Getting the Most out of my Amazon Echo: Smart Lights

Smart lighting technologies – like the Lutron Caseta – make it easy to use Alexa for smart home functionality.

Over the last 3 months, I’ve received four new Amazon Alexa devices – one Echo Dot (from re:Invent) 1 and an Echo, a Dot, and a Tap from Amazon and Hackster for my winning entry in their API contest. That, plus the Echo I already owned, my wife’s fire tablet, my two Amazon Fire TVs, and my custom Mystic Mirror give me a total of 9 Alexa-enable devices in my home!!!

Three of my Amazon Alexa devices courtesy of Hackster and Amazon (with some of my favorite books)

With all those devices, it was natural for me to accelerate my adoption of the Alexa in the house, with a focus on smart lights.

I spent a few weeks researching options. In short: there are a lot of products out there. I knew that I wanted to control 3 “bays” of lights:

  1. Family room recessed lights (6) – BR40
  2. Kitchen recessed lights (4) – BR40
  3. Outside porch/front door lights (2) – standard A19

Given the number of lights, I felt that the most cost-effective solution was to go with smart switches. [Note: the added benefit of smart switches was that I wanted to control the lights by voice and wall switch, which a smart bulb would not let me do].

From there, I narrowed my choices to Z-wave switches (partnered with a Samsung SmartHub or Wink) or Lutron Caseta system. I liked the flexibility of Wink or SmartHub (it can support multiple technologies), but I ultimately went with the Caseta. I read multiple reviews about how great the Caseta system worked… and with a smart home skeptic in the house, I wanted to make sure that I implemented something that would be responsive and easy to use.

The Lutron Caseta dimmer (controlling the kitchen lights and the pico dimmer (for two-way control of the family room lights)

I’ve only had the system in two days, but so far, I’m beyond elated about my choice. Other systems might be slightly less expensive…. but this just WORKS. Plus, there are some added benefits:

  • I’ve added dimming functionality (which is a big deal at 2AM in the morning).
  • I’ve scheduled my porch lights to turn on at sunset and off at 11pm – so, even less work for me there.
  • I’m starting to win my wife over (in regards to using voice commands to control our home).

Building an Automated Cat Feeder with Amazon Alexa

In my second IoT project, I tackle feeding my cats by voice commands.

cat-feeder_title-pageMy family owns three cats; for the most part, they are well behaved – unless they are hungry. When it’s time for them to eat, they get a little crazy – constantly meowing and running under/between our legs, or waking us up at night.

We used to keep extra food in their dishes, but they would just overeat – resulting in cat throw-up (which, without fail, I seemed to step in every morning on my way to the kitchen).

We’ve been living in this “claw-ful” situation for a few years, and never really considered resolving the problem. My oldest daughter suggested that we (and by we, she really meant me) build an automated cat feeder. I told her that I didn’t have the time to build one… but then, I figured, why not give it a try.

Full instructions are on the write up at Hackster – https://www.hackster.io/darian-johnson/alexa-powered-automated-cat-feeder-9416d4

Getting the Most out of my Amazon Echo: Using TuneIn Radio

Telling Alexa to “Play The Big DM on TuneIn” has been the highlight of my Alexa experience to date

before1Before I talk about technology, a quick segue: I grew up in the age of radio and cassettes. The hiss of a cassette tape is a callback to simpler times – when most albums were constricted as complete pieces (and not as a string of singles); when the order of an album was important (no easy skipping)… when building a mixtape was more art than science.

I feel the same way about radio. There’s nothing like the excitement of not knowing what great song is coming next, or the magic of slowing flowing from one song to another. Before there was music video1, there was radio – where I discovered Incognito, and Angela Bofill, and Teena Marie…. Continue reading “Getting the Most out of my Amazon Echo: Using TuneIn Radio”

Getting the Most out of my Amazon Echo: The Roadmap

I’ve got an awesome smart device in the Amazon Echo. Now I need to use it.

Me with my Amazon Echo (and trophy from Hackster)
Me with my Amazon Echo (and trophy from Hackster)

Two weeks ago, I received an Amazon Echo as part of the prize for Hackster’s Internet of Voice challenge (2nd Place1). I checked the mail every day for its arrival, thinking of all the cool things I could and would do with it.

Fast forward to today, and I’m using the Echo daily… but not at its full potential. I use it for timers, connecting my phone via Bluetooth to play music, and to play Jeopardy. That’s not a diss: with four kids, timers are a necessity. Plus, I love Jeopardy. Still, with a device this powerful, I could be doing more. So, I’m putting together a plan to better use the device as a smart home assistant. Here, at a high level, is my roadmap. Continue reading “Getting the Most out of my Amazon Echo: The Roadmap”

Building a Magic Mirror using Alexa, AWS, and a Raspberry Pi

Mystic_Miror_Logo_NewSome people spend their vacations traveling, or relaxing, or visiting family. I spent my two weeks off building an Alexa enabled, Raspberry Pi device for Hackster’s Internet of Voice challenge.

But, to paraphrase Madonna: “Don’t Cry for Me, Internet.” I really enjoyed those two plus weeks of coding. I learned a ton about AWS IoT and MQTT (and re-enforced some “non-sexy” skills – like security and IAM).

And the device that I decided to build…. a magic mirror. Why a magic mirror? Well, I am the guy that:

  • Never checks for delays in his work commute until he is stuck in a four-lane accident
  • Forgets his umbrella when the forecast calls for afternoon showers
  • Doesn’t find out about a major news event unless the story breaks on ESPN
  • Always forgets to pull my trash bins to the curb on garbage pick-up day

In short, my morning routine is a mess (#firstworldproblems). An Amazon Echo (or a phone, for that matter) would resolve most of those problems. Unfortunately, I never seem to have my phone with me as I’m getting ready in the morning (it’s usually charging). And I’m usually not asking Alexa for these details (I don’t have an Alexa device in my bathroom).

60% of my morning routine is centered in and around the bathroom or bedroom, so I decided to build an Alexa skill and Alexa Voice Service-enabled magic mirror – which I’ve titled the Mystic Mirror.

Continue reading “Building a Magic Mirror using Alexa, AWS, and a Raspberry Pi”