Alexa, My Weatherbot

Amazon’s Voice Assistant Has a Lot of Potential to Realize
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My relationship with Alexa is complicated. On the one hand, she’s great at telling me the weather or setting a kitchen timer when I ask her for help, and she’s really responsive when I suggest that she raise or lower the lights in my family room. But at other times, she’s just an inanimate black cylinder taking up space next to the electric pencil sharpener on my kitchen counter. And sometimes during the school year, she helps my second-grader “just a little too much” on her math homework.

I was introduced to Amazon’s Echo a few months ago, when Lutron announced its Caséta lighting control partnership. Lutron was kind enough to send me an Echo along with a few Caséta devices (I asked for a dimmer switch for my upstairs hallway and two lamp modules for my family room). I was thrilled to try out Caséta and learn a little more about voice control, as well. The thing about those Caséta dimmers, however, is that I could set them via astronomical time clock, to turn on and off with the sun. With that oldschool home automation feature locked in, it made voice recognition from Echo seem a bit extraneous.

Extraneous, that is, until an afternoon thunderstorm rolled in on a recent Sunday afternoon, darkening the house while I was reading a book in the family room. “Alexa, turn on family room lights,” I said, “OK,” Alexa responded. The lamps went on. Nifty.

Alexa helps me show off a little, too–or so I thought.

We had friends over the other day and a neighbor who hadn’t been to our house in a while seemed like a good audience for Alexa’s tricks. I said, “Alexa, turn on family room lights.” Alexa did her thing, and my unimpressed neighbor smiled and said, “Clap on.” Ouch, that hurt. In just two words she was saying what I was already thinking: “Alexa, you’re just a glorified X-10 device.”

I don’t want to “firehose” voice recognition entirely because I think that it’s definitely here to stay and has great potential for home automation. I just don’t think we’re past the novelty stage yet when everyone is trying to find a reason for it to exist. Voice control of music is fun, yet Echo’s Prime Music requirement is inconvenient. I also find searching for a movie playing in a nearby theater useful or asking for baseball scores or news reports, and I love the always-on sensitivity of Echo. I don’t have to raise my voice very loud at all to ask a question, and Alexa is “Johnny on the spot” with an answer. Though I sometimes forget her name, and my wife often blurts out a command while leaving out Alexa’s name altogether. Like Gordon van Zuiden writes in his column this month, “not exactly intuitive.”

I’m sure I’ll continue to warm up to Alexa, however, as she offers new ways to simplify my life. I just wish she could become my AppleTV assistant. That Siri gal just isn’t cutting it for me anymore.