Notes for December, 2017: Amazon Echo and Google Home

Ian opened the meeting. We’ll be talking about Google Home and the Amazon Echo. The next meeting will be all about Android.

Shane took over to discuss ShopTalk. This is a program where local businesses have installed beacons that give information through Blindsquare. St. Clair station, the closest subway station to the CNIB Hub which hosts our meetings, has also installed them. This isn’t publicly announced yet because it’s still being tested. In January, Shane and the TTC will be recruiting testers. Shane will run an orientation with some TTC staff, and anyone who’s interested in this should get in touch with Shane. More information will be coming out on the GTT list. TTC hopes to make this available at all stations. It will offer information about entrances, fair gates, collector booths etc. on the fly. It will offer specific directions for finding stairs, busses and so on.

BlindSquare Event is a free version of BlindSquare . It has a radius of several kilometers, and it makes BlindSquare available for people who haven’t purchased the ap. It makes a given area accessible to BlindSquare even if you haven’t paid for it, but only within that radius.

Jason took over, and began by describing the latest update to Seeing AI, which is the free Microsoft solution for text recognition and barcode scanning. The latest update includes colour identifier, hand-writing identification, currency identification, and light detection. Because it’s constantly being updated, it will get even better by degrees.

Jason then began his presentation about smart speakers. In front of him he had a Google Home, a Google Home Mini, an Amazon Echo, and an Echo Dot. These are all devices that connect to the internet. They’ll answer questions, and do various home-control tasks. Amazon was the first to release this technology. The original Echo came out in 2014. For a long time it wasn’t available in Canada; you had to buy it from the U.S. As of December 5, 2017 they’re available here. You can order them through Amazon, or get them at Bestbuy here.

The Amazon Echo is about 6 inches tall, and looks like a beer glass. There are 4 buttons on the top, volume up and down, microphone on/off, or start microphone. All of these devices respond to a wake word. They’re not recording all the time, but once they hear the wake word, they listen to what you’re saying, and respond. The echo wake word is Alexa. It will respond to queries about the weather, the time, setting timers, making phone calls so it becomes a speaker phone, and will give you recipes and much more. Another one of its features is that it allows you to talk to other smart devices. The Alexa ap is what you install on your phone for initial setup. From this ap, you can talk to it through your phone. There are 4 possible wake words, Alexa, Amazon, Echo, and computer. You can attach the device to multiple phones. You don’t actually need the ap for much after setup if you don’t want to use it.

It has “far-field recognition,” which means you you can activate it from far away. The microphone is quite sensitive. There are lights on the top of the unit that show visually when it’s listening. By default, the lights activate. In the ap, you can turn on a setting to play a sound to let you know it’s been activated by the wake word. It’s not sensitive to know who’s speaking to it yet, but Amazon is working on specific voice recognition so that one person could, for example, order something from Amazon, and it would be automatically charged to their specific account. Not all features are available here yet, but they’re coming. In the U.S. you can play Audible books on it.

Where the Echo Shines is in its ability to work with what it calls skills. This means specific tasks that you can write a small program to perform. Skills are written and published, and you can enable them. If you’re technically inclined, you can write your own skills within its parameters.

Jason demonstrated a skill he wrote titled GTT skill. When activated, it offered him options to read the date of the next meeting, or read the previous meeting notes. He invited it to read the last-month’s meeting notes. This skill is not yet public, but will be. When you publish a skill you need images, and that’s the last step. Once Jason has that, he can publish it, and anyone can access it.

Setting the language of your device controls how it speaks, how it understands, and what skills you can use on it. There are local and specific skills. Banks and airlines for example, will publish their own skills, that will allow you to interact with them and do things you might now be doing on-line. You can write skills that are kept private, for example incarnations of home automation. Writing skills requires some programming knowledge. Home automation processes often require extra hardware.

If you know the name of the skill you want, you can ask the Echo to enable it. Within the ap, you can search under categories. There are over 15,000 skills. There’s an Uber skill that ties into Uber, then lets you order a car.

The standard Echo costs around $130, and has the better speaker. The Echo Dot is the same circumference as the standard, but about a third of the height. It’s $50. If you have a smart thermostat, you can control your home temperature through the Echo. If you want to control devices in your home, look on the Amazon site for compatible interfaces. Jason uses Wemo.

The Echo will connect via bluetooth, so you can connect it to other speakers. It’s got a line-out jack too. The Alexa ap is completely accessible. From the ap store, look for Amazon Alexa by Amazon.

Microsoft and Apple are also coming out with stand-alone smart speakers. The Microsoft Home Pod will be around $400. Google is coming out with a larger version called the Google Home Max. It’s a much larger version that has stereo sound.

The Google Home and the Echo are comparable, but the Google Home excels in web searches and geographical information. Both devices ask for your home address during setup. The Google Home is about the same height as the Echo. Jason demonstrated it giving the weather forecast. You can hook it up to your contacts, and use names to make phone calls rather than phone numbers. It’s using wireless to make the calls. You don’t need to have a phone in your house. It does similar things like timers and alarms. He demonstrated using it as a translator by translating a sentence into Spanish. Many things that Google can do on a PC is accessible via the Google Home. It will sometimes give you information, then send more details to your phone ap. It has a version of skills called “actions,” but not nearly as many. You can sync it to your calendar, and query it about your appointments. Both devices will let you set up appointments or reminders. You can’t play YouTube videos on the Google Home unless you have a TV or a device called a ChromeCast hooked up to it. If you have a ChromeCast and a TV, you can use the Google Home to play Netflix to it.

Everything that works or doesn’t work right now, can change from moment to moment because the net connection allows continuous updates. The Google Home hooks up to www.allrecipes.com so that you can ask for recipes, and have them read to you.

Jason demonstrated asking for flight prices. It replied, then offered to send price alerts to your email account. This process can be done on Google on the PC, but it’s very complicated.

You can set it up so that when you say “good morning,” it will reply with news from specific sources, or specific information. It’s pretty forgiving about phrasing; it picks up on key words.

After initial setup, you can sign up for sustained subscriptions to music services. Both devices do Spotify, but neither do Apple Music. The Echo offers Amazon Music, which is free if you’re already signed up to Amazon Prime.

The Google Home Mini has better sound than the Echo Dot. The Echo and Echo dot have an audio  jack so you can connect it to your stereo or another speaker. If you have a standard and a mini of either, you can specify which device you want to play music from.

The Echo will read books you’ve purchased through Kindle. A member asked whether either device can read books from CELA. The answer is no, not at present.