So far in this series I’ve covered the differences between the Echo dot and the Google Home-Mini from a users perspective and we’ve looked at how the voice interface estate can be expanded using apps on phones (or tablets) and in particular how older Android phones can also be turned into combined cheap streaming music systems with a voice assistant. The next step is to delve deeper into the home automation part of those apps and get them to do something useful.
Since this is a beginner series, we’re going to start with a simple idea. We have a single smart socket which can be either on or off. We can do this by pushing the physical button on the socket ourselves, but the point of this exercise is to get the attached light to turn on when it starts going dark and then to turn off at a preset time (around 11pm). So how do we go about this?
First of all it’s worth pointing out that most of these devices have their own app for phones (or tablets) which can be used to trigger the device even if you’re not physically there. They differ greatly in capabilities so it’s worth checking out reviews if possible before you buy. Even a basic switch is likely to have some sort of scheduling agent. It’s possible that the app may also have access to location-based services so you may be able to trigger the switch based on local weather, temperature, humidity or air-quality for example. In our case, we are lucky that our switch uses the eFamilyCloud app which includes triggers for sunset & sunrise. This solves half-the-problem as within the app we simply create a ‘scene’ which allows us to set a condition (sunset) and a task (turn the socket on). Luckily the eFamilyCloud app is able to work with both Google and Alexa so we can also control the socket from our voice devices.
As I said though, this is only half-solving the problem. We also want to turn our security light off at a preset time of day since it’s purpose is just to turn-on at sunset to give the illusion of someone being at home. We will then turn it off around 11pm (at which point a different light would be on). This is a fairly basic function and can usually be set using the sockets schedule or timer function. In fact this is normally the easiest part of the task to set-up as it only needs the basic scheduling function.
Checking on another switch which uses the Kasa app only gives basic remote on/off functions without purchasing a smart-hub. It does however include scenes, which cannot be triggered at sunset/sunrise without the hub, but can be triggered by Alexa & Google so it is worth setting up a couple of simple scenes. I created two, one called evening which will turn our second socket on and one called sleep-time which turns our second socket off. Although the associated smart-hub might allow us to have greater control over this socket, I don’t see it as an essential purchase.
Instead, I’ve added the Kasa skill to Alexa and named the second smart socket ‘globe’ as it has a mains-powered illuminated globe plugged into it. Once the skill is added to Alexa in the Alexa app we can use voice commands such as ‘Alexa, turn the globe on’ and ‘Alexa, turn the globe off’. Within the Alexa app we can also create a ‘Routine’. Tap the three horizontal bars at the top-left of the app and ‘Routines’ is the fourth option in the menu which comes up. If you’ve added a skill to Alexa you’re likely to have seen this already. When you create a new routine, you are given two options. The action can either be triggered when you instruct Alexa to do it or at a scheduled time. There is also another option though which is not immediately obvious. Using the IFTTT website, you can search for ‘sunset’ which reveals there’s an option to have devices using the Kasa app turn on at sunrise. You need to sign up to IFTTT and link your Kasa account to use this. At the moment it’s free but we can’t promise it will always remain free; we’re just hoping that smart devices get better before we have to start paying for these sort of services. So despite being lucky with our original security light, you can see there are possibilities if your devices don’t natively support the functions you want to use. We are living in interesting times and maybe the sci-fi world that shows like Star-Trek gave us to beleive in aren’t too far away.