The slippery slope of home automation: Echo, Spotify and more

This past holiday season (2017), Amazon lowered the prices on its various Echo devices, in some cases pretty considerably. At the same time, they opened kiosks in malls and other locations to sell them, along with other select Amazon-branded merchandise (as well as a small selection of goodies from other companies). If you’d have asked me on December 1, 2017, whether I’d entertain the idea of having an Echo, Google Home, or similar such things in my house, I’d have said, “Never. Not ever.” I guess price is king, and I’ve had to eat my words.

What nudged me was that one of my neighbors went “all in” on home automation, centered on the Echo Dot, and the Wink Hub 2. After doing a lot of research on the subject, and having already had a desire to better automate lighting in my home, I decided to tip my toe into the water. The result was not at all where I expected to go, and you can consider this the first of many posts about smart home technology.

The first step was getting an Echo Dot, the smallest and cheapest member of Echo family. But that itself was a problem; with Amazon’s price promotion, the Dot was sold out at Amazon.com, and it was the site’s own suggestion that it might be available at a kiosk that led me to a local kiosk location that had plenty on-hand at the $29 (normally $49) promotional price.

I was then, and still am, uncomfortable with the concept of having a technology device essentially eavesdropping on every conversation conducted in proximity to the device. There are enough paranoid articles and blog posts elsewhere on the Internet, I don’t need to repeat the theme here. But I think in truth, there’s a divide between what’s possible, and what’s likely, and the threshold of tolerance for that is quite individual. I overcame my initial reluctance enough to buy one.

Getting to learn what the Echo and its embedded virtual assistant Alexa is capable of was part of the… Well, fun, I guess. Amazon does a remarkably poor job of documenting what, exactly, Alexa can do, or how to make her do it — probably because the answer changes almost daily. I say “fun” somewhat sarcastically, because it’s either fun or frustrating depending on your point of view.

One of the things she can do is play music, and with pre-integrations not only to Amazon’s own services, but the service I use: Spotify. In fact, the very day I bought the first Echo, Amazon announced that multi-room playback support for Spotify was available for the first time, so I could start to see the potential for the Echo in a way that had nothing to do with a smart home. When we built the house, we chose a hardwired, whole house audio system, and it’s been one of our favorite things about the house. Sure, you could go with something like Sonos, but I like the functionality of a built-in system.

To feed audio to the system, we’d been using an iPad Mini, streaming with AirPlay to an old Apple TV unit, the output of which was connected to the whole house audio system’s hub. It was pretty effective and flexible, at least if you were near the iPad to choose and play music from the Spotify app, and had the patience to deal with AirPlay connection issues — which seemed overly frequent. Something would inevitably happen that would cause AirPlay to disconnect, or the Spotify app would crash, or any number of other challenges were present, but it mostly worked, most of the time.

The Echo’s support for multi-room audio essentially allows you to voice control the music playback playback and identify which Echo it should play through. With a second Echo Dot, and the output connected to the whole house hub, we could then say to the Echo upstairs, “Alexa, play the 80s Favorites playlist on whole house” — “whole house” being the name of the Echo Dot connected to the audio system — and voila, the playlist would stream from that Echo Dot, and hence, over the house audio system.

In the weeks since getting this set-up working, I’ve become accustomed to the convenience of being able to just voice command the house’s music playback, and while there have been several moments of frustration in getting Alexa to understand exactly what I want to play, generally, we playback any of a series of playlists, and for the most part, that works well. Playing specific artists or songs or albums is more hit-and-miss, but even that is mostly hit, not miss.

The problem quickly spun out of control, however. There’s one place on the main floor where the original Echo Dot is in earshot of pretty much anywhere, but upstairs is another question. It’s not open concept, and the layout is such that the initial two Echoes gave way to four more of them distributed around the upper floor. So this person who said he’d never have an invasive voice control box in the house now has half a dozen of them.

But the intent wasn’t just music, it was lighting control, and that’ll be the subject of the next post.

In terms of other tricks Alexa can perform, well, there are many. Some of our favorites include:

  • Telling jokes. Most are pretty lame, but many are actually quite funny.
  • Reading the weather — for the current day, later in the week, the weekend, etc., and for pretty much any location you want to ask her about.
  • Conversions — how many tablespoons in half a cup, or grams in an ounce, or whatever else. She’s particularly useful in the kitchen as a result.
  • Lists. My favorite feature, being able to say things like, “Alexa, add milk to the grocery list” and then pulling-up the list from the Alexa app on my iPhone while I’m out has proven itself invaluable. I have lists for groceries, the warehouse club, IKEA, and all manner of things. It is, in short, awesome.
  • Thermostat control. Being able to change the setting of my Nest thermostats while elbow-deep in, say, bread dough, is pretty cool. (Honestly, that’s the advantage of the Echo and Alexa — elbow-deep in to anything, and you can still make things happen, like turning on lights.)

Of course, lighting control is a favorite feature as well, but as I said, more on that in a future post.

Bottom line: While I still have privacy concerns about the Amazon Echo, and I frankly don’t trust any of the big tech companies (Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple, etc.), I suppose in general I’m content with the knowledge that living in today’s world requires a certain level of acceptance of risk — with a certain level of acceptance that none of us has total privacy these days, no matter how much we try or would like to think that we do. So until my perspective changes, I’ve welcomed eavesdroppers into my house, and I rather like it.