Getting to Know Alexa

Following on from my discussion of domestic virtual assistants, I wanted to know more about how they worked in practice. I already have the Google Mini home and it is currently quite limited. It is linked to the Google Home Assistant which is basically your Google account, so it should link to all your Google apps right? Wrong! I have 2 Google Chromecasts, one connected to the TV in the lounge, the other one in the bedroom. Although my TV is not modern and smart enough to be activated without first switching to the relevant HDMI port, it still accommodates the devices. The issue I have is that I can do more casting from my phone or tablet than I can currently do with voice control. Basically, it will just show photos or launch a few radio stations, or Youtube or Netflix with limited search parameters. With my tablet, I can launch any TV Catch up service, including Now TV.  I assume these are premium because they sponsor or promote their services in some way? I hope more come in the future.

Google’s biggest rival in this arena, Amazon, seem to have their act together a whole lot more. I was really routing for Google, so admit this somewhat begrudgingly, as I have a somewhat chequered history with Amazon devices. A few years ago now, I obtained an Amazon TV Firestick, mainly so I could use the Flixster app to watch my large Ultraviolet media collection through my TV. No sooner had I done so than support for the app was promptly dropped. Not happy! I can cast the app with some limited success from my mobile devices to Chromecast though. Recently, I subscribed for Amazon prime as a student, as it was free for 6 months and then a paltry monthly sum. I also subscribe to Now TV and share this account with a family member who reciprocates by sharing his Netflix account for me, so a good deal.

Within CEL, we have had languishing in our cupboards 2 Alexa enabled devices, so I decided to take them out for a run. A 2nd generation Echo Dot (audio speaker only) and an Echo Show (with a screen). First, I installed the Alexa App on both my phone and my tablet, as this is required to manage the devices. I could not get the Echo Show to complete setup at work. I think it may have been because it could only connect to the cloud and not BU_Staff (I think it required a secure network?). The Echo Dot was a lot more straightforward. However, I still felt a little subconscious talking to it in a shared office. I think we needed some alone time to get to know each other properly.

So, I took both devices home and after a bit of wrestling to reset them, I connected them both to my home wi-fi. Success! It easily synched with my Google contacts and I discovered people who also had Alexa could be called via it. For others, I enabled Skype and got 2 months free credit for the privilege. I also synched my Google calendar. To my joy, I found I could control my TV Firestick with either device and ask it to open BBC iPlayer, Netflix or whatever else I had previously enabled.

I put the Echo Show device in the lounge where we could see the screen and the Echo Dot behind the curtain on a window sill in the dining room. I had fun broadcasting messages to the kids from another room and they enjoyed that. Also, it’s good for their development, as they have to annunciate articulately to be understood properly for any devices. They can ask it questions, get it to tell them a story or play music. The Show device also takes photos, but not videos, which is strange as it allows video calls to other Alexa users?

I am looking forward to more skills or apps becoming available on both Amazon and Google devices. Hopefully, there may be some around learning and teaching. Although we could wait for this innovation before using this technology, I subscribe to the theory that it is best to be prepared before that happens. I am also watching to see how for Amazon’s collaboration with Microsoft Cortana goes. I am currently awaiting delivery of an iPad, so I may even have an adventure with Siri. I also hear that Facebook is developing a device, so keep reading…

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