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
  • Sengled
  • Sylvania
  • Cree
  • Halo
  • Osram

Plug-in outlets

  • Securifi Peanut
  • Samsung SmartThings
  • GE
  • Sylvania
  • Lowe’s Iris

Switches and dimmers

  • GE

Locks

  • Yale

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.

It is unclear if Routines can be triggered by events such as a sensor tripping or a drop in temperature, but we assume not. 

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 6 a.m. every weekday and at 9 a.m. every Saturday and Sunday, turn on the kitchen lights, start the coffee maker, and read the weather forecast.

“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.


See all the new Amazon Echo Products and Alexa Services


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.

{pagebreak}PRESS RELEASES

New Amazon Echo Products

 

Amazon Echo, 2nd Generation

$100, ships in October

New design

With an all-new compact design, Echo fits easily into any room in your home while delivering next generation far-field performance and improved room-filling sound. Pick from a variety of shell colors and finishes to fit into your home’s décor—choices include charcoal, sandstone, heather gray, oak veneer, walnut veneer, and silver.

Immersive sound

Echo combines an all-new speaker architecture, a dedicated tweeter, a 2.5” down-firing woofer, and Dolby processing to deliver crisp vocals and dynamic bass throughout the room—all in a smaller design and at an even more affordable price. Alexa can play music from leading services like Amazon Music, Pandora, Spotify, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, and more.

Second generation far-field technology

The new Echo uses Amazon’s second generation far-field technology, which features better wake word processing, improved beamforming technology, and enhanced noise cancellation. The Echo far-field technology works to detect the wake word from across the room even in the noisiest parts of your home.


Echo Plus, the Smart Home Hub

$150, ships in October with one Philips Hue bulb, while supplies last

With its built-in smart home hub, Echo Plus makes connecting to compatible smart home devices easy. Just say, “Alexa, discover my devices,” and Echo Plus will automatically discover and set up compatible lights, locks, plugs, switches, and more without the need for additional hubs or apps. This simple set-up works with a variety of ZigBee products from leading brands such as Philips Hue, GE, Kwikset, and more. To help get your smart home started, Amazon customers will receive a Philips Hue smart lightbulb with the purchase of an Echo Plus while supplies last.

More powerful audio and better performance

Echo Plus has enhanced 360-degree omni-directional audio, with Dolby processing, to provide deeper bass and crisper high notes for better audio clarity. You can play music from Amazon Music, Pandora, Spotify, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, and more. With Amazon Music, you can search for music by lyrics, time-period, or let Alexa pick the music for you. Like the new Echo, Echo Plus features second generation far-field technology for even better performance.


$130, ships in December

Echo Spot delivers everything you love about Alexa with a smaller design and the added convenience of a circular screen so that Alexa can show you things. 

“Echo Spot combines the popular small design of Echo Dot, the display ofEcho Show, and the features you love about Alexa into an all-new, stylish and compact device,” said Tom Taylor, Senior Vice President, Amazon Alexa. “See the weather, watch video news briefings, glance at your alarm clock, check on your kids, and more—we think customers will find lots of places for Echo Spot in their homes.”

Designed for any room, with the added convenience of a screen

Echo Spot fits easily into any room of your home. The size and viewing angle of the screen make Echo Spot ideal for use on a nightstand or desk as a smart alarm clock that can also turn your lights on and off, watch a video flash briefing, show your commute time, get the weather, or show your calendar. Or use Echo Spot in the kitchen to easily set and view timers, call friends and family, see shopping and to do lists, and more.

New microphone array with second generation far-field technology

Echo Spot features second generation far-field technology with four microphones, acoustic beam-forming technology, and enhanced noise cancellation so it can hear you from across the room—even while music is playing. If you have more than one Echo, Alexa responds intelligently from the Echo you’re closest to with ESP (Echo Spatial Perception).

Front-facing camera and Alexa calling help you stay connected—call anyone hands free

Put an Echo Spot in each room so you can drop in on the kitchen to ask when dinner will be ready, or drop in on the family room to see how homework is going. Just like Echo Show, you can also use Echo Spot to start a voice or video call, or send a message—simply say, “Alexa, call dad,” or “Alexa, send a message to Mary.”

Built-in speaker, plus Bluetooth and audio-out to connect to your existing speaker systems

Alexa can talk to you and play music directly on Echo Spot through the built-in 2W speaker. Echo Spot can directly connect to speakers through Bluetooth or using a 3.5mm stereo cable, enabling you to add Alexa to your home entertainment system. Then, use just your voice to control Amazon Music, Prime Music, Pandora, Spotify, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, and more. Plus, with the new multi-room music feature, you can play your favorites throughout your home, with synchronized music across all of your Echo devices.

Easily control your smart home

Echo Spot integrates all of the smart home capabilities that customers love about Alexa—turn on the lights, view your live camera feed from the nursery, set up Routines, control the temperature, lock your doors with your voice when you’re heading to bed, and more.


Echo Buttons

Echo Buttons are new devices that deliver ways for customers to play games with friends and family using Alexa. The buttons illuminate and can be pressed to trigger a variety of multiplayer and interactive game experiences. There will be a number of new Echo Button-compatible skills available this holiday season including Trivial Pursuit from Hasbro, Sounds Fun with Mike Epps, Buzzer Beater Basketball Trivia with Karl-Anthony Towns, Fourth Down Football Trivia with Philip Rivers, Full Count Baseball Trivia with Buster Posey from Ground Control, as well as Beat the Intro from Musicplode. Echo Buttons will come in a two-pack, priced at $19.99, and will arrive in time for the holidays in the US, UK, and Germany. Echo Buttons are the first of many Alexa Gadgets, a new collection of accessories that enable fun and playful Alexa experiences. Sign up at https://www.amazon.com/AlexaGadgets to receive notifications and updates when Echo Buttons are available for purchase.


Echo Connect

$35, available “later this year”

Four months ago, Amazon introduced Alexa calling and messaging, and millions of customers have started using the feature. Now, Amazon is expanding this feature to include support for free outbound calling to phone numbers within the United StatesCanada, and Mexico. Just say “Alexa, call Mary’s mobile,” and Alexa will call Mary’s mobile phone from your smartphone’s contact list. Alexa can also dial phone numbers that you speak to her so that you can reach people or businesses that aren’t in your contacts. Calls to 911 are not supported. This feature is available for all Echo, Echo Dot, and Echo Show customers starting today in the US.

Amazon also introduced Echo Connect, a new Alexa accessory that turns your Echo into a high quality, hands-free speakerphone for your home phone line. Echo Connect works with your existing home phone service – either landline or VoIP. Without touching a single button, ask Alexa to call anybody from your contact list – when you call, they will see your home phone number as the caller ID. When someone you know calls your home phone, Alexa will announce their name from your contacts list—just ask Alexa to answer to start the conversation.

Echo Connect is easy to set up—simply connect it to your home Wi-Fi network and home phone jack or VoIP adapter, and use the Alexa app on your mobile phone to set up Echo Connect. Echo Connect is just $34.99 and will be available later this year.


Amazon Alexa – New Features

Alexa Routines

Routines allow you to automate a series of customizable actions using a single voice command of your choice. For example, say, “Alexa, good night,” and Alexa will turn off the lights, lock the door, and turn off the TV. You can also create Routines based on the time of day – for example, you can create a Routine that has Alexa turn on the kitchen lights, start the coffee maker, and read the weather forecast at 6 a.m. every weekday and at 9 a.m. every Saturday and Sunday.

Routines are compatible with popular Works with Amazon Alexa lights, plugs, switches, and door locks from leading brands like TP Link, Philips Hue, Wemo, and August, and will be available for all Alexa devices including the all-new Echo, the previous generation Echo, Echo Dot, Echo Show, and Echo Plus starting next month.

Alexa smart home groups

You no longer need to remember the specific name of a smart device or group of smart devices to control them. Now you can place your Echo and smart devices into smart home groups, which enables Alexa to act intelligently on your request, making your interactions with your smart home more natural and effortless. For example, when you walk into the kitchen, you can now say to your Echo “Alexa, turn on the lights” rather than “Alexa, turn on the kitchen overhead lamp.”

This feature will be available on the all-new Echo, the previous generation Echo, Echo Dot, Echo Show, and Echo Plus starting next month.

About the Author

Julie Jacobson
Follow
Julie Jacobson:

Julie Jacobson is founding editor of CE Pro, the leading media brand for the home-technology channel. She has covered the smart-home industry since 1994, long before there was much of an Internet, let alone an Internet of things. Currently she studies, speaks, writes and rabble-rouses in the areas of home automation, security, networked A/V, wellness-related technology, biophilic design, and the business of home technology. Julie majored in Economics at the University of Michigan, spent a year abroad at Cambridge University, and earned an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin. She is a recipient of the annual CTA TechHome Leadership Award, and a CEDIA Fellows honoree. A washed-up Ultimate Frisbee player, Julie currently resides in San Antonio, Texas and sometimes St. Paul, Minn. Follow on Twitter: @juliejacobson

ARTICLE TOPICS:

ControlLightingWhole-House SystemsNewsProducts

ARTICLE TAGS:

AlexaAmazonEchoIoTVoice ControlZigBee