Amazon Echo (UK)

Amazon Echo
The Amazon Echo is a multi-function device that enables a range of smart home services via spoken voice commands. Out of the box it comes with integration to a number of popular smart home devices and services. It also provides a development environment to extend this set of capabilities and it is this that is of most interest to us, as it potentially enables the Echo to be used to query and control all aspects of our smart home via our smart home artificial intelligence (AI) interface.

The Amazon Echo is not a perfect device for this purpose because it has no idea of who is speaking to it and thus cannot provide a personalised experience. The Echo also has limited support for many of the 3rd party devices found in homes but this is a growing list.

We intend to use the Echo as an anonymous voice proxy to our smart home AI, which has real-time visibility and full context of all of the 200+ connected sensors and devices in our smart home, including all associated attributes and values. It also models 30+ object types and the 90+ IP-networked devices in our home and has access to the model we use for people, rooms/zones and the relationships between them.

This is information we would never share outside of our home or with 3rd party service providers and we can't see services from the likes of Amazon, Google, Apple, Samsung, Nest, Smart Things, etc. having access to this level of information any time soon. They are handicapped in this respect and this is the main reason why we have built our own smart home.

User Experience

Our work on smart home AI leads us to think that this is the future of the smart home. It provides an incredibly convenient, powerful, yet simple interface for anyone to query and control all aspects of our smart home. Our approach also works equally well using text-based interfaces (which are silent and usually authenticated) or voice input. It also works with untrusted (restricted capability) and trusted individuals (enabling a personalised experience where they can be identified).

The Amazon Echo is a very clever and powerful device but it isn't perfect. Because it uses voice control, it requires a spoken 'wake word' at the start of each command. The default is 'Alexa' and this can currently only be changed to 'Echo' or 'Amazon'. This results in a less user friendly experience, especially if you are having a conversation and not making a single isolated request. We prefer a push-to-talk (push a button and then start speaking) interface as this requires no wake word, is more efficient and enables a conversation thread with retained context. Our ideal experience would be an always listening service that just knows when you are talking to it though. This is still a few years away in our view.

Because of these limitations and the fact that our smart home already has its own identity, we see the Echo device being used as a voice proxy (for now). Essentially, we have to ask Alexa to speak to Nexus (our smart home's name) in order to query and control it. This is not ideal but it is still a worthy pursuit in our view. We view Nexus as another family member and now Alexa is a friend of Nexus :-)

When we make requests via Alexa, the request will appear to be from an unknown person, so it will not be a personalised user experience. This automatically limits the set of capabilities possible via this interface.

Buying / Importing

I'm lucky to have colleagues that work in California and one of them ordered an Echo device for me and brought it over whilst on a work trip.

Amazon Echo remote control
In September 2016 the Amazon Echo was launched in the UK and we bought another one to test. We have also bought the Echo remote control to test.

Unboxing

Amazon Echo box
In the box are two main items. First is the Amazon Echo device itself. Hiding underneath this is a 'quick start' guide.

Amazon Echo PSU
Second is the mains power adaptor. This is works with 110 to 240V ac and is rated at 21W. It obviously comes with the USA 2-pin plug, so you need a US-UK adaptor. The output is 15V dc.

Actual power usage varies from about 2W in stand-by to about 4W when playing music.

Amazon Echo UK PSU
The UK PSU has the normal pins expected in the UK.

Amazon Echo underside
The underside nicely hides the power connector. The small dot above the power cord (below in this picture) is an LED that indicates status as described here.

Setup

The official Amazon page on setting up your Echo is found here. This isn't much help because the Apple UK store didn't contain the required app and you need a US iTunes account to access the US apps store.

You can set up the Echo using a web app though, by going to https://alexa.amazon.com from Safari, Chrome, Firefox, or Internet Explorer (10 or higher) on your Wi-Fi connected computer. This worked well for us and we mainly use the Chrome browser (in desktop view) on our iPhone 6S to configure the Echo.

We got hold of a copy of the Android app .pak file (V1.9.8) and installed this on our Android Smartphone. This assumes you android device settings allow untrusted apps to be installed from anywhere.

Amazon Alexa App
With the UK launch of the Echo in September 2016, the Amazon Alexa app was made available in the UK Apple Store.

Problems

Amazon Echo connects to dual-band Wi-Fi (2.4Ghz / 5Ghz) networks that use the 802.11a/b/g/n standard.

The setup was initially a hugely problematic process for us. The app seemed to go through the process of connecting to the local Wi-Fi on the Echo and then 'Preparing your Echo' but this always failed. We tried the Android app and the web app route but it always timed out. The device would connect to our BT Home Hub 5a OK and had a valid IP address but, the tiny light above the power cord was flashing orange, meaning 'Your Amazon Echo is connected to your Wi-Fi network, but can't access the Alexa Voice Service'. The device always announced 'I'm having trouble connecting, I'll keep trying'.

Sept 2016 - Our device says it has software version 3731.

Amazon Account

When we looked at our Amazon.co.uk account online, the Echo device was registered but we had heard of some issues where a single email and password are used for both Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com accounts. To ensure this wasn't the problem, we created a brand new account on Amazon.com and deregistered the Echo on our main account. This didn't seem to fix the problem :-(

We could see the Echo registered but it claimed the Wi-Fi wasn't connected to the Internet still and the small light above the power cord was flashing orange:

  • We have switched off BT parental controls to ensure this isn't the issue.
  • We have also switched off the 'smart setup'.
  • We have 2.4Ghz Wi-Fi and 5Ghz Wi-Fi on different SSIDs and passwords.
  • We have switched off auto channel selection.

We have also tried unchecking the box in the app which saves Wi-Fi passwords to Amazon, to see if this was the issue.

BT Home Hub & Broadband

The next thing we tried was to bypass our BT Infinity connection by using a Smartphone with tethering as our 'home network'. This worked first time. The Echo set up quickly and all the functionality started working as expected. So there appears to be something strange about our BT Broadband connection. It looks like a DNS issue or a port or IP address being blocked.

Our initial thinking was that we have BT Parental Controls enabled on our service and that this was affecting the DNS. Even we turned the filters off, the mechanism used to enforce parental controls remain in effect (using a DNS based service) and this could be the cause of the Amazon Echo not working. The Amazon Echo as used here, uses hard-coded IP addresses to its DNS servers and the BT parental control service will block these. We have been told that the newly launched UK version of the Amazon Echo has been updated to no longer use hard-coded DNS servers and we will test this soon.

The solution we used to get the Echo to work was to assign it a fixed IP address. To do this you need to 'forget' the current network and then reconnect and use the 'advanced settings'. Here you can select a free IP address and set the gateway and DNS servers. We used the standard BT DNS servers (62.6.40.178 and 62.6.40.162).

What Works In The UK?

One frustrating things with the USA version of the device is that you can't set a home location outside of the USA (it requires a valid ZIP code). This means that the timezone is wrong and localised features are also not possible. You can ask for the weather for a specific location, e.g. it knows Ipswich is in the UK.

You can choose imperial or metric units in the settings.

The device has no problem understanding English accents but I can't speak for the Welsh and Scottish residents of the UK. I've no idea how well it handles the many regional accents we have over here.

Amazon Prime

We do have an Amazon Prime account but we have had to associate our US Echo with a new Amazon.com account, which doesn't have Prime membership. The new UK Echo connects to our Amazon account and Prime membership without any issues.

Bluetooth Music Player

It is possible to use the Amazon Echo as a Bluetooth speaker with any Smartphone. You simply say "Alexa pair" and it goes into the Bluetooth pairing mode. Once done, you can connect to the Echo at anytime to play music through it. As a Bluetooth speaker it works pretty well. It is only mono audio though and it starts to distort at higher volumes.

You can also just say "Alexa, connect to my phone" and the Echo will connect to the last connected (and previously) paired phone. This is a lot quicker than playing with iOS settings. You can also say things like: "Alexa, turn it up", "Alexa, skip this", "Alexa, pause" or "Alexa, stop".

IFTTT

To be tested very soon. We are not a big fan if IFTTT as it is for very simple smart home rules and works without context. It doesn't add anything to the extensive intelligence already in our smart home. By being a cloud service it also introduces a lot of latency.

IFTTT does provides hooks into many other data feeds though, which can then be fed into the wider set of context our smart home holds. This is our main focus and use case.

Internet Radio

With the UK Echo you can add the Radioplayer skill and basically ask Alexa to play one of hundreds of radio stations, though our local radio station Town 102 isn't available.

You also make use of Tunein. Iheartradio is an Internet radio service that requires an account to be associated in the Alexa app.

LIFX Bulbs

The Amazon Echo can directly control LIFX bulbs and it can also use the LIFX skill. The LIFX How to get connected page describes the process. Firstly, you need to make sure your bulbs on on the LIFX Cloud.

Whilst this is nicely explained it doesn't tell you what this actually means and what you should see when you login to the LIFX Cloud! All we could see was the two applications we had authorised. Having spoken with LIFX support, this is as expected.

In the Alexa app, under Settings / Connected Home, we tried to discover the LIFX bulbs but they would not show up. Firstly, we hadn't realised that we were using another account on the app, to the registered cloud account. This meant everything appeared to work OK but we didn't 'own' the bulbs as far as the cloud account was concerned and they were not connected to the cloud account that the Echo was using. Once we rectified this, we still had issues. The LIFX bulbs need to be closer to the Wi-Fi hub before they would synchronise with the LIFX cloud service. When you login to the LIFX cloud service there is no view of the bulbs provided, so you can't easily know if they are connected or not.

LIFX recently announced support for the LIFX skill by the Amazon Echo. The skill that needs to be enabled in the Echo settings and provides a richer set of control commands. This includes changing colours and brightness but requires you to invoke the skill by using a phrase such as "Alexa, tell LIFX to change the Living Room lights to red"

Spotify

Spotify
If you have Spotify Premium you can now use it with your Echo. It works in the UK too but with a some restrictions. You just go into Settings / Music Services, to link your Spotify account. You can use voice control to choose a playlist or artist and also control playback and music choice using the Spotify App.

A review and demonstration by Mashable (slightly dated now):

Integration

The rest of this project is going to be about integrating the Echo device with our smart home.

Amazon Echo APIs

The starting point for developing for the Echo is the Amazon Developer site. The are essentially two ways to interact with the Echo:

  1. Alexa Voice Service - If youre a hardware maker and your connected device has a microphone and a speaker, the new Alexa Voice Service (AVS) enables you to add voice-powered experiences to your connected devices. Your customers can simply speak to Alexa through the microphone on your device and Alexa will respond through your device's speakers.
  2. Alexa Skills Kit - A collection of self-service APIs, tools, documentation and code samples that make it fast and easy for you to add skills to Alexa. Using ASK, you can teach new skills to Alexa in just a few hours. No prior experience with speech recognition or natural language understanding is required. All of the code runs in the cloud  nothing is installed on any user device.

As we simply want to interface the Amazon Echo (existing hardware) to our smart home, we are more interested in ASK:

Alexa Skills Kit (ASK)

With the Alexa Skills Kit (ASK) your service gets called when someone uses the service invocation name. Our example will look something like this: "Alexa, ask Nexus to set the mode to auto"

  • "Alexa" is the wake word that starts the conversation.
  • "Ask...to" is one of the supported phrases to begin a conversation.
  • "Nexus" is the invocation name that identifies the skill, in this case our smart home AI interface.
  • "set the mode to auto" is the specific request, question, or command.

Getting Started with the Alexa Skills Kit.

Using the Alexa Skills Kit Samples

Using the Alexa Skills Kit Samples

Alexa Voice Service (AVS)

We will be looking at this in more detail once we have the Echo device integrated into our smart home using the Alexa Skills Kit.

Summary & Conclusions

We've got a way to go with this project yet but there are already some interesting observations and insight:

  • Voice recognition and speech responses provides a powerful interface that is easy for most people to use. We really do see this as the future of the smart home but, we don't assume this is the only interface you will ever need. Some things are simply done more efficiently using switches, buttons and touch screens. We have also adopted a smart home approach that provides a layer of intelligent control over the top of the existing manual controls, such that it is largely a 'zero touch' experience. It just knows what to do.
  • When a way from home it not always convenient to talk to your smart home and a text-based equivalent interface will often work better and provide more privacy (and potentially use authentication to enable personalisation). That's why we have focussed on text-based interaction, with a speech/voice wrapper when required.
  • The Amazon Echo is a really nice device and provides a way to introduce people to the concept of smart home control by voice, providing a stepping stone to our much more integrated and powerful smart home AI.
  • The Amazon Echo further supports our view that the smart home needs to be fully integrated, with whole house context to realise its full potential. This has been a major factor in us developing our own smart home.
  • The Amazon Echo is a very convenient interface to use, being always to hand and not requiring touching or batteries to be charged.
  • The Echo enables a wider range of things to be achieved than the narrow artificial intelligence of our smart home enables. This includes more general queries and links to entertainment and music services. We just keeping finding new things the Echo can do!
  • The Echo can only respond to commands you speak. There is no way the Echo can notify you that something happened. Our smart home AI engine allows this and supports the concept of setting personalised notifications.
  • The Echo will sometimes interrupt you when you are having a conversation. This happens rarely but it must have interpreted something we said as the wake word and then gets a load of garbage as input, resulting in a random response. We have also had this happen several times when the TV has been on. This is another disadvantage of using a wake word to initiate a dialogue.
  • The Amazon Echo is a device that works in one place at a time. We have developed a smart home AI service that is integral to our smart home and can provide audio to individual rooms or the whole house. This capability was designed in at the outset.

Amazon Echo Remote Control

The remote control connects to Amazon Echo (and Echo Dot) via Bluetooth. It includes an integrated microphone for when you are too far away or when it's too noisy for the Echo to hear you. It also has dedicated buttons for volume up, volume down, play/pause, previous and next.

It's very surprising that Amazon don'tmake more of a fuss about the remote control because it has one huge positive feature. You don't need to use a wake word when using it. You just push the 'mic' button and speak your request:

The remote provides some real insight as to where things might go next. If each remote could be personalised to an individual (or maybe provided as a remote app on smartphones and other devices), the Echo could become much more useful and offer a personalised experience.

The remote makes the interaction much simpler and more efficient. This example shows control of a LIFX smart bulb:

Updates

March 2016

Amazon launched two new products this month (in the USA only). The Amazon Tap addresses one issue with have with the Echo and provides a button only (push to talk) voice recognition capability. It's a smaller (6.2" tall) cylinder speaker with a 7-piece microphone array, making it more portable and affordable. It is wireless and battery powered and must be placed in the (included) cradle to charge. Amazon calim it will stream up to 9 hours of audio on a full charge and last up to 3 weeks in standby mode.

September 2016

The Amazon Echo launched in the UK! We have bought another one and also the remote control and are testing these now. The most obvious change is that Alexa now has an English accent. It can finally use your location correctly and a lot more services are supported. We have also linked it to our UK Amazon account, which includes Prime membership.

November 2016

We have now bought an Amazon Echo Dot (V2.0) in the Black Friday sales for £40. This will be used in our study and connected to the hi-fi system in there.

Further Reading

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