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The Future Is Now And Alexa Is (Part Of) It

Nov 21st, 2019

“Alexa, turn on the office lights”
This is how many of us – me included – start our days these days.

Alexa - Home Automation / Smart Home / IoT

Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals on (smart) home automation gadgets this year are plentiful, the options seemingly endless.

As another year comes to a close and if you still haven’t done so already, this is a great time to get your hands on some cheap smart TVs, plugs, bulbs, locks, and cameras – and integrate them with your virtual assistant so you can sit back, relax, and finally enjoy your new, sophisticated, super-smart home.

Because prior to having plugged in, activated, authorized, linked, configured and customized all these things your home was dumb? It depends.

It depends on the amount of control you wish to have and – at the same time – the amount of control you’re willing to relinquish and hand over to a 3rd party (sometimes more than one 3rd party).

Programmable Light SwitchFor example, I’ve always had programmable thermostats – although not the fancy new ones with the big screens – but ones that allowed me to program 5 different settings and schedules per day of the week and 2 more on weekends.

I’ve always had a controller for the sprinkler/watering system with a plethora of stations, options, times, run times, schedules and what not.
I also have a special programmable light switch for my outside lights and a built-in programmable thermostat for the heated floor in the bathroom (don’t judge me, came with the house). Each of which have more options and settings than a normal person will ever need or use.

But none of them are “connected”. There’s no app for them. My phone doesn’t talk to them and neither does Alexa.
To change the settings, you have to get a magnifying glass (OK, I do) and a flashlight, remember where you put the darn manual, pull up a chair or a stepstool or a ladder and be willing to spend up to an hour of your time hunched over with the flashlight between your teeth, trying to read the microscopic lettering on the little display and the manual simultaneously, all while holding one button and ferociously pressing another one 47 times in a row (because you get it wrong or are going to fast at least once when trying to re-adjust these things for Daylight Saving’s Time).

Dumb? It depends.

My semi-smart light switch has a built-in option to automatically observe Daylight Saving’s time. Once I found the setting that activates the “on-at-dusk and off-at-dawn” option automatically, I set it and haven’t touched it since.
But I’ve been changing my neighbor’s outside light switch’s settings twice a year for the past 5 years.

Alexa, remind me to bring scotch tape so I can tape the damn manual to the wall next time.

Update: (Dec 2021) For anyone looking for the switch’s details (in case it’s pre-installed in your house); the manual says the following:
Brand: UTILITECH / Item: Daylight Saving In-Wall Timer
ITEM #0192773
Customer Service: 1-866-994-4148

Utilitech Light Timer

If someone really needs it, I have the full manual and can get you a copy.

sengled LED bulbs + amazon Alexa

To set up the new, smart sengled LED bulbs in my office, on the patio and the kitchen and to integrate them with with Alexa, I had to create a new account with the company that makes them, activate a new Alexa skill, link my amazon account with it, configure the required hub, name the hub, name the bulbs individually, group the bulbs, name the new group of bulbs, tell Alexa to discover the bulbs and the group and then allow her to turn them on and off. Yay!

amazon fire TV cubeAll of the above that so I can yell across the room “Alexa, turn on the office lights”.
Or tell Alexa to turn on the TV, the satellite receiver, and switch to a particular station, all together, by creating a routine after plugging in the (admittedly awesome!) amazon fire TV cube (because fire TV sticks are not enough anymore).
Or watch the ring doorbell live on the TV without having to peek through the hole.

Because touching a light switch or pushing a button on a remote is so. Damn. Hard. And so 2010.

Smart? You decide.

Note: The above-mentioned setup process for the bulbs took less than 5 minutes from opening/unpacking the box to the first successful On/Off experience via Alexa. This result might not be typical.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my Alexa-enabled devices and what she can do.

From a user’s perspective:

Alexa has come a long way since her introduction in 2014/2015. I would never have purchased an echo device for it’s mere “speaker” capabilities.
And while she still can’t do some of the more trivial things; I love that I don’t have to go fishing for the right remote and find the right button to turn on the TV, the soundbar and the satellite receiver. Or off. Together. Because one of them always chose not to cooperate; yet Alexa seems to have them under control.

I don’t have to scribble things on my shopping list anymore, I simply tell her to add the items as soon as I notice they need to be restocked. (She still can’t sort/list them by aisle though. At least not yet. Or not that I know of.)
But she could order everything right away as well – a feature I have disabled (self-preservation mode).

She says Good Morning and tells me the weather and the latest news every day as part of “our” morning routine.
She welcomes me home after I’ve been out.
She says Good Night, turns off all the gadgets and lights when I tell her it’s time for bed.

She never complains and always is in a good mood, always has nice things to say and is always happy to help (ask her if she’s happy if you don’t believe me).

As a developer:

Having too much fun trying to find ways to optimize the experience and to include new things, skills and abilities.
One app and one bulb at a time.

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