I made a New Year’s resolution to talk to my technology. The genesis of this decision came at the Louisville industry RV show as I was standing in a demonstration fifth-wheeler watching a rep say “turn off the galley lights” — and they did.
I asked myself and then started asking many others, “Would you tell your lights to turn on and off instead of hitting a switch?” Most, including me, would say, “Really? Why would I need to do that?”
When Apple first introduced Siri the idea of a voice query seemed more like a cocktail party stunt than a useful daily routine. Siri and her close cousins like Cortana and Alexa (yes, I’ve read some pretty scholarly articles on why they’re women) have the ability to both delight and frustrate (best to back out of this sociological cul-de-sac now!). All of these voice recognition technologies are getting better and better and I thought that 2017 would be a good year to revisit this landscape. So I started talking.
It’s a tough habit to move from silently flicking a switch or typing in a question. Nearly hourly we have all sorts of what I call “private interactions.” It feels uncomfortable that, in the middle of a conversation with someone, you might stop and say out loud, “turn down the radio.” Hey, that’s what the mute button or knob is for! Sitting at a desk, especially if you’re in an open office, you may not want to say, “Siri, show me all the memos Frank sent me last week.”
Interestingly, our science fiction view of these kind of vocal interactions have been showing up in movies and television sci-fi for years. That’s what we think the future is like and our technology seems to be following that vision. Taken to an extreme I highly recommend you rent or stream the movie “Her” with Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansen.
When I remember to, and the situation feels right, I’ll dictate a small note into my iPhone or even a text. I’m still struggling with asking Siri to dial someone for me, but when I do remember I really like how it relieves the several steps of tapping. At my desk, which is small, but dominated by a 27” iMac, I won’t ask Siri what my next calendar event is, because that’s open almost all the time. However, I recently asked Siri, “what were the most recent invoices I sent?” Boy, did I get an answer. She replied in both voice and text display, “Have I ever told you your filin’ is so stylin’?” and then offered me up a correct list of choices showing the QuickBooks application and the most recent PDFs of invoices attached to e-mails. Amusing and cool all at the same time. All aboard for the anthropomorphism train.
I describe traveling in our Navion not as camping, but as mobile living. Though the space is smaller, we follow the same morning coffee through bedtime rituals that we do at home. That’s why I thought it would be fun to try some home automation in our loft just to get a sense if this kind of experience would be useful in an RV.
Lighting was the most logical place to start in my automation quest. I did a bunch of research and concluded there are two paths one can go. The first is with smart bulbs and the second is smart switches. Smart bulbs simply screw in and then talk to a controller that interfaces to your wifi network. Smart switches allow you to control any kind of bulb through the switch. The most common products are the Philips Hue bulbs and those made by Lifx. I chose to go the smart switch route using the Lutron Caseta system. That’s because we have many different kinds of lights and lamps and, it was cheaper and better to go that route. Nonetheless, I dropped $700+ on various Lutron boxes and spent several hours over the period of a week swapping out standard switches.
Similar to other bulb or switch systems, the Lutron came with a tiny control device that you plug into your home router. I then downloaded a free app on our iPhones and iPads. The app allows you control of each light (dimming too). What’s really cool is that you could group lights into “scenes” which allows you to program a group of actions. I programmed scenes for watching TV, entertaining, working in the kitchen and bedtime (all lights off). Even better, I could set a timer that keeps track of the sunset and have the “evening” scene turn on fifteen minutes beforehand. All of this was simply controlled via the app on the iPhone or iPad. But wait. . .there’s more!
As part of this grand experiment I purchased an Echo Dot from Amazon. This is an enlarged hockey-puck voice controller for Amazon’s free Alexa service. The Echo Dot is $50. The full-sized Echo is $179 and offers a much more high fidelity speaker (though the Dot’s speaker is surprisingly good).
Once I worked through a quick set-up (remarkably easy), Alexa was connected to the Lutron system and we could now say, “Alexa, turn on the living room lights.” We were also asking her about the weather and to play music. It’s spooky how well it worked. Satisfying and not the least bit frustrating. But Alexa ain’t the only game in town. Many of these same things can be done through our Apple watches or iDevices with Siri, or with Google Home.
The truest test of how useful this kind of automation is was observing my non-tech wife Terry’s reaction. She’s surprisingly embraced several features. Just a couple of weeks in she likes asking for weather and lighting control. When standing in front of the sink I hear her more and more often asking Alexa to turn on (or off) the island lights. Last night watching TV she asked Alexa to dim the lamp fifty percent. She’s slowly starting to think of voice control as an option. And this is how it begins. A simple light turned on today and a twenty minute conversation in the future (again, watch “Her”).
RV automation is more complicated, primarily because the current home automation architecture relies on a fast and reliable internet connection to do the complicated voice processing required on giant computers. RVs still often operate in standalone, disconnected settings. This means on-board recognition technologies have to be developed. Given just a month of talking more to my technology on my phone, in my car, and in my house, I’m starting to think that I’ll be wanting to do that while we’re on the road too.
Now, if you’re still not sold on voice recognition being important in the future? When was the last time you looked something up in the Yellow Pages? Do you even have a directory in your home?