The Amazon Echo can do a lot more than play music and check the weather. As futuristically as you’d expect, it can actually control a wide range of smarthome products so that all your home comforts are just a voice command away. Read on as we show you how.
Why Would I Want to Do This?
Why would you want to do this? A better question would be: why wouldn’t you want to control your entire house with your voice? We’ve all waited a long time to enjoy some Jetsons-esque living, and if we have the tools on hand to make it happen there is no reason not to.
If you need more convincing than that, though, just think about how great it is to sit on your couch or in bed and control your home lighting system with mere voice commands. Just the other day, for example, I realized yet again that I’d forgotten to turn on the porch light for the poor Chinese delivery guy.
I could have walked to the front of the house and turned on the lights in anticipation of his arrival, but instead I stayed right where I was and told Alexa to turn them on for me. Living in the sort-of-future is pretty awesome.
What Do I Need?
The Amazon Echo/Alexa system already works with a fair number of smarthome products and, if our recent experience at CES 2016 is any indicator, the number of supported devices is only going to grow. You can review the list of compatible devices in both this Echo smart home splash page and this Echo help file.
While we encourage you to dig into the listings and find your specific device, broadly the system works with Belkin’s WeMo switch system, Philip Hue lights, Samsung’s SmartThings hub and appliances, the Insteon lighting and home automation hub and equipment, the Wink hub and supported devices, and much more. Given the reach of the last three smart home hub systems (SmartThings, Insteon, and Wink) a lot of devices are captured in their general stable of supported devices.
Recently we showed you how to control your home lighting via Apple’s Siri voice assistant. Because we already have the highly-supported Philips Hue system on hand, and because it gives a pretty fair comparison between how voice control with Siri and Alexa works with the same system, we’ll be using that to demonstrate how to link a smarthome system to the Amazon echo and use it.
The steps for linking the Hue system to your Alexa system are largely identical to nearly every other smarthome product, but as always, refer to the documentation found on your product’s website for additional help if need be.
Prepare Your Device
Before you actually sit down to add devices to your Echo/Alexa system, we’d strongly recommend doing a little updating and housekeeping on the smarthome side of things. In our experience, Alexa takes a fairly literal approach to importing things and works best with updated software.
As such, we’d recommend first updating the firmware and companion software for the smarthome devices and hubs you intend to add to Alexa. In the case of our demonstration system, this meant updating the Philips Hue hub to the most current software and ensuring that the iOS app we use to control it was also properly updated.
Next, go through your smart home platform and make sure that all your device names, settings, labels, and so on are all tweaked to your liking. In the case of the Philips Hue system, the Amazon Echo platform sucks in all the device names exactly as they are and does not bring the scene names along for the ride. This means you might have a scene name in your Philips Hue system like “Romantic Bedroom” with bulbs named Hue 1, Hue 2, and Hue 3 (or Link 1 and Link 2 if you’ve used third party bulbs), but the Echo integration won’t pull in the scene names. It will only pull in the bulb names (Hue 1, Hue 2, etc.).
To this end, it is very useful to have specific bulb names like “Left Nightstand” or “FrontPorch1” and “FrontPorch2” as you’ll have a much easier time identifying bulbs in the Alexa app.
How to Add a Smarthome Device to Alexa
Adding smarthomes devices to Alexa is easy peasy (assuming you’re using a compatible device, of course). To make your experience extra smooth, it’s important to understand how the Alexa system handles smart home devices.
First, you’ll add the individual device or hub into the Alexa system. Then, for ease of use, you’ll create groups within Alexa for all your items. That last bit is a point of confusion for new adopters: Alexa does not import the existing groupings you already have in your smarthome systems, but instead imports each raw device.
For example, let’s say you have a group in your existing smarthome hub called “Bedroom” and that group contains two light bulbs, a smart outlet, and a space heater. Let’s say you’ve set up a shortcut on the hub software called “Bedroom on” and everything turns on in the morning when you wake up. You can still use all those items with Alexa, but you’ll need to create a new group within the Alexa app called “Bedroom” so that the “Bedroom on” command works with Alexa.
With that cleared up, let’s take a look how to do exactly what we just described.
Add Your Devices
With your smart home devices all updated and your naming schemes tidied up, open the Alexa app on your smartphone and tap the menu icon in the upper left corner.
In the slide-out side menu, select “Smart Home”.
On this screen there are three sections: “Your Groups”, “Your Smart Home Skills”, and “Your Devices”. Some smarthome products simply require you to install the necessary Skill for them to work, while others require you to simply have the Echo search for the devices on your network. We’ll start off by scrolling down to the “Your Devices” section and tapping on “Discover devices”.
The app will begin scanning your network for any connected smarthome devices. In the case of the Philips Hue system, any application or device that wants access to the Hue bridge requires you do go tap the physical button on the Hue bridge in order to authorize it. Some other smarthome products will not require any physical step, though.
Once you’ve followed the prompts (in our case we simply tapped the button on the Hue bridge to continue) you’ll see a readout of all the available smart home devices.
Remember earlier in the tutorial when we encouraged you to name your smart home devices as well? This is a perfect example of why you want to do that. Bedrooms bulbs? Living room bulbs? It’s very clear where those are. Hue Bulb 4? We have no idea where that one is and we’ll need to go poke around to find out.
If you have some pressing reason to keep Alexa from controlling a discovered device, now is the time to tap “Forget” to remove it from the Alexa system. Otherwise, just review the list and make sure all the devices you expected to make an appearance did so. If something didn’t appear, it’s likely that you need to install the Skill for it instead.
To do this, tap on “Get More Smart Home Skills” in the “Your Smart Home Skills” section.
Tap inside of the search box where it says “Search Skills”.
Type in the smarthome product name that you want to do and the skill will pop up. If not, then that specific device is likely incompatible with the Amazon Echo. If the skill appears, tap on “Enable”.
You’ll then be prompted to log in to your account associated with that device so that the Echo can be linked to it.
Once you authorize permission, the Alexa app will say that it has successfully linked to your smarthome device. You can go ahead and tap on the “X” in the top-right corner.
From there, you’ll see a list of smarthome skills that you have installed.
Group Your Devices Together
With the devices that were added using the discovery feature of the Echo, you can organize them into groups to make them easier to control and manage. From the “Smart Home” screen, tap on “Create group” under the “Your Groups” section.
At the top, give the group a name, like “Bedroom”. A word on creating group names: Alexa is very literal. If you’ve played around with Siri and smart home stuff, you know that Siri is fairly flexible when it comes to natural language and smart home devices. Alexa tends to be quite literal, and if you name a group “Bedroom” it will only activate in response to the word “Bedroom” and not something like “Bedroom lights”.
So if you prefer speaking in a more natural way to Alexa, make sure to name your device group something that fits into the syntax “Alexa, turn [group name] [on/off]”. If you want to say “turn the bedroom lights off” then you want to name your group “bedroom lights”.
After that, scroll down and select all the items you wish to include in the group. When you’re done creating your group, scroll down to the bottom and tap on “Save”.
How to Use Smarthome Voice Commands With Alexa
While each smarthome device is a bit different in terms of how it’s controlled, the more literal you are with Alexa the better. When it comes to smarthome lighting, Alexa is good for two kinds of commands: binary (on/off) and graduated (brightness via percentage). For other devices she’s only good for on/off or on/off + an additional input (like turning a heater on and setting the temperature if the device supports it).
Let’s take a look at lighting commands. Although we’re using the Philips Hue system these commands work well with any lighting devices hooked up to your Echo.
You can use the following commands to control your lights (and other smarthome devices):
“Alexa, turn [groupname] [on/off].”
“Alexa, turn [on/off] [groupname].”
“Alexa, start [groupname].”
“Alexa, set [groupname] to [X%].”
The syntax above really highlights how you need to craft group names to reflect the exact commands you want to say. For example, there is no universal command in Alexa to control “all” of something. The Alexa system doesn’t understand the command “Alexa, turn off all the lights” unless you have a group called “all the lights”.
That doesn’t mean you can’t tell Alexa to turn off all the lights, but you simply need to make a group, in the Alexa app, called “all the lights” and, you guessed it, include all your light bulbs in it.
You may also find the syntax “start [groupname]” is useful for things that aren’t quite so binary as a light switch. For example, if you want to turn the lights on, the charging strip you have hooked up to a smart switch, and the space heater in your bedroom as part of your morning routine, you might create a group with all those items called “my morning routine” which could then be triggered by you saying “Alexa, start my morning routine” when you wake up in the morning.
Compared to Siri’s higher degree of natural-language-flexibility (in regard to smart home products at least), using Alexa is a little kludgy by comparison, but it works well enough if you’re willing to create group names that give clear natural language names to the outcome you want.