’t think of any dedicated device (Apple’s Siri, a service on almost all its devices but the computers, is right up there, but a service, not a device. Again, obligatory disclaimer that I work part-time at The Apple Store but am not privy to any inside secrets) that better embodies the dictum of IoT “father” Mark Weiser, that:

The most profound technologies are those that disappear.
They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life
until they are indistinguishable from it.

Alexa shopping list "recipe" on IFTTT

Alexa shopping list “recipe” on IFTTT

For me, the critical step was when Echo was added to my fav IoT site, IFTTT, which makes the IoT’s benefits proliferate by allowing you and me to create “recipes” to trigger devices without requiring any programming skills.

The number of new recipes allowing Alexa to “trigger” an action by a device, including Hue lights and the Nest thermostat, is constantly growing (you’ll notice that many of them relate to actions such as adding to shopping lists, a clever way of making it easier for users to shop at a certain online behemoth..).

An indication of exactly how far-reaching Echo could be as a hub?  It now even interfaces with the Automatic device, to help manage your car more effectively: “Alexa, how much gas is left in my tank?”

I’m also excited about Echo’s potential role as a hub for my “SmartAging” concept: granny starts out listening to Guy Lombardo’s “Managua Nicaragua” streaming on Amazon Prime, and the next thing you know, she’s saying “Alexa, turn down the thermostat 3 degrees.”  What could be easier? Haven’t seen any Echo links to Quantified Self devices yet, but I suspect that’s only a matter of time, and others are now enthused about its benefits to the disabled.


 

PS: You can track new developments with Echo on its Twitter feed, as well as one from Dave Isbitski, the Echo’s chief evangelist.