TECHNOLOGY

The Crazy, Wonderful Things You Can Control by Voice With Amazon Alexa

Yes, you can order a Domino’s pizza. Yes, you can lock the front door. And, yes, you can order an ink cartridge.

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BY John Brandon - 15 Aug 2016

In 2001, I was knee-deep in a project trying to build an e-commerce website.

We had some fantastic tools available for creating the site, and the entire team felt motivated and confident. We were pumped! At the time, we thought about adding some features related to speech technology. I still remember thinking how cool it would be to have people visit the site and speak into a microphone (since they were widely available then) and order a new microwave or a television.

Alas, the technology was in an early stage. The voice processing tech was sub-par, the speech dictionaries were rudimentary, and even things like removing background noise didn't really work. We quickly abandoned the idea and accepted having a simple search bar.

Flash forward quite a few years, and I'm sitting here at my desk ordering a pizza from Domino's by voice. I say "Alexa, order me a Domino's pizza" and it actually works. In about 30 minutes from when I say that command, a deep dish arrives at my door. I decide to lower the temperature a little in my office, and do that by speaking a command that controls the Sensi connected thermostat in the hallway. I also instruct the Caseta Wireless light switch by Lutron to dim the lights so I can focus on my work. If I could ask Alexa to type my articles for me, I probably would.

That's right, there are quite a few crazy and wonderful things you can do by voice, and the speech tech is only getting better with time. I'm using an Amazon Echo wireless speaker at my desk, but I could also use the Amazon Fire TV set-top box, the Invoxia Triby smart speaker, or even the Alexa app on my phone.

It gets even more interesting when I'm at not in my office and want to control a few connected devices by voice. Right now, I can speak to an August Smart Lock and lock the front door of my house. It's amazing because it saves me a trip to my front hallway (where my phone can connect). Like the Vivint home security system that also works with Alexa, you can only lock the doors by voice. (Thieves might try to use Alexa from near a window to gain access and unlock the door.)

It's get more interesting when it comes to the Rachio sprinkler system. I haven't tested this one (I don't have an in-ground sprinkler system at my house) but you can also issue commands to water your lawn for five minutes or even water by zone number. The variations in what you can say to control Rachio by voice gives you a good idea about why this all works so well. You can say just about any word (water, run, turn on) to activate the sprinklers, not just a specific phrase.

My favorite features--since I still remember trying to do this back when I ran that web development project--are related to ordering products from Amazon. Maybe it seems like a way to generate more revenue for the largest e-commerce site on the planet, but you should try it before you think that. I tend to print a fair amount (mostly shipping labels to return test products) and often run low on ink. By voice, I can ask Alexa to "order a print cartridge" and the bot can scan through my order history and suggest a certain Epson replacement kit and remind me about the price.

She's not perfect, of course. When I asked about ordering the new Bill Bryson book, Alexa thought I was looking for the audiobook. Strangely, that August lock works with Apple Siri and you can unlock the doors by voice due to better encryption. When voice commands work smoothly, they save a ton of time and produce better results--the bot can track what you normally order and even suggest alternatives, and we tend to like that kind of conversational approach. I'm excited to see how this all expands. I want to control my garage door opener, ask about my garden soil, deploy an automated robotic lawnmower, and maybe (finally) convince Alexa to type for me.