Key Home Automation Takeaways from Amazon Echo Plus & New Alexa Services
Amazon's new home-automation play includes ZigBee-enabled Echo Plus (not Z-Wave?) and Alexa services such as Routines, enabling macros to be activated by voice control or time and day.
Amazon has launched its biggest home-automation play yet, with the new ZigBee-enabled Echo Plus, as well as new Alexa features that allow smart-home “groups” and voice-control routines.
The announcements came earlier this week at a media event that apparently excluded representatives from the trade press. The event also included announcements of additional Echo products (The Echo Spot is super-cute), as well as 4K Fire TV with HDR, and BMW’s adoption of Alexa for voice control (all detailed on page 2).
Echo Plus and the new Alexa services, however, are the most interesting developments because they represent Amazon’s big smart-home ambitions.
Echo Plus with ZigBee
'Simple Setup' ZigBee Devices Compatible with Echo Plus
Bulbs and Light Fixtures
- Philips Hue
- Securifi Peanut
- Samsung SmartThings
- Lowe’s Iris
Switches and dimmers
Echo Plus is a $150 smart-home hub that includes ZigBee technology for integrating locally with a variety of third-party devices – no network or cloud-to-cloud communications required (Echo also can connect locally with Bluetooth Smart, or BLE, devices).
With ZigBee inside, the Echo can communicate directly with certain ZigBee-enabled devices like Philips Hue bulbs (no Hue Bridge required), but more importantly with lightweight battery-operated devices such as sensors that cannot support Wi-Fi.
The tricky part is that not all “ZigBee” devices interoperate, so Amazon likely will have to tell users which ones actually work with Echo Plus.
The compatible products – Amazon calls them “simple setup” devices – can be enrolled into the Echo Plus simply by saying, “Alexa, discover my devices.”
Amazon shows about 75 “simple setup” ZigBee devices that are compatible with Plus, from 11 different companies. Curiously, while Amazon promotes Kwikset in its press releases, no Kwikset devices appear on the compatibility site.
Additionally, no battery-operated devices such as sensors are shown, which would seem to be a major limitation at this time.
At least the new Nest Secure system provides compatible sensors using the Thread and Weave protocols.
The biggest curiosity, perhaps, is that Amazon went with ZigBee (potentially a few hundred compatible devices) instead of Z-Wave (thousands). Certainly Amazon could sell more stuff through its e-commerce site if it adopted Z-Wave instead.
A spokesperson responded to this question thus:
Many hardware manufacturers using the Z-Wave protocol already support Alexa today, so Echo customers can continue to use those devices. And we think new to smart home customers will appreciate the simplicity of a built in hub in Echo Plus that seamlessly connects and controls more than 100 ZigBee devices including light bulbs, door locks, switches and plugs. And for context, all Echo customers can use their device to control more than 1,100 devices certified to work with Amazon Alexa.
So, um, that.
In addition to the smart-home features of Echo Plus, the new product includes "enhanced 360-degree omni-directional audio" with Dolby processing, as well as second generation far-field technology. See all the new features on page 2.
New Alexa Smart-Home Features
Amazon announced two new smart-home features for Alexa, both of which fall under the category of “it’s about time,” but important nonetheless.
The first is “Routines,” which lets users group disparate products and services into a single macro, initiated via voice command or time of day.
Amazon gives the examples: 1) Say “Alexa, good night,” and Alexa will turn off the lights, lock the door, and turn off the TV. 2) At
“Routines are compatible with popular Works with Amazon Alexa lights, plugs, switches, and door locks,” according to Amazon PR.
It looks like that’s all for now. So, then does the example above suggest turning off the TV with a plug-in on/off switch? It seems odd that one of the very first native skills – thermostat control – is not included in the roll-out of routines. Clearly a goodnight or goodbye command should include temperature adjustments.
We do know, according to TechCrunch, that Routines will not work with third-party Alexa Skills at this point. We assume that feature will come.
It is unclear if Routines can be triggered by events such as a sensor tripping or a drop in temperature, but we assume not. This would fall into a category of if/then macros, and Amazon has not reported anything like this.
The other new Alexa feature is new-and-improved smart-home groups. Previously, you could cluster devices into a single group such as kitchen lights, but even if you were in the kitchen, you had to ask Alexa to “Turn on the Kitchen lights.”
With “smarter” groups, you could simply say, “Turn on lights,” and the kitchen fixtures would turn on.
At first blush, we thought this feature was enabled by Echo Spatial Perception, or ESP. That’s the technology that figures out which Echo is closest to the speaker, and then has that device respond.
An Amazon spokesperson replying to my query, however, so the new feature has nothing to do with ESP. He says:
The ability to issue non-specific commands is supported through the smart home Groups feature (not ESP). With Groups, customers can place an Echo and smart devices into smart home groups, which enables Alexa to act intelligently on your request. For example, if you create a “kitchen” group that includes an Echo and counter lights, you can just say “Alexa, turn on the lights” rather than “Alexa, turn on the kitchen overhead lighting.”
The response does nothing to quell my confusion, however. What if you have multiple Echo devices, each associated with a different lighting Group? Does everything in earshot respond to the command? I'll post the response when I get it.
Julie Jacobson, recipient of the 2014 CEA TechHome Leadership Award, is co-founder of EH Publishing, producer of CE Pro, Electronic House, Commercial Integrator, Security Sales and other leading technology publications. She currently spends most of her time writing for CE Pro in the areas of home automation, security, networked A/V and the business of home systems integration. Julie majored in Economics at the University of Michigan, spent a year abroad at Cambridge University, earned an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin, and has never taken a journalism class in her life. She's a washed-up Ultimate Frisbee player currently residing in Carlsbad, Calif. Email Julie at email@example.com
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