Amazon describes the Echo as a hands-free, voice-controlled device that uses Alexa (Amazon’s answer to Siri, Cortana and other voice assistants) to play music, control smart home devices, provide information, read the news, set alarms, and more. I had been wanting to try the Echo since its launch, but I was just not willing to pay the $180 for the original version of this device.
When Amazon announced a smaller version of the Echo, the Echo Dot, for $50 in the spring of this year, I saw this as a perfect opportunity to try it. The smaller version includes a lower quality speaker than its larger cousin, but since I have a number of Bluetooth speakers already this is not a major issue. Other than the speaker, the rest of the device performs similarly whether you are using the $180 model or the $5o dollar one. Unfortunately, the original Echo Dot was originally released in limited quantities and quickly sold out before I could get my hands on one.
I had to wait until this fall, when Amazon released a second generation Echo Dot, at the same $50 price point. I quickly ordered one to see how I could use it as a person with a visual impairment. I am intrigued by the use of speech as an interface. I am excited by the prospect of a future where my interactions with my computing devices and even my home become even more seamless – with no buttons to find and press, no specific commands to memorize. We are not there yet (the speech recognition still has some limitations), but devices like the Echo make me hopeful about the future.
What Is It?
The Echo Dot is shaped like a large hockey puck. It is basically the equivalent of taking the top inch and a half or so from the cylinder-shaped original Echo (the part above the speaker). Around the top edge of this hockey puck are the seven microphones it uses to recognize your voice commands, and a ring light used to provide visual feedback when a command has been recognized. On top of the hockey puck are the few buttons you can use:
- On/Off button (3 o’clock): the only indication the device has turned on/off is the ring light around the top edge coming on. A tone or other audio feedback would have been helpful.
- Volume buttons (12 o’clock and 6 o’clock): As you press these buttons, the ring light around the top of the device will let you know the volume level (and you will also get some audio feedback in the form of a tone that will become louder or softer was you press the buttons).
- Mute button (9 o’clock): Pressing this button will mute the Echo’s 7 microphones so that it temporarily stops recognizing your commands. The ring light on top of the device will turn red to let you know it is muted. This may come in handy if you are plan on watching TV for a while and don’t want the Echo to be triggered by the series of Amazon commercials featuring the trigger word.
Basically, you have to say a trigger word before the Echo will recognize a command. By default, this trigger word is “Alexa” but you can change it by going into the Alexa app on your mobile device. I have mine set to “Echo” (to avoid my device being triggered by Amazon’s commercials) but “Amazon” is also an option.
The Alexa app is how you first set up your Echo Dot and adjust its settings. It is also how you download and install Skills (the Echo equivalent of apps). These Skills basically expand the range of commands you can use with your Echo. Overall, Amazon has done a nice job of making the Alexa app for iOS VoiceOver compatible. I had no major issues with unlabeled buttons and the like as I interacted with it.
Ask and You Should Receive (An Answer)
The most basic use of the Echo is to ask it questions it can answer by searching on the Web. This ranges from simple math (“Alexa, what is 125 times 33?”), to unit conversion (“Alexa, how many pounds are in 40 kilograms?”), to spelling and definitions (“Alexa, what is the definition of agoraphobia?”, “Alexa, how do you spell pneumonia?”).
My favorite use of this feature is to ask for updates about my favorite sports teams: “Alexa, how are the Giants doing?” or “Alexa, when do the Giants play next?” To help Echo provide more accurate responses, I have specified my favorite teams in the Alexa app for iOS (Settings > Sports Update). In case you are wondering, I love the New York Giants and Mets!
Rather than going over everything you can ask Alexa, I will point you to Amazon’s own extensive list of Alexa commands you can use on the Echo devices.
Get The Day Off to a Good Start
I have set my Echo as my primary alarm to help me get up in the morning (“Alexa, wake me up at 7 am.” or “Alexa set an alarm for 7 am.”). Once I have set an alarm with my voice, I can open the Alexa app and use it to change the alarm sound (Nimble is currently my favorite), or delete the alarm if I no longer need it (I can also do this with just my voice by saying “Alexa, cancel my alarm for 7 am.”) I can just say “Alexa, snooze” if I want to get a few more minutes of sleep before I start my day.
Following my alarm, I have set up a number of Skills that provide me with a nice news summary to start the day (“Alexa, give me my Flash Briefing?”). Right now, I have the following Skills set up for my Flash Briefing: CNET (for the latest tech news), NPR (for a nice summary of national and international news) and Amazon’s Weather Skill (for a nice summary of current weather conditions). Some of these skills (CNET, NPR) play a recording of the content, while others (Amazon’s Weather) use synthesized speech (which is quite pleasant on the Echo if I may add).
To install a Skill, you will open the hamburger menu (located on the left side of the Alexa app if you are using it on iOS), then choose Skills. You can browse or search until you find the Skills that match your needs. Tapping Your Skills in the upper right corner will show you all of your installed skills. You can tap the entry for any of the listed skills to disable (delete) it. If you just want to temporarily disable the skill, you can go to Settings > Account > Flash Briefing and use the on/off toggles to disable or enable a skill (again, you will first have to tap the hamburger menu in the Alexa app to access Settings).
Manage Your Life
In addition to alarms, the Echo supports timers which can be helpful for cooking (we don’t want that casserole to be overcooked, do we?). To set a timer, just say “Alexa, set a timer for 10 minutes?”
Timers can also be helpful for individuals who have executive functioning challenges. Executive functioning is the ability to self regulate, which includes the ability to stay on task and manage and keep time. For someone with this kind of challenge, you can set multiple timers with your Echo. For example, you can set a timer for someone to do an activity for one hour (“Alexa, set a timer for one hour”) then set a second timer for each separate step that needs to be completed to accomplish the assigned task during that hour. For example, I can say “Alexa, set a second timer for 25 minutes” to have someone read for 25 minutes as part of a larger one hour block of study time. When that 25 minute timer ends I can have the person take a five minute break then repeat the steps to set up a second timer for another 25 minutes of work.
You can also manage your to do list with Alexa: just say “Alexa, add (name of to do item) to my to do list” or “Alexa, remind me to (name of task).” You can review your to do list with Alexa (“Alexa, what’s on my to do list?”) but you can’t remove or edit to do items with your voice – for this you have to go into the Alexa app on your mobile device. Personally, I prefer to use other tools to manage my to do list (Reminders for iOS, Google Keep) but the Echo to do list feature can be helpful for to do lists that are more relevant for the home (cleaning supplies, groceries, etc.).
In the Alexa app, you can also set up any calendar in your Google account as the destination where any events created with the Echo will be added. For example, I can say “Alexa, add (event name) to my calendar,” respond to a few prompts, and that event will be created in the Google calendar I have specified. I can then check what I have scheduled for a given day by saying “Alexa, what’s on my calendar for (today, tomorrow, Friday, etc.).” Again, the ability to stay organized and follow up on appointments and due dates is something most of us take for granted but is a skill that is not as well developed in some people. Any kind of environmental support for these skills, such as what the Echo can provide, is helpful.
A New Way to Read
The Echo is a great way to listen to your books as they are read aloud with either human narration or synthesized speech. This can be a great way to take advantage of the Echo in a classroom setting. Since Amazon owns Audible, you can access any audiobook on your Audible account through the Echo. Just say “Alexa, play (book title) on Audible.” and the Echo will fetch the book and start reading it. You can then use the commands “Alexa, stop” and “Alexa, resume my book” to control playback. You can also navigate the book’s chapters by saying “Alexa, next (or previous) chapter.” Finally, you can set a sleep timer for the current book with the commands”Alexa, set a sleep timer for (x) minutes” or “Alexa, stop playing in (x) minutes.”
Many Kindle books can also be read aloud. To see a list of the books you have purchased that support reading on the Echo, visit Music & Books on the Alexa app, then choose Kindle Books. To start listening to a book, just say “Alexa read (title of the book).” The expected playback commands, “Alexa, stop,” “Alexa resume my Kindle book” and so on are supported for books that can be read aloud.
Let There Be Light
Echo can be a great way to control lights and other appliances using just your voice. This can be especially helpful for those who have motor difficulties that make interaction with with these features of the home a challenge. As a person with a visual impairment, I use my smart lights to ensure my home is well lit when I get home. I set this up as a “Coming Home” routine in the app for my Hue lights. Using geofencing, the app determines when I am close to my home and automatically turns on the lights and sets them to a specified scene (a preset brightness and color). No more fumbling to find my way around a dark home when I come home! Similarly, I can set up a “Leaving Home” routine to make sure the lights automatically turn off if I leave them on by mistake. How-to Geek has a nice article detailing how to set up and configure Hue lights.
By installing the Hue Skill, you can get basic voice control of your lights through the Echo. This Skill gets information about the rooms and scenes (presets for sets of lights with predetermined brightness levels/colors) you have set up from the Hue app installed on your mobile device. The first step in getting your Echo to control your lights then is to get all of your Hue rooms and scenes recognized. You will do this by going to the Smart Home section in the Alexa app, then scrolling down to Your Devices and selecting “Discover Devices.” You may have to tap the circular button on your Hue bridge to get everything recognized. If everything is recognized correctly, you should see every scene and room you have set up in the Hue app listed as an individual device in the Alexa app. Although I only have three Hue lights (two white and one color) I have 30 devices recognized by my Alexa app (one device for each individual light, room and scene).
The next step is to set up your Groups in the Alexa app. This is done by choosing “Create group” in the Smart Home section. To give you an idea of my setup, I have the following groups set up: All Lights, Living Room and Office. For each group, I have then enabled the lights, scenes and rooms I want it to include. For example, for my Living Room group I have the following items enabled: Living Room Color and Bookshelf (the names I assigned to the two individual lights I own), Living Room (the room containing the two lights together), and the different Scenes (presets) I have created. These presets are assigned to the room and are currently “Bright in Living Room,” “Dimmed in Living Room” and my favorite “Florida Sunset in Living Room.” For this last one, I was able to choose a nice photo of a sunset I took at the beach and the Hue app automatically picked sunset colors for the scene!
With my current configuration, I can use the following commands to control my lights:
- “Alexa, turn on (or off) all the lights”: As expected, this turns on/off all of my connected lights using the All Lights group I set up in the Alexa app, which includes a single device called All Hue Lights.
- “Alexa, turn on the Living Room (or Office) lights”: this commands turns all of the lights assigned to a specific room on or off at once.
- “Alexa, turn on (or off) the Bookshelf light”: this command turns on or off the individual light called Bookshelf, a single soft white bulb I have set up near my bookshelf.
- “Alexa, set the Bookshelf light to 50%” or “Alexa, set the Living Room (or Office) lights to 50%: I can control the light level of any individual light or room.
- “Alexa, turn on Florida Sunset (or any of my named scenes)”: this will turn on my Florida Sunset scene which configures the main living room light to a nice red/orange shade selected from a photo in the Hue app.
Echo is not the only way I can control my lights. Because I have a version of the Hue lights that is HomeKit compatible, I can also use Siri on my iOS devices. In fact, I find the voice control provided by Siri to be not only more intuitive and easier to set up, but also to offer better performance (quicker response). If you have an old iPhone 6s just lying around, you could set it up with “hey Siri” so that it works pretty much like an Echo as far as light control goes. Another thing I like about the Siri control is that I can use my voice to change the color of my lights by saying “set the (light name) to blue (or any of the basic colors).
Finally, I have a Wemo switch I am using to control my Christmas tree lights over the holidays. I have set up this Wemo switch with a rule to automatically turn on the Christmas tree every day at 5:30 pm (around the time when sunset takes place for us in Florida) and then turn it off at 11 pm. I can also just say “Alexa, turn the Christmas tree on (or off) at any time for more manual control. Unfortunately, the Wemo does not work with Siri like the Hue lights. It is limited to the Echo for voice control.
There is a lot more you can do with your lights with the help of the online automation service IFTT, which has an entire channel dedicated to Hue lights. For example, you can say “Alexa, trigger party time” to have your lights set to a color loop. I am still looking for an IFTT trigger that turns my lights blue each time the Giants win.
Are You Entertained?
Ok, so you are not impressed by voice controlled lights? Well, there is more the Echo can do. By far, the most common way I use this device is as a music player. What can I say, whether studying or working out, music is a big part of my life. I have my Echo paired with a nice Bluetooth speaker for better sound than what the built-in speaker can produce. If Bluetooth is not reliable enough for you, you can directly connect the Echo to any speaker that accepts the included 3.5 mm audio cable.
Echo supports a number of music services, including Prime Music (included with Amazon Prime), Spotify (my favorite), Pandora, iHeartRadio and TuneIn. The following commands are supported for playback:
- “Alexa, play (playlist name) on Spotify”: play songs from any playlist you have set up on Spotify. My favorite is the Discover Weekly playlist released each Monday. This isa collection of songs curated by the Spotify team and a great way to discover new music.
- Alexa, play (radio station name) on Pandora (or TuneIn or iHeartRadio)”: if you have any of these services set up in the Alexa app, the Echo will start playing the selected station.
- “Alexa, like this song (or thumbs up/down)”: assign a rating to a song playing on Pandora or iHeartRadio.
- “Alexa, next”: skip to the next song. Saying “Alexa, previous” will work as expected (at least on Spotify).
- “Alexa, stop” or “Alexa, shut up”: stop music playback. Saying “Alexa, resume (or play)” will get the music going again.
- “Alexa, what’s playing?”: get the name of the song and artist currently playing.
- “Alexa, set the volume to (a number between 1 and 10)”: control the volume during playback.
Update: In the first version of this post, I forgot to mention podcasts. The Echo Dot supports podcasts through the TuneIn service, which does not require an account. The Echo could be an excellent podcast receiver, but it is limited by the fact that podcast discovery is not that great on TuneIn. The first thing you need to do is look to see that your favorite podcast is available on TuneIn.
You do this through the Alexa app, by going into Music and Books and selecting TuneIn, then Podcasts. If your podcast is available on TuneIn, make a note of the name it is listed under. You can then say “Alexa, play the (name of podcast) podcast on TuneIn” and you should be able to listen to the most recent episode of the podcast if you got the name correctly. This was hit or miss in my experience. For podcasts with straightforward names (Radiolab, the Vergecast) I was able to get my Echo to play the latest episode with no problems, but for others it got confused and instead played a song that closely matched my request.
Spotify also supports podcasts now, but I was not able to access them through my Echo. I hope Spotify adds better support for this type of content in a future update. I really enjoy podcasts because they allow me to access content without having to look at a screen, which is tiring to my eyes.
While the Echo does not control playback on a TV (it is limited to music), it can at least help with information about the program you are watching. For example, you can ask “Alexa, who plays (character name” in (movie or TV show)?” or “Alexa, who plays in (movie or TV show)?” to get a full cast list.
Out and About
While there has been some valid criticism of ride sharing services for refusing rides to people who use guide dogs, these services are an improvement over the taxi services many of us have had to rely on due to our disabilities. This is case with me. My visual impairment prevents me from safely driving a car, so I have to rely on other people to drive me or I have to use public transportation (which is not very reliable where I live). Uber and Lyft have been a Godsend for me: I use them to get me to the airport and any meetings or appointments. Most of the time I will request a ride through an iPhone app, but with Echo I can do it with a simple command as well: “Alexa, ask Uber to request a ride” or “Alexa, ask Lyft for a ride.”
Uber and Lyft are both Skills you have to install on your Echo. Once you have them installed, you will also have to set up a default pickup location the first time you launch the skill. After requesting a ride, you will be prompted a couple of times to make sure you really want to order a ride. Once your ride is on its way, you can say “Alexa, ask Uber (or Lyft) where’s my ride” to get a status.
Before you go out, why not make sure you are dressed for the weather – whether that be snow in more northern parts of the country or rainstorms in the part of the country where I live (Florida). You can just ask “Alexa, what’s the weather like?” or “Alexa, is it going to rain today?” or even “Alexa, will I need an umbrella today?” You can get an idea of the traffic to your destination by saying “Alexa, what’s the traffic like?” This requires you to enter your home address and a destination you visit frequently in the Alexa app (this can be your work address or, in my case, my local airport).
There is a lot more you can do with Echo. I have just scratched the surface with some of the things I myself have been able to try out. For example, I would love to install a Nest thermostat so that I can use my voice to control the temperature (“Alexa, set the temperature to 75 degrees.” – hey, I am from the Caribbean, you know). Other smart home applications include controlling locks and even your garage door. I am not quite ready to trust my home security to my Echo, but it’s nice to know these options exist for those who need them as a way to make their homes more universally designed and capable of meeting their accessibility needs.
If you are a person with a disability (or even if you are not), how are you using your Amazon Echo? If you don’t have one, is this something you are considering?
Bonus: Can’t speak the commands needed to interact with the Echo? No problem. Speech generating devices to the rescue. I have been using the Proloquo4Text app on my iOS device to send commands to my Echo with no problems. I created an Echo folder in Proloquo4Text that has the commands I would use most frequently. Here is a quick demo: