An Assistant That Works for Free
Since 2017 I’ve become enamored with personal assistants. No, not the kind that you have to pay regularly… the kind that connect to your home wifi system and make life easier.
There are three primary systems, depending on your operating system. Google Home and Amazon Alexa are probably the more common, while Mac users may prefer the currently less capable Siri, available on HomePod.
Google Home speakers, or the app enable users to play audio and speak voice commands to interact with services through Google's intelligent personal assistant called Google Assistant. A large number of services, both in-house and third-party, are integrated, allowing users to listen to music, control playback of videos or photos, or receive news updates entirely by voice. Google Home devices have integrated support for home automation, letting users control smart home appliances, plugs and lights with their voice. Multiple Google Home devices can be placed in different rooms in a home for synchronized playback of music. The device is able to distinguish between up to six people by voice. Google skills include hands-free phone calling in the United States and Canada; proactive updates ahead of scheduled events; visual responses on mobile devices or Chromecast-enabled televisions; Bluetooth audio streaming; and the ability to add reminders and calendar appointments. The wake-word is “Hey Google” or “OK Google”.
Amazon Alexa is a virtual assistant developed by Amazon, first used in the Amazon Echo and the Amazon Echo Dot smart speakers. It is capable of voice interaction, music playback, making to-do lists, setting alarms, streaming podcasts, playing audiobooks, and providing weather, traffic, sports, and other real-time information, such as news. Alexa can also control several smart devices using itself as a home automation system. Users are able to extend the Alexa capabilities by installing "skills" (additional functionality developed by third-party vendors, in other settings more commonly called apps such as weather programs and audio features).
Most devices with Alexa allow users to activate the device using a wake-word (such as “Alexa”); other devices (such as the Amazon mobile app on iOS or Android) require the user to push a button to activate Alexa's listening mode. It’s a burgeoning market, Amazon has more than 5,000 employees working on Alexa and related products.
Microsoft and Amazon have a joint project to integrate Alexa into the Windows 10 operating system alongside Windows own personal assistant Cortana.
How does this relate to actual usefulness? In 2017, when these devices hit the market, I couldn’t decide which one to go with. Even now, Google and Alexa are in stiff competition to be the leader. Its like the old 8-track vs cassette or Beta vs VHS standards. Fortunately, many devices are both Google and Alexa compatible.
Aside from being able to turn on my smart TV by voice, listening to my music collection or a radio station on command throughout the house, and asking them for the weather report, the news or a joke, new skills for these devices arrive weekly, some more useful than others. Using a combination of Google Home and Alexa devices has given me a good insight into the capabilities (and weaknesses) of each. At this point, Google still seems to be the more useful of the two where my interests are concerned. A few examples. You can also get either a Google or Alexa device with a built-in screen.
I have installed a half dozen ’smart’ (meaning wi-fi enabled) lightbulbs and outlets. I have recycled all of my old mechanical timers. Often the power would go out and all of my timers required resetting. Now they pick-up where they left off and each goes on and off as required and on command through Google Home or Alexa—even from my smart phone or tablet when I am not at home. For an example, see https://youtu.be/Wq-dC61EH7Q.
There are now dozens of add-on 'skills' that you can instruct your assistant to provide you on demand. See Amazon.ca : amateur radio and Alexa Can Be Your Ham Shack Assistant! • AmateurRadio.com for examples. So now I can ask about band conditions, a space weather report or listen to a Ham podcast on demand.
One enterprising Ham, William VE4VR connected Google Assistant/Alexa up to his amateur radio (simplex or repeaters). His prototype is based on using a fresh IRLP hardware setup with a simplex VHF radio attached. He chose this as the starting point because he had a Linux machine with the radio and audio interface working. Once that was set up, he created a Google Assistant IFTTT (IF This, Then That) routine and integrated it with the IRLP platform. VERY cool!
When a radio user presses A[ssistant] or 0[perator] it calls the Assistant and then listens for voice commands. Google responds for custom questions/responses. Wake words might come later but need to be careful with sharing audio hardware. See the project video at https://youtu.be/jE_Ohi2nqIY.
In my eagerness to further explore, I found the low-cost Sonoff smart device. It is Google and Alexa compatible and it is an experimenter’s dream. I set up my garden sprinkler system with a 115VAC valve so that it will turn on at my voice command or though the software programmed timer. I already use it to turn on my workshop dust extractor… oh so many projects, so little time!
But back to Ham Radio… I wanted a low cost versatile way to turn station power on and off Using a Sonoff switch (I bought 6, making them about C$10 each). Now I walk into my shack and say: “OK Google (or Alexa), turn on my station” and everything lights up. The same happens in reverse when I power down. Sonoff also has low cost temperature sensors, water sensors and motion detectors, all of which work with the smart home controls.
~ John VE7TI
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