Voice Controlled Smart Home Tech – User review

Amazon Echo smart speaker

Over the course of history there have always been single named women who have influenced our lives and Culture: Cleopatra, Maggie, Madonna, and now it’s the turn of Alexa! I have been curious and intrigued by the benefits of technological assistants with regards my disability, so I was very excited when Enable Ireland gave me an opportunity to try out Alexa in the form of the Amazon Echo.

How easy is it to get the Echo up and running?

The initial setup of the Amazon Echo is very simple to carry out. You need to download the Amazon Alexa app to your smartphone (get used to downloading apps on your phone), the app will search for the device, the app will then connect to the device through the devices own Wi-Fi signal, you then connect your device to your home broadband, and hey presto within a few minutes your Amazon Echo is up and running.

What can Alexa do on its own?

Alexa logo - speech bubble - blue on while circle on blue background - square
Alexa Logo

The initial benefits of the Amazon Echo for a person with a disability are very limited. You can ask Alexa what the weather will be like, what time it is, to set reminders, and some other quirky less useful questions: “Alexa, tell me a joke”, “What’s the capital of Finland?”, or more randomly “Alexa, beatbox for me”.

Using the Alexa app you can enable other skills to assist you in your daily activities. If you are into music you can add 🙂 your Spotify profile to Alexa, this is very simple to do if you can use a smartphone. Alexa will then play your playlists through its impressive speakers. This is very handy, even for someone who is not into music much, as it means I don’t need to listen to music through my basic phone speakers nor do I have to call someone to change a cd in my stereo. It is great for podcasts as well, though as Alexa sometimes has difficulty understanding people you might be better off setting up a playlist through your Spotify app first if any of your favourite podcasts have quirky names like my favourite Arsenal podcast Arsecast by Arseblog!

If you have vision impairment, have difficulty holding a book, or you just like Audiobooks you can quickly add your Audible account too, tilt back in your chair and listen to your favourite book or a new release. It can also update you with the latest news, traffic, and weather for your area as well.

If you have trouble with your memory because of a head injury, or you just have a head like a sieve as I do, the reminders and timers could be very useful. I normally add reminders to my phone as I can’t write them down but just immediately calling them out is useful as sometimes I go to add them to my phone and get distracted by Twitter and the likes. The timers are useful if you’re cooking and the chicken needs just five minutes more.

What can Alexa do using IOT – The Internet Of Things?

For someone with a physical disability this is where it really sparked my interest. I struggle with some aspects of technology and to physically control my environment so I thought I would benefit from Alexa and the Echo.

Smart WeMo Plug

wemo smart plug in double socket
WeMo Plug

Firstly I decided to set up the lamp in my sitting room. In order to use Alexa to switch on your light you either need a smart plug or you need smart bulbs and a Wi-Fi hub. Enable Ireland had also provided me with a WeMo smart plug in this instance. The setup for the WeMo smart plug was very similar to the initial setup of the Amazon Echo: download the app, connect to the devices own Wi-Fi, and connect the device to your home broadband.

Once you have that done you can control the lamp directly from your smartphone only if you wanted, in order to connect it to the Alexa you need to go back to the Alexa app and pair the Alexa with the WeMo smart plug from there. 

Overall it is very simple System and process and once you have it up all you have to do is say “Alexa, turn on the lamp”. This was a complete success and over the time I had the devices this is the one that proved most simple to use and most consistent. It was lovely if I was on my own for a little while coming toward evening, I could give that simple command and “Let there be light!”

Firestick TV

Amazon Firestick

The other devices I had to connect to the Echo were related to the TV. I use an Amazon fire stick to play games on my TV and also to watch Netflix. I knew from watching YouTube videos that you could pair your Amazon Echo with your fire stick and use Alexa to open Netflix and play your movies and shows.

Unfortunately this was not so easy to carry out. It seemed simple at first, get your Alexa device to scan your Wi-Fi for compatible devices and when you see the Firestick click connect. Unfortunately this is where I ran into some problems. In order to get the Alexa to carry out these procedures I had to enable its TV skills through the app. I had to do something similar to set up my Spotify account so I wasn’t too worried at first. Frustratingly when I went into the app to enable that TV skill the screen went blank and gave me no options to enable it. After numerous attempts to carry this out and searches on the internet to find a solution I eventually contacted Amazon’s online support and having gone through three advisors I found the solution by enabling it through my laptop and my Amazon account on the Desktop site. Phew!

The results of that is I can come into sitting room in the morning, with the TV turned off, and ask Alexa to open Netflix. If you know the name of the movie or show you want to watch you can ask Alexa to open it directly. You can play, pause and fast forward or rewind whatever you are watching. This has been very helpful for me is the remote for my fire stick is tiny and the buttons are incredibly difficult to press. If you are a movie buff and have difficulties using small remotes then this solution is probably worth all the hassle it took to set it up in the first place!

Harmony Hub

Logitech Harmony Hub universal IR remote control
Harmony Hub

In the package from Enable Ireland there was also a Logitech Harmony Hub. At first, I had no idea what it was. I had never heard of it before. A bit of Googling revealed that it is a universal remote control. A bit of YouTubing revealed that it could be paired with Alexa to turn on and control a whole host of electronic devices including your TV, Stereo System, or Sky Box.

This is a complex setup. You set up the Harmony hub much the same way as you do the other devices. So again that means you need to download another app to connect it to your Wi-Fi, I hope you have enough space on your smartphone!  Once it is set up and ready to go you need to use the Alexa app to enable the Harmony Hub skill so Alexa can communicate with the Harmony Hub. Now use the Harmony App to scan for smart devices that may be on your Wi-Fi already, like a smart TV. If you have something that is not smart like my Sky box, you simply search in the app for the product and add it to your list of devices. Right, now that you have your devices listed and the Hub and Alexa can talk to one another what can you tell them to do?

Using the Harmony app you can set up a range of “activities”. These are relatively easy to set up as you follow a step by step process through the app. Quite quickly I had it set up so that I could tell Alexa to turn on the TV, it would turn on the TV and set it to the Sky TV extension immediately. I also set it up so I could increase and decrease the volume of the TV and I could change the ordinary terrestrial channels on the TV. I have seen that you can change channels on your Sky box and set “favourite channels” to tune to quickly but, frustratingly, while I can do that through the Harmony app on my phone I haven’t been able to do that using Alexa despite numerous and persistent attempts. Apparently, it is possible if you set an “activity” for each individual channel but life is too short!

If you are technically proficient enough and you have a big enough budget there are whole host of other devices you could use with the Alexa to smarten up your home whether it is to control your heating or even to unlock your door!

Are there Privacy Issues?

screenshot of Alexa terms of use
Alexa terms of Use

There are some concerns about privacy and the Alexa. Some of the stories surrounding this issue I’m sure have been exaggerated for headlines but there is a basis to some of the concern too with Amazon admitting that staff listen to people’s interactions with Alexa (I think they’ll get a laugh from some of my frustrated interactions where Alexa was called everything under the sun while I tried in vain to control the Sky box via Alexa).

The Terms of Use is the first thing you’ll see when you download the Alexa app. This sort of sets the tone for what to expect with Alexa.

I know from my experience with the Alexa that there have been some strange happenings. During conversations in the same room as the Alexa the blue light that indicates Alexa is listening has come on. On another occasion Alexa has piped up with search results that were not asked for in the middle of a conversation. Nothing too sinister I’m sure but something I’m personally not too comfortable with.

It’s up to you whether you’re willing to give up that sense of personal privacy in place of the benefits Alexa provides.

Conclusion

I was very excited to try out the Amazon Echo and Alexa. I felt this was my opportunity to finally make up my mind on whether to purchase one or not, a decision I had been debating over for some time.

Alexa promises so much to help me with my physical disability. Overall in this aspect it did live up to expectation. It was frustrating that I couldn’t manage to set it up to operate my Sky box but I was able to set it up to use most the functions on my TV, and the Alexa in conjunction with the WeMo plug gave the most satisfying and consistent function of switching my sitting room lamp on and off. If I were to purchase an Echo I would consider investing further into the other devices that could do as the WeMo plug did.

The other aspects of the Echo were less beneficial to me as they didn’t involve improving my access to my physical environment. That does not take away from the fact that they could be hugely beneficial for someone with a different disability such as a sensory disability: reminders, timers, your Spotify, and your Audiobooks through Alexa would simplify so many parts of a person’s life.

For someone with a high level disability or someone who has difficulty using a smartphone the set up process of the Echo itself may be a little complex. The set up process for some of the “activities” on the Harmony Hub would take the most seasoned of smartphone users to the point where they just give up (ie. me 🙂

The initial cost of the Amazon Echo is very affordable. However, if someone with a disability wishes to use the Echo and Alexa to its full potential to make their lives more independent then they will need to spend a lot more. A quick Google suggested that a Wi-Fi plug similar to the WeMo plug is €22 each while a Harmony Hub remote is available for approximately €120. So if you’re hoping to live in a completely smart home it’s going to be difficult if you’re sole source of income is your Disability Allowance.

All that being said, that decision I have been debating over for some time, have I made it? Well, in a sense I have. I am fortunate to be able to use my mobile phone without much difficulty so in the short term I think I will get a Harmony Hub which will allow me to carry out most of what Alexa has been doing for me on this trial but through my phone and without the worry of Amazon employees listening in on me. In the medium to long term I’m sure I’ll revisit Alexa or even the Google equivalent!

XAC (XBOX Adaptive Controller) User Review

I have always been a bit of a gamer. From Tetris on the original Gameboy to Sonic and the SEGA Mega Drive, I was always keen to pass the time away rapidly instructing a cartoon character to bounce from one side of the screen to another. Since I acquired my disability in 1999 though I felt
that large parts of this world were now no longer accessible to me. I felt with limited use of my arms and no use of my fingers consoles were out of the question. That changed recently when the Xbox brought out their new accessible controller.

I had tried to use several different games on the PlayStation and the Xbox, my nephew had a PlayStation and I had been able to use the left stick and some of the buttons on the ordinary controller but despite me telling him not to use the trigger buttons which were inaccessible to me I still got hammered several times by him on FIFA.

This new accessible controller seemed as though it would provide me with the opportunity to have the full experience of console gaming again, but who is going to buy an Xbox One and accessible controller just to see if they can use it or not? Thankfully Enable Ireland came to my rescue and
they allowed me to borrow their console and controller for the period of a month.


XBox Adaptive Controller (XAC)

The controller is simple to use and simple to set up. I needed some help to physically plug some aids in and out of the controller but apart from that it was a breeze.

The controller is setup for people of all abilities. The variety of configurations is as wide as the number of disabilities of the people who it is geared to provide for.

The xbox adaptive controller with some compatible accessories, switches, one handed joystick


I used the controller mainly for games like FIFA, Ryse, Forza 5, and some slightly more intricately controlled games like Grand Theft Auto and Battlefield.

Some games I used just the accessible controller with the coloured plug in switches that Enable Ireland provided alongside the console.

For other more complicated games, I used the Co-Pilot feature. The Co-Pilot feature allows you to use the ordinary controller as best you can while using the accessible controller switches for any bits or buttons on the ordinary controller that you can’t access.

Forza 5

Forza 5 cover
Forza switch setup. 4 switches. break, go , left , right

My setup for Forza, the car racing game, was the simplest of all. I took 4 of the aid switches and plugged them into the accessible controller, one was plugged into RT for the accelerator, one was plugged into LT for the brake, and the remaining two were plugged into the left and right ports on
the d-pad. I placed the RT switch under my elbow to continuously accelerate, which then meant my hands only had to focus on the three remaining buttons for steering and braking. That was a huge success, and meant I did not need any assistance throughout any of the gameplay on that particular game. Though that does not mean I was a great driver!

using elbow switch for accellator left only 3 switches to operate and drive successfully

FIFA 19

FIFA 19 Cover
switch setup for FIFA 19. One switch on arm rest, two on right leg, one on left leg and the xbox controller

For FIFA I used the Co-Pilot feature. I used the ordinary controller as I had done previously with my nephew, steering my player with the left stick while passing, tackling, shooting, etc with the usual A, B, X, and Y buttons.

I used the Xbox Accessible Controller then for the sprint and switch player options. I simply plugged in the switches into the RT and LT ports on the accessible controller and played normally on the ordinary controller while occasionally tapping the switches to change player or holding them down
with my elbow to sprint.

A very successful and intelligent solution which resulted in a 5-1 victory for me over my nephew! His face was a picture 🙂

Ryse, GTA & Battlefield

Ryse cover
Grand Theft Auto cover
Battlefield cover

Each of these I played with a similar set up to FIFA (pictured above). I used the Co-Pilot feature, the ordinary controller in conjunction with the accessible controller with four switches plugged into the RT, LT, RB, and LB ports.

Mainstream controller supplemented by a switch on the armrest, two on right knee and one on left

These games were a bit more intricate in their controls in comparison to the others and a little more difficult to use as a result. The accessible controller meant though that it was possible for me to at least give it a go. This controls setup was good and meant that I actually completed the story mode of Ryse, on easy.

I could play the vast majority of GTA and Battlefield without any difficulty, but there were certain issues. To use the character’s “special abilities” in GTA you had to press down on both the left and right sticks. I think you could set that up but that would require two more switches which I didn’t have.

Also, on occasion, while I had all the right buttons the scenario in the game was so complex that it involved pressing a number of buttons and steering at least one, if not both, sticks at the same time. It was almost equivalent to playing some musical instrument. On one mission I did have to fall back on some assistance from my nephew.

Conclusion

While it is still not quite the same as gaming prior to my disability the Xbox Accessible Controller has reopened the prospect of gaming properly on a regular basis and owning a console of my own again. This was a world that I thought had long left me behind but thanks to Microsoft and Xbox I’m
right back in the game!