Alexa, what can I do with a smart speaker?
Since Amazon released its Echo speaker in November 2014, enabling users to hear the weather forecast or their favorite song by summoning a voice assistant named “Alexa,” the smart speaker phenomenon has exploded.
An estimated 43 million U.S. adults own at least one smart speaker, according to a survey by Edison Research, a leading research company in digital audio, and about half have more than one.
Smart speakers are the fastest-growing technology that Edison has ever tracked, said senior vice president Tom Webster, with speaker ownership more than doubling since last year. Listening to audio — music, news or podcasts — is the No. 1 use for smart speakers, Webster said, followed by asking questions of the speaker’s voice assistant.
Joining the Amazon Echo are competitors Google Home, Apple HomePod and the new Invoke speaker by Microsoft and audio equipment company Harman Kardon, with Microsoft’s digital assistant Cortana built-in. The Sonos One speaker uses Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant, and Sony offers a smart speaker with Google Assistant.
The devices offer everything from directions to trivia, but some users report more creative ways of harnessing these speakers’ capabilities.
“My 7-year-old, frustrated that we were ordering pizza from a place she did not like, asked Alexa for directions to the place she wanted to go, packed a bag … and headed out of the house,” said Julie Wallace, 51, of Cleveland. “We stopped that misadventure, thankfully.”
In Hilliard, 49-year-old Steve Friend relies on Amazon’s Alexa to quickly calculate insulin-to-carb ratios for his 9-year-old son, Owen, who has type 1 diabetes. His family owns six smart speakers, and it also uses them as an intercom system.
The technology sounds like science fiction, Webster said, but he predicts that smart speakers will soon be as seamlessly integrated into people’s lives as smartphones are now. Privacy concerns — such as the implications of having voice-enabled speakers — seem to be the largest reason some people cite for not buying a smart speaker.
The devices are supposed to begin recording conversations only in response to “wake words,” such as “Alexa” for the Echo. However, it is possible they may hear background conversations while activated.
That seems to have happened in May, when a Portland, Oregon, couple told a TV news station that one of their Echos recorded a snippet of their conversation and emailed it to an acquaintance. Amazon said it appeared the device incorrectly thought it heard a trigger word and a command to send the recorded conversation to someone on the couple’s contact list. The company called it an “unlikely” string of events that it would take steps to prevent in the future.
Webster believes consumers will put aside such worries if they feel the speakers perform valuable functions.
“People are using these for eight, nine, 10 skills a day that are just part of their everyday life,” he said. “It’s bringing a familiarity with technology into every room of the house.”
The current generation of smart speakers costs about $100; Google’s smaller version, the Google Home Mini, sells for half the price, at $49, as does Amazon’s Echo Dot.
Smart speakers also can be used for:
Local weather, traffic and news
Use your smart speaker to stay up-to-date on what’s going on in your area. Say “Alexa,” “Okay, Google,” or “Hey, Siri” and ask your digital assistant for a weather or traffic report to prepare for the day ahead. Plus, you can get the latest local news by asking for headlines from such media outlets as The Dispatch. If you have an Amazon smart speaker, for example, add The Dispatch as a news source by going to settings inside the Alexa app, choosing “Flash Briefing,” selecting “Get more Flash Briefing content” and searching “Columbus Dispatch.” Then, just ask Alexa what’s in the news.
Set alarms, timers and reminders
You can use your smart speaker as an alarm clock, and, once it wakes you up, use it to make to-do lists so you remember everything you need to do that day. Ask Alexa to remind you to bring your lunch when you leave for work. Tell the Google Assistant where you put your keys, and the device can remind you where they are if you forget. And once you get home and start cooking dinner, ask your digital assistant to set a timer — no need to worry about messy hands.
Listen to music
Get that song out of your head by asking your digital assistant to play it, and the smart speaker will connect to its compatible music streaming service, such as Spotify, Google Play Music, Amazon Prime or Apple Music. You can also play songs by using Bluetooth or AirPlay to connect to the speaker with another device. Fill your house with music by connecting multiple smart speakers and streaming audio.
Pair your smart speaker with smart home products and apps to turn your house into a (smart) home. Connect to other devices in your home to turn the lights or television on and off, control the thermostat or set a time for your coffee maker to start brewing. The speakers can also double as intercoms, so you can tell your family you’re on your way home or call everyone to the dinner table.
Instead of hopping onto the computer, make your smart speaker find out what you need to know. Google Home’s voice assistant has access to the search engine’s entire database. Ask the Google Assistant your most burning questions, and the smart speaker will find answers. Try asking for directions or for the closest coffee shop.
Fun and games
Smart speakers aren’t all fun and games, but they offer that, too. Ask your digital assistant to tell you a joke or use the speaker to play a game like Twenty Questions, Deal or No Deal, Mad Libs or Jeopardy! Instead of heading to a bar for trivia night, ask your smart speaker to test your knowledge in categories such as U.S. presidents, capitals of the world and pop culture.