Using Alexa for home environment control

Article by Hilary Cotter, Clinical Specialist in Assistive Technology, Brighter Future A.T.

I worked with a lady who wanted to be able to control specific items in her home environment. She had quadriplegia with limited functional movement in her hands. She had enough arm movement to be able to use a stylus strapped onto the palm of her hand to access her iPad and smartphone and she was already using Alexa to control some smart home features in her home. She wanted to be able to control aspects of her environment while lying in bed at night, but she wore splints on her arms at night and so wasn’t able to use her stylus to access her iPad or phone during these times. She also had a tendency to wake up in the middle of the night and wanted to be able to entertain herself during these periods of being awake when others were asleep.

She had an electrically-adjustable bed and wanted to be able to independently get herself from lying to sitting when she woke up during the night, to be able to turn on her bedside lamp and to be able to entertain herself during the night by watching television from her bed. She also wanted, during the daytime, to be able to independently drive herself in her powered wheelchair in and out of the front door and porch door of her home. We explored various different options and decided that voice control via Alexa on an Amazon Echo speaker would offer her the option of controlling all these items, even when her upper limb splints were on at night. The following video shows all of these features in action:

An engineer from Safe Care Technologies installed an Enabler Bed device to her bed. This is a device which is installed between the bed’s engine and its standard remote and allows control of the up-down movements of the head and feet of a motored bed. This enabled her to control her bed via either her iPad or her smartphone. The engineer then installed a Z-wave relay system to link up the Enabler Bed to the Echo, so then she had the option of controlling her bed by either her iPad/phone or by Alexa.

Safe Care had previously provided her with a Control+ smart remote, which enabled her to control her television using either her iPad or her phone during the daytime. She was then provided with a Harmony infra-red controller, which enabled her to also control her television using voice control via Alexa.

She was also provided with a Z-wave smart plug so that she could control her bedside lamp via Alexa, but this voice control could also have been achieved using a standard Wi-Fi bulb.

Her front and porch door were fitted with motors, which were then connected up to the Z-wave relay fitted by the Safe Care engineer. This allowed her to control both of these doors via Alexa. A similar set up could also allow control of internal doors, curtains, blinds or windows.

The Pros

  1. Amazon Echo speakers are mainstream products and lots of people are familiar with using these devices for smart home control.
  2. This system is hands-free and easy for the end-user to use.

The Cons

  1. As the Echo is connected up to the home Wi-Fi, any drop in the internet connection can make the system temporarily unavailable. This unreliability means a back-up system is very important (in this case, the ability to control all the items via the iPad or smartphone using the stylus during the day and switches at night when she was wearing her splints).
  2. As Echo/Alexa runs through the Wi-Fi there are issues around data security, which could mean that not everyone would be comfortable with using a system like this.

The Verdict

This is an easy-to-use, mainstream solution which would allow someone with limited or no hand function to control aspects of their home environment. However, I don’t think it could be relied on by itself, so if installing a system like this, I would always recommend a back-up system for times when this system doesn’t work.