THE SMART HOME HAS A VOICE AS­SIS­TANT PROB­LEM

“Alexa, should I use Siri or Google?”

HWM (Malaysia) - - Q & A - by Ng Chong Seng

Voice-con­trol­lable smart speak­ers such as Ama­zon Echo and Google Home are the lat­est hol­i­day sales dar­lings. At the most ba­sic level, both can be your source of en­ter­tain­ment (e.g., have them stream mu­sic), but if you’re will­ing to let them into your life fully, they can also be your per­sonal as­sis­tant and the com­man­der of your smart home.

That last bit is why I got the Echo. You see, I have a Z-Wave net­work at home that’s set up to con­trol my lights and power switches, and I’ve long wanted to con­trol them via a way that’s not the atro­cious app my smart home con­troller maker pro­vides. The Echo/Alexa so­lu­tion is at­trac­tive be­cause, re­ally, what form of in­ter­ac­tion can be faster and more nat­u­ral than voice?

But the prob­lem is (and it’s a big one), it re­quires a ton of work to in­te­grate the Echo into an ex­ist­ing smart home, as op­posed to start­ing off with the Echo and then build­ing a smart home around it. So while the Echo has a de­cent list of smart home part­ner­ships (e.g., Belkin WeMo, In­steon, Philips Hue, Sam­sung SmartThings, Wink), if you don’t use any of them, be pre­pared to hack your way through to make the Echo the cen­ter of your smart home.

That is ex­actly what I did since most of my Z-Wave de­vices came from play­ers such as Aeon Labs, Fibaro, and Vera. Long story short, I’m now run­ning a piece of soft­ware (search ‘ha-bridge’ on Google) on a Rasp­berry Pi that em­u­lates a Philips Hue light sys­tem, which in turn ‘tricks’ Alexa to rec­og­nize my Z-Wave de­vices. Alas, like how a re­cent re­port by VoiceLabs that noted that peo­ple aren’t stick­ing with voice apps they try on their Ama­zon Echo or Google Home, I find my­self not stick­ing with the smart as­sis­tants I use. Just a cou­ple of months into Echo/Alexa, I was al­ready look­ing for ways to get my smart home to work with my iPhone and Siri. For the unini­ti­ated, for that to hap­pen, ide­ally, I should be us­ing HomeKit-en­abled de­vices. But be­cause I don’t, I have to once again search for a tool that em­u­lates the HomeKit API. I won’t go into de­tails, but for the tech­ni­cally in­clined, Home­bridge, a light­weight NodeJS server, is ar­guably the best so­lu­tion now if you want Siri to con­trol non-HomeKit de­vices.

Re­ally, if you think the home au­to­ma­tion/smart home scene is still in its in­fancy (and it is), then the voice­con­trolled smart home baby hasn’t even been con­ceived yet. My pes­simistic view is that it’d take another decade for all the cor­rect pieces to fall into place. But that’s for another story.

(P.S. For those won­der­ing, yes, I’ve also in­te­grated Google Home into my smart home. Speak­ing to Alexa, Siri, and Google for dif­fer­ent mat­ters is re­ally not fun.)

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