smarthomeIn 2016, Google Home, a voice-controlled smart appliance, began its long-awaited competition with Amazon’s Echo. In 2017, it has heated up substantially as prices have dropped and the devices have become far more capable.  (Amazon currently boasts 15,000 skills, but that figure is a bit inflated).  Both devices can play music, help with shopping and answer questions with nothing but your voice, but this isn’t about cute personal assistants.  This is the commencement of the Battle of the Smart Home between two Internet giants. It’s big and it’s a game changer; the smart home market is expected to reach more than $70 billion within two years.  If you decide to plunge into this battle, you’ll want to be prepared.  In this blog, we’ll tell you what to do and, more importantly, what NOT to do in wising up your home.  We believe that these new technologies are especially well suited for seniors looking to save money and improve their safety.

First some background: smart home technology automates household tasks like adjusting a home’s temperature and unlocking the front door or opening the garage door using voice-activation devices. Smart devices can work together to offer owners safety by alerting them if something in their home seems amiss. Smart technology can also save owners money by automatically controlling the temperature and energy of a home. Additionally, insurance companies and utility companies offer reduced rates and rebates for homes with smart devices.

Why bother with a smart home?

It’s all about savings, convenience, security and control.    Connected devices such as learning thermostats, smart sprinklers, Wi-Fi enabled lights, electricity monitoring outlets and water heater modules cut down on energy and water use.  And that means you spend less money.  We like that.

Beyond savings, you also have the convenience of having your living room lights turn on as you arrive home, the stereo playing your favorite playlist and the door opening as you arrive home with a bagful of groceries. But convenience isn’t all about luxury. Smart locks can allow you to grant access to certain individuals at certain times, so you don’t have to stay home or give out a key. Likewise, a sensor can tell you when your fridge is out of milk, and a Wi-Fi enabled doorbell can let you “answer” your door from anywhere in the world.   There are many simple, connected security solutions for the smart home that are inexpensive alternatives to 24/7 monitored security systems. Wi-Fi-enabled cameras, connected motion sensors and smart smoke alarms can all be monitored from inside or outside a home via live video feed, email and text alerts.   Smart sensors that can detect water leaks, humidity levels, carbon monoxide, motion, heat and every environmental concern imaginable help prevent accidents from turning into disasters because they can communicate with you directly, wherever you are.  This is more about efficiency than convenience.

Finally, many things inside the home, from ovens and fridges to deadbolts and garage doors, can be controlled remotely via apps on smartphones and tablets. In most cases, this control also works when you are out of the home, meaning you can close the garage door from the airport, check on the pets from Costa Rica or confirm that you switched off your stove from the grocery store.  Automated audible reminders and voice activated alert systems are just a few of the features of home automation that can help seniors lead independent lives for longer. Additionally, Wi-Fi connected cameras with two-way communication can help loved ones keep an eye on the elderly when they can’t physically check on them.  All of this is possible thanks to the IoT revolution.   Some other things you can do:

  • Play virtually any song just by asking
  • Get weather, traffic, calendar and other important information
  • Listen to a book or article
  • Have a kitchen assistant to help you find recipes and measurements

Internet of Things (IoT) is the magic dust that turns the automated home into the smart home. With a combination of sensors, smarts and systems, IoT connects everyday objects to a network, enabling those objects to complete tasks and communicate with each other, with no user input.  When you combine home automation, connected devices and IoT you get a Smart Home. And a modern smart home can be easily controlled through a smartphone, tablet or computer.   For this article, we focus on Google Home and Amazon Echo.

Using Google Home and Amazon Echo as Gateways

We’ve tested out Google Home and Amazon Echo by pairing them with Belkin Wemo switches.   The prices have dropped by more than 50% since they were first introduced;  we’re currently seeing prices for the Echo and Home Assistant in the $80 range.  Better deals may be available this Christmas.

Apple is also about to get into the AI smart speaker space with its HomePod and you can bet your life that Samsung is looking into making its own smart speaker sooner or later with its Bixby voice assistant.  Any smart home gadgets, including Samsung’s SmartThings, Nest devices, or Philips Hue lights, can connect with the Echo and Google Home. If you own any smart devices other than the ones from those companies, Google Home can’t do anything with them yet directly (though there are workarounds we’ll talk about in a bit). Since Amazon has been working on the Echo for over two years, it can control products like Logitech Harmony, WeMo smart devices, and tons more. Depending on what you own, you may want to lean towards the Echo.   Although IFTTT may serve as a workaround for smart devices not integrated into Google Home.   As of December 2016, IFTTT + Wemo works together and offer a superior experience from the native support built into the Amazon Echo because you can use multiple phrases and can create triggers exactly how you want.

However, the Google Home does have one major advantage: it is integrated with  Chromecast.  This opens the door to multiroom audio – a function that Amazon’s Echo doesn’t fill.  You can ask Home to play a particular show or open an app on your Chromecast and it will load automatically. If something’s already playing, you can pause, stop, or skip with your voice.  If you create groups with Google Home and Chromecast devices, you will be able to sync up multiple speakers and play audio around the house, much like Sonos. Given that the Chromecast is wildly popular (possibly more popular than any other smart home gadgets), it’s hard to determine which one is better overall. On the one hand, the Echo supports a lot more devices right now than Google Home. On the other, there’s a higher chance you own a Chromecast than any smart home device. Until Google catches up, you should take a look at your home’s specific needs.

Google Home also integrates better with your smartphone.  Google Home is powered by Google Assistant, which is the improved version of Google Now. What this means is the same AI is shared between your phone and home speaker, and information can be passed between your devices.If you’re asking Google Home for information, you can also tell it to send that information — such as directions — to your phone, if it doesn’t automatically. This will only work if your phone has Google Assistant.

We also like the new intercom functionalities in both devices, although the Google “broadcast” function is a handy advantage over Amazon’s “drop in” feature.   Both devices also permit you to use them as speakerphones for your smartphones.  Very cool!

You Must Learn About IFTTT

While both Home and Echo have a lot of built in skills, both companies were smart enough to realize that apps created by third-parties might be quick and clever ways of expanding those skills quickly.   Both manufacturers enabled their devices to connect with IFTTT, the app integrator.  IFTTT is something of a meta-app, connecting the apps and gadgets you use via mini-programs (called “recipes”). Currently, IFTTT works with over 160 web services and gadgets. If you really want to customize your voice hub, you should definitely take a look at IFTTT, which both the Echo and Google Home support (through their Alexa and Google Assistant channels, respectively). IFTTT lets you create automated applets that run when you use custom voice commands on either device. For example, you can have IFTTT turn off every Philips Hue light in my house except the bedroom light when you tell either hub “bedtime.”

IFTTT connects to hundreds of services such as Dropbox, Soundcloud, Evernote, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, Linked-In and Gmail, among others. Alexa’s IFTTT channel has a dozen or so more specific triggers than Google has. For example, you can set your lights to flash whenever a timer you set with Alexa goes off, or to add all the songs the Echo plays to a spreadsheet. Google Assistant’s channel can only activate when you say certain phrases. However, Google’s channel also supports empty variables so you can create more complex commands without having to use the word “trigger” in your command.

Unfortunately, IFTTT recently decided to change their business model and get rid of numerous “recipes” that had been cooked up by third-parties in favor of applets, over which the company exercises greater control.   This November 2016 decision by IFTTT has been controversial and it remains to be seen how many applets will survive this purge.  We checked out IFTTT’s website in late November and it was clearly having problems — it crashed twice during a two-hour session and the number of applets that worked was limited.  So it remains to be seen how IFTTT will fare in the future.

There are also security risks. 

Most of the devices you will purchase will be associated with apps and those apps will be collecting information about you.  Your smart home’s data can be used in a variety of ways. Data is “generally used by smart device companies to improve product development and provide additional services to their customers,” but they caution “You should also read the vendor’s privacy policy to see what they are legally allowed to do with the data. They may allow themselves to sell your data to 3rd parties, so read carefully.”  The biggest concern for many considering installing connected devices is security. The idea of someone hacking into your Internet-connected thermostat and controlling the temperature of your home is disturbing, but so is the idea of someone breaking your front door and rifling through your drawers. That doesn’t stop us from buying door locks.

In contrast, Apple’s upcoming HomePod advertises that its system is more secure and private than any other smart speaker. The promo page says that HomePod has, “multiple layers of security — including anonymous ID and encryption” to “protect your privacy.”   Whereas Amazon and Google associate your data directly with your account, Apple does not associate your data with you or your account, but rather with a randomized set of numbers. Also,Apple deletes the association between the data and the random code every six months, whereas Amazon and Google require that you delete it yourself,  You can delete that voice data from your Echo every now and then, and you should. Just go to Manage my device and delete recordings one by one or clear your search history. With Google Home, you can alter your permissions to limit the data it collects here.   Gizmodo’s Fieldguide offers more tips on how to tighten your security and privacy a bit on both devices.