The Smart Home

by Sonny Ali reprinted from New Mobility July 2017

The Amazon Echo (left) and Dot (right) can be used to turn lights off and on as well as tap into your favorite playlists or answer trivia questions.

As a T5 paraplegic with two young boys, a wife, a full-time job and a nonprofit to run, I can use all the help I can get around the house to stay on top of things. With that in mind, I decided to go all-in on the emerging smart tech revolution when I remodeled our house to make it more accessible following my injury two years ago. When going the smart home route, there are a number of good options — Amazon’s Echo, Google’s Home, Apple’s HomeKit — all voice-operated, cloud-based, artificial intelligence smart home solutions, each with slightly different options. The Echo retails for $179.99; Google Home for $129; and Apple’s HomeKit can run off any iOS-using device. All three require the purchase of compatible home appliances.

I decided to go with Amazon Echo, a simple black cylinder that sits on my dresser and serves as the central brain connecting an array of applications and appliances to help my family with day-to-day tasks and also help me live more independently. In addition to my main Echo, I have numerous Echo Dots placed throughout the house (Echo Dot is the smaller, speakerless version of the Echo, which retails for $49.99).

Right out of the box, after the initial set-up, all you have to do to use the Echo is utter its wake-up word, “Alexa.” Once someone says the magic word, the Echo will listen and try to answer whatever question, or do whatever task is commanded next. I can ask Alexa how long my commute will be, what the weather forecast is, or what’s on my calendar. Alexa’s responses are almost instantaneous — giving me the quickest route to the office, or advising me to dress warm because the weather forecast suggests a drop in temperature. My wife uses Alexa to order pizza delivered or to call Uber. We use it to set timers, reminders, and to keep track of our grocery list. My kids use it to help with checking their math homework by asking, “Alexa, what is 12 times 12?” The list of things Alexa can do is simply amazing and grows with each update. Or if you’re looking for a Bluetooth speaker to play your music library from your tablet or smart phone, Alexa can do that, too. The sound quality is better than you’d expect.

What makes the Amazon Echo a truly marvelous tool for people with spinal cord injuries is its ability to integrate with third-party smart-home solutions. The list of third-party solutions continues to grow daily, but here are a few solutions I’ve integrated with the Echo to simplify my daily life.

  • Integrating my Echo with Phillips Hue smart lights gives me the ability to control my kitchen, living room, and master bedroom lights with simple voice commands. “Alexa, turn off the kitchen lights. Alexa, turn on the bedroom lights.” I replaced the vast majority of my home’s standard lights with Philips Hue lights that are controlled by Alexa. My kids tend to leave lights on wherever they go, but now I can turn everything off with a simple voice command.
  • Integrate Harmony with Echo and you can control your entertainment center with your voice

    Integrating my Echo with the Harmony Hub and Universal Remote Control gives me voice control of my entire media center. I can say, “Alexa, turn off the TV,” as I’m getting ready for bedtime. Or I can tell Alexa to turn on Netflix if I feel like binge watching Breaking Bad. One feature I really like is being able to turn off my entire living room media center from the comfort of my bedroom. With Echo, you don’t have to be in the same room as the appliance you want to control — you can do it from anywhere you have an Echo or Echo Dot.

  • Integrating my Echo with the Samsung SmartThings Hub gives me the ability to turn lamps and other appliances on and off. Whatever I plug into a SmartThings Smart Outlet is at my command. You can also swap out your standard light switches with SmartThings Smart Switches to allow them to be controlled by the Echo. I control a floor heater and table fan that are plugged into SmartThings Smart Outlets.
  • SmartThings Hub can be used to control lamps and other appliances that turn on or off.

    Integrating my Echo with Nest allows me to turn up the AC or heater with a simple voice command. Being able to control my Nest thermostats with my voice and keep my house just the temperature I want is my favorite feature. “Alexa, turn the downstairs heater to 70 degrees.” Larger homes with dual climate zones can be controlled independently.

I’ve been using Amazon Echo and the third-party smart home solutions for over a year now, and I’m truly grateful for this technology. For me, the ability to issue voice commands, without having to transfer into or out of my wheelchair and do the work manually, has saved me an incredible amount of time and frustration.