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!

 

Alexa and Aging: more on voice as THE interface for “SmartAging”

 Amazon Alexa & services it can trigger!

Amazon Echo & services it can trigger!

I predict every elderly person will soon have a personal home assistant, ready to respond to their every command.

However, that home health aide may not be human, but sit on the kitchen counter, and look suspiciously like Amazon’s breakthough IoT device, The Echo.

The late Mark Weiser, “the father of the Internet of Things,” famously predicted that “the best computer is a quiet, invisible servant,” and that’s certainly the potential with Echo, or the just announced Google Assistant (how sexy is that name? I like the fact it’s so impersonal. Let’s you fire one voice “assistant” and hire another without becoming personally attached, LOL), or the much-rumored Apple version, which might also include a camera (disclaimer: while I work part-time at an Apple Store, I ain’t privy to any inside dope, no way, no how).

That’s particularly the case when it comes to seniors, and my SmartAging vision of an IoT-based future for them combining Quantified Self health monitoring devices that can motivate seniors to improve their fitness levels, and smart home devices that can make it easier to manage their homes as they age, to avoid costly and soul-deadening institutionalization (or, even better, combining the two, as with one of my favorite IFTTT “recipes,”  programming your Jawbone to wake you gently at the best time in your sleep cycle, AND gradually turn on your Hue lights. How better for a senior — or anyone — to start their day on a positive note (OK, I know what you’re thinking: better turn on the coffee maker automatically!).

      KidsMD for Amazon Alexa

What really got me thinking about the advantages of a voice-activated future for seniors was a recent story about a similar app for the other end of the age spectrum, developed by our Children’s Hospital, for Alexa: KidsMD. What better for a harried mom or dad, with his or her hands full, AND a sick child to boot, than to simply ask for advice on temperature, fever and the like? That got me thinking that the same would apply to seniors as well, needing advice with some of the unwanted aspects of aging (I could mention here an example from a senior I care for, but that would be most unpleasant…). As I’ve said before, this would be helpful under any circumstances, but when the person needing help is a frail, tech-averse senior, it would be superb if s/he only had to speak a simple command or request to get needed help, or advice on something such as the proper amount of an over-the-counter drug to take.

There are tons of other life-improving reasons for such an approach for seniors, including:

Of course, and I can’t emphasize this enough, especially since seniors are already victims of so many scamming tricks, because these counter-top devices are always on, listening to you,  and because much of their possible use could be for reporting confidential health or financial data, privacy and security MUST be THE top priority in designing any kind of voice-activated app or device for seniors. Think of them as the canaries in the coal mine in this regard: protecting vulnerable seniors’ privacy and security should be the acid test of all voice-activated apps and devices for people of all ages.

Having said all that, as I noted in a piece last week about what a stunning combination of services Amazon has put together to become the dominant player in the retail IoT sector, one of those offerings is the $100 million Alexa fund to fuel advances in the voice-activated arena.  I’m ready to put their money where my mouth is  (LOL) in this regard, to design voice-activated devices and services for seniors.  If you’d like to partner, E-mail me!!

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.

SmartHomeDB: Invaluable Resource to Keep on Top of New Smart Home Devices

You can’t tell the players without a program!

smarthomeDBAs the speed of introducing new and increasingly varied smart home devices picks up, SmartHomeDB is more and more valuable as a way to find what you’re looking for and to keep on top of new products from an objective source.

Whether you’re a homeowner, make a competing product or are looking for market niches to exploit, I guarantee you’ll find it helpful!

At last count, they have 84 — count ’em — different categories of devices, from egg trays to pet doors, and, best of all, it offers a variety of easy ways to search, including the product categories, price, reviews, and — all important for smart home devices — compatibilities.

One thing that jumped out — see the screen grab — there are already almost 25,000 reviews of Amazon’s Echo (hmm, I’d better do one soon!), despite the short time it’s been on the market!  Haven’t seen the sales figures yet, but I suspect Echo is quickly becoming the smart home killer device (see Stacey Higginbotham’s very positive review).

In addition to the search options, the site features a neat intro to IoT devices, the QuickGuide, with two options: the simple one consists of your existing router, plus 242 (as of 9/111/15) Wi-Fi enabled products to choose among, plus 377 stand-alone smart home products such as Roombas.  The other, more diverse but trickier to configure, adds in routers using Z-Wave, Zigbee, and other frequencies, with 443 products using those frequencies.

Now they’ve added a new category, “Playbooks,” highlighting users’ hoped for or actual combinations of devices, which may help guide your choices, especially if they describe actual systems that are already in use.

There’s also an area for iOS, Android and Windows apps,  a handy listing of the top 100 devices based on the site’s ratings (which can sorted by compatibility, ranking, price, name, or number of reviews).

All in all, this is not only an important tool in its own right to help you create your own smart home network, but also symbolically, because it demonstrates the rapid growth of smart home products. Nice job!