Alexa, the Voice Interface for your Automated Life


Alexa, the name of Amazon’s voice controlled virtual assistant, is ready for you at any time without the need to locate controls or push any buttons. That is a dramatic improvement over how Siri on your phone operates. The Echo Dot is offered at a great price too and there are no subscription costs. It’s worth a try; my family loves Alexa.

What Does it Do?

Amazon hopes that it lowers the threshold for ordering more stuff. However, that function can be disabled, and we can focus on how Alexa can make our life better.

First and foremost, it provides a human speech interface to the digital world. Eventually it should replace all those control gadgets and buttons, which always get lost or run out of battery. The specialized hardware including an array of microphones to pick up voice from a noisy environment is very important. The Echo also has a speaker suitable for playing background music, and interfaces to connect to better quality sound reproduction.

A second important feature is the voice recognition, and language processing capability, which is used to provide some basic capabilities created by Amazon, but which is also available to anyone who wants to extend the capability of the system. These capabilities are called “skills,” and currently a market place exists of thousands of skills which are free. In fact, Amazon encourages developers and customers to build new ones.

How does it work?

The Echo Dot perks up it’s ears at the mention of Alexa or certain other special words. It composes a request which is routed to the appropriate skill that is going to handle it. The skill can live in the Amazon cloud or even on your own server. The server creates a response, and Echo Dot turns that into a voice response and any action.

Some built-in default skills are playing music of certain genre, and requesting an update of the latest news and weather. For those who already have put in place a home automation hub, such as SmartThings, or own a connected devices such as a Ecobee Thermostat will be able to enable the skills to start controlling those via the Echo Dot.

As of this writing, the Echo can be used for making voice calls, and for messaging. More complex interactions including push notification capabilities are coming too. Weaknesses remain in the area of discerning multiple users, and for example streaming multiple music streams to different devices concurrently. I expect these things will get solved someday, it is only a matter of time.

Setting up an Echo Dot

[ ] Download and install the Alexa App on your phone
[ ] Connect the Echo Dot to a power supply and wait for an announcement
[ ] Open the Alexa App and sign in into your Amazon account or create one
[ ] If newly installed, go through the setup steps
[ ] Connect your phone to Echo's WiFi (SSID starts with "Amazon-")
If not visible push the button on the Echo with the dot at least for 5 seconds and try connecting again.
[ ] Open the Alexa App and from the menu on the top left: "Settings"
[ ] Select "go to device setup" or "set up a new device"
[ ] Once connected, select your home network WiFi SSID and enter its password
[ ] When setup is complete, continue and feel free to select "no speakers" for now

That’s it.

More information

Online Alexa App (when you don’t have your phone with you, and not for initial setup)
Alexa Developer
Echo Products

updated: 20170519
photo: Echo Dot, Amazon press room

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