Geoff Spink has used smart technology to give him more control over his home environment
Technology can make your life a whole lot easier; not just in business but at home, too.
“In the last couple of years, a quiet revolution has taken place in what’s called the ‘smart speaker market’: the big tech companies - Google, Amazon and Apple - are all vying for our attention. As a group of people living with various degrees of impairment, this is something that should interest us. Here’s why: -
About four or five years ago, I met Carmel Daly, from Ireland, and she very proudly showed off her home control technology which was linked to an app on her iPhone. The entire system (everything from blinds to central heating and automated doors) cost upwards of £25,000. Now, because this technology is mainstream and not aimed at the older and disabled market, you can achieve similar results at a fraction of the cost.
Which system you go for depends on you; I’ve gone down the Amazon Echo route. It doesn’t make sense to mix Amazon with Google and Apple - that way confusion and madness lie.
The Amazon devices are low cost, and extraordinarily reliable and easy to set up. I did order a couple of the Apple HomePod speakers, but they were a nightmare to set up, and were soon packed back in their boxes and returned whence they came. I have no direct experience of the Google equivalent, but knowing that company’s insistence on good usability, I don’t imagine that they would give you a hard time. If you're not technologically inclined, I would suggest recruiting the services of a young person who can do the initial set-up for you.
Making a smart speaker environment work for you
So what exactly can you do with a smart speaker environment? At its simplest your smart speaker can access music, news, podcasts and audio books and play them to you on demand. If your smart speaker has a screen, you can see as well as hear the news.
My Amazon environment is also extremely keen to help me to shop from - you guessed it - Amazon! So I can order a whole raft of things that are available from the company’s website. Again, if you have a screen, you can actually see what you're buying, which helps a lot.
Rather like a smartphone, or tablet, smart speakers can be enhanced by the use of apps: in the case of the Amazon Echo devices, these are known as ‘skills’. One of the first skills that I installed was for Ocado. So whenever I suddenly remember that something is running low or that I fancy trying something new, I just instruct Alexa to “tell Ocado to add French beans to my trolley”. You can do the same for to-do lists, reminders and so on. If you enjoy cooking, your smart speaker is really good at running multiple timers so that you can keep track of what is ready, when.
To get the best from this technology, I think you need a smart speaker in just about every room. I don’t have them in the loos or bathrooms, but I do have them everywhere else. Then, if you really want to make things interesting, you can start to link your smart speakers to devices around the house.
Using smart speakers to activate devices in your home
One of my first acquisitions was Philips Hue lights. These are not cheap, but the price is coming down; the initial investment is a little high when you consider that the white only bulbs are about £25 for a twin pack, and the coloured ones are £62 for two. Just to give you some idea, I have eleven coloured bulbs and thirteen white ones in my kitchen alone; so that meant an initial cost of £520. You also need a Philips Hue Bridge, which connects to your wi-fi router.
I have smart bulbs in, pretty much, every room in the house: in addition to being able to change the mood lighting, and turn them on and off by voice, I can also set up routines so that, for example, my outside lights come on at sunset and go off at sunrise. You can have endless fun setting up routines so that lights suddenly come to life at random times!
I’ve also linked my speakers to electric blinds and curtains, so that with one voice command I can open or close the blinds in a particular room or throughout the entire house. My smart thermostat (free from my energy provider) also has an Alexa skill so I can turn the heating up or down by voice.
Given that these devices are becoming very much part of life, they are also incredibly useful as a communications hub. If you, and someone else who depends on you, enable a feature called ‘drop-in’ you can connect to them without them having to press any buttons or yell any voice commands. A good friend of mine has installed one for his elderly parents who love being able to talk to him and actually see his face at the same time. Since I live in a three storey house, the feature is really useful for me to communicate with my assistant, who might well be in the kitchen when I need her assistance two floors up. The alternative was yelling at the top of my lungs down the stairs.
You can also make person-to-person calls outside of the drop-in environment, but in this case you have to touch the screen to answer the call.
So what does the future hold?
Already, manufacturers of consumer electronics and white goods are building in smart speaker interfaces to their devices: we are, at the moment, in a ‘Betamax versus VHS’ situation; Bang and Olufsen for example only put Google Home interfaces in their audio and video products; other manufacturers build in more than one interface so that you can select which smart speaker environment you already have at home. When purchasing a new washing machine, for example, it’s a good idea to check which devices it will pair with in your house.
If you don't want to go as far down the ‘smart’ road as I have, you could invest in a few smart plugs which are incredibly cheap (£5 and upwards) and will allow you a simple on/off control over any device that’s plugged in. Just before writing this article, my tumble dryer started playing its endless tune which I was easily able to silence by telling Alexa, “dryer off”.