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6 Ways to Use Your New Smart Speaker for Greater Independence

Smart home technology is earning an important place among the ranks of assistive technology. There are a variety of devices and seemingly endless configurations that can increase independence, productivity, safety, and health both at home and elsewhere. People with disabilities and older adults are using these technologies to control their environments (lights, fans and thermostats), access entertainment (TV, music, and internet), monitor their homes (video doorbells and video services), and control who can enter (smart locks and door openers).

But, while complex smart-home setups with multiple devices are impressive, don’t forget that the humble smart speaker can be powerful all on its own. These little virtual assistants – such as Amazon Echos, Google Nests, or Apple HomePods – can help you stay organized and connected. And, with all of us spending so much time at home these days, what better gift this holiday season than one that makes day-to-day activities at home easier?

Whether you are the lucky new owner of a smart speaker for the holidays or you have had one for years, here are six ways you can use your virtual assistant to improve your life without any extra “smart” equipment:

1. Scheduling

Imagine you are in bed about to fall asleep and suddenly remember you have an appointment first thing in the morning… or was it the next day? With a smart speaker, all you have to do is ask “What’s on my calendar tomorrow?” You can also add appointments to your calendar, change them, cancel them, and even reply with calendar invitations to other people all with your voice. Check your device’s instructions for details on how to integrate it with your calendar. Note: Amazon Echo can integrate with most calendars, including Google, Microsoft, and Apple, while Google Nest and Apple HomePod currently only integrate with their respective calendar apps.

Did You Know? Amazon Echo, Google Nest, and Apple HomePod are all capable of learning different people’s voices and linking each individual with their own account, making it easy for multiple people to control their personal calendars, make and receive phone calls, play their own music, and shop from their own accounts all through the same device.

2. Reminders and Alarms

Whether you want a daily reminder to take your medication at a certain time or a one-time reminder to take the chicken out when you get home, your smart speaker has you covered. Reminders and alarms can wake you up in the morning, help you stay on schedule, and make sure you don’t forget something important. Using Amazon Echo, Google Nest, and Apple HomePod, you can set a reminder by time of day or by location (for example, set a reminder to check in with your boss when you arrive at work). You can also set reminders to be recurring or one-time only, and you can select which device you want to play the reminder.

3. Email

Just as easy as accessing your calendar with your voice, you can listen to and reply to emails using your smart speaker too. Amazon Echo has this functionality built in, all you have to do is connect your device to your account (Amazon currently connects with Gmail, Microsoft Outlook, Hotmail and Live.com). Google Nest, on the other hand, doesn’t officially offer this feature yet, but there are a few possible workarounds.

4. News, Weather, Internet Searches, and More

Whether you want to know what the weather forecast is for the day, what the score was from the game last night, or how to spell “quarantine,” your smart speaker is ready to find the answer and report back to you. What’s even more impressive? You can teach your Amazon, Google, or Apple device more about your preferences and you’ll get more personalized information when you ask.

Did You Know? You can set up routines with most smart speakers to combine several actions together. For example, if in the morning you always ask to hear the weather, then your calendar appointments for the day, and finally a certain radio station, you can link these actions together with one verbal cue such as, “Alexa, what’s my morning update?” Read about routines for Amazon Echo, Google Nest, and Apple HomePod.

5. Communication

Perhaps one of the most powerful features of your smart speaker is its ability to help you communicate with others by making phone calls. If you use Amazon Echo you must associate your calls with your mobile phone for contacts and caller ID purposes. However, you are technically making the call through Amazon’s free Internet cloud services for the connection, not your phone, so your minutes are spared. Google has various methods to use phone numbers for caller ID and, like Amazon, there is no charge. A story from Suria, a member of our Smart Home Technology Advisory Committee who has a spinal cord injury, demonstrates just how impactful this can be:

“This morning I was in the shower chair and about to fall off – I can’t move, I can’t grab the phone, it won’t hear me – Echo was the only one there. All I had to say was, ‘Echo, call Kirby.’ It dialed his Echo and his cell phone and I was able to tell him, ‘Come back! It’s an emergency.’ I almost fell to the floor, but thankfully I have a superhero,” Suria said, “It’s my Echo!”

Did You Know? There are two other communication features you should know about: Announcements and Ask My Buddy. Amazon Echo and Google Nest both have an announcement feature that makes it possible to broadcast a message via multiple devices throughout a home at one time – anything from “Dinner’s ready” to “Help, I’ve fallen!” Ask My Buddy is an independent service available for both Amazon and Google smart speakers that lets you create a personal alert network. If you have an emergency, all you need to do is ask your smart speaker to “Ask My Buddy to send help” and a notification will be sent by phone, text, and/or email to a list of predesignated contacts. Ask My Buddy also has a way to contact emergency numbers like 911.

6. Checking In on a Person or a Location

Before we dive into this topic, let us be clear: it is PATF’s belief that monitoring should only be pursued after receiving full, informed consent from the individual who may be impacted. While some people find the idea of monitoring to be invasive, others have expressed that they appreciate giving another person – family member, caregiver, or friend, for example – the ability to check in on them using their smart speaker. With Amazon Echo’s Drop In feature, another person can listen in from afar to make sure everything is OK. This feature is even more powerful if you have a smart display like an Amazon Echo Show with its built-in camera and screen. Please note that before connecting, an Echo Show will blur the screen and play a notification which allows the person receiving the Drop In to cancel it by saying “Alexa cancel/stop/hang-up/reject” if they do not want to accept the Drop In. You can also turn on Do Not Disturb to temporarily block Drop Ins on a device.

Note: Smart displays, such as the Amazon Echo Show family of products or Google Nest Hub, are smart speakers with the addition of a camera and touch screen. If you have one of these, here are a few extra things you can do with your device:

  • Show and Tell feature with Amazon Echo Show – If you are blind or have low vision, you need only hold up an object in front of your device’s camera and ask “Alexa, what am I holding” to find out what it is.
  • Make video calls – Just like you can use your smart speaker for phone calls, you can use your smart display for video calls. Stay connected with your friends and family, access your physician for telehealth, or give a loved one the ability to check in on you from afar with video calling on the Amazon Echo Show line of products.
  • Entertainment – Connect your smart display with a streaming account to watch TV shows, movies, and online content. Just check your device to see which content providers it can connect with: Amazon and Google.

To learn more about smart home technology and how people with disabilities and older adults can use it for greater independence, health, and safety, visit our Generic Smart Home Technology Project website: SmartHomesMadeSimple.org.

Interested in getting some smart home technology? Our Mini-Loan program can help you cover the cost of purchasing smart home devices as well as the cost of installation. We can also help you determine if you are eligible for other funding resources that might cover the cost entirely. Apply for a loan or contact us to learn more.