Getting Started with Smart Home Technology

Smart Home advertisements are everywhere now. Robotic vacuums! Smart toilets!  Faucets that know how much water to add to the sink! Refrigerators that keep your daily schedule! To complicate things more, there are ‘Smart speakers’ that speak to you (for example,  Alexa or Google Home), which are different from Smart speakers that improve the sound of your music that comes out of the ‘speaking speakers’.  And did you know that your speaking speakers can actually hold a conversation with each other? Confused yet?

More and more Smart Home devices are becoming available every day, which means more decisions to be made and more confusion as to the what, how and why of Smart Home technology. There are many many articles about ‘How to Get Started With Smart Home Technology’ that you can read. Check out the Resources section here on this website for a list.

There’s just one thing.  Although these articles are basic and simple to read, they don’t really start at the very beginning, the true beginning… the place where many of us are jumping into Smart Home Technology. For instance, they don’t tell you the first thing:


Why? Because the ‘Smart’ in Smart Homes and Phones means internet.


What is a Smart Home? This article explains it simply. It is a home where Wifi is used to connect and automate devices such as lights and appliances, security and climate control. The Wifi in your house can then be used to access the devices through your SmartPhone remotely. Your SmartPhone also connects to a voice assistant such as Amazon Echo (Alexa) or Google Home etc. (remember, this is also called a Smart speaker).  The voice assistant allows your devices to communicate with each other.

The Smart Phone connects directly to the thermostat and the TV. It also connects to the voice assistant (like Alexa) and then Alexa connects to both the TV and thermostat as well!
Here the Smart Phone connects directly to the thermostat and the TV through your house WiFi. It also connects to the voice assistant (like Alexa) and then Alexa connects to both the TV and thermostat as well!

Now that you have a Smart Phone, there are three main things to figure out in order to get started.

1. What SPEAKER (voice assistant) to buy?
2. WHAT to add to your Smart Home system: music? lights?
3. HOW to USE it once it is set up!

~ Decide which speaker you want: Amazon Echo? Google Home? Apple HomeKit? As of this date (May, 2018) the voice assistant that has the most options for devices that benefit a person with a disability is still the Amazon Echo. There are several different Echos available now. Here is an article about your options.

~Plug in your speaker (voice assistant), download the voice assistant app onto your phone, and learn how to navigate it. For the Alexa app, the ellipsis (the three horizontal  parallel lines) in the top right corner accesses all of your options.  Try ‘settings‘ first!  Set up the basics, which are very straightforward (connecting to your WiFi, accessibility options, wake word).

~Pick ONE thing at a time to add, and then use it. Music is often first. The three main voice assistants (Echo, Google and Apple) have different options. Figure out how to ask for what you want, it is not always straightforward (for example, with Alexa in order to get a station on Pandora radio, you have to ask for Pandora first in the sentence, not the artist. Simple things like that, which are easy to forget!) Sometimes you feel like Dave in the video below….


Your default news station, daily alarms and timers, and adding reminders, appointments or shopping lists are also basic. Just ask your voice assistant and it will usually guide you through it.

Say ‘Alexa, I need a reminder’.  That’s all!  Here is a list of things you can ask.

~Read about SKILLS for your voice assistant. There are many many of them! They are basically quick ‘apps’ to specific things that you can enable the speaker to do for you. News stations, ambient music to sleep by, travel apps, food delivery apps. Pick one or two and enable them. Here is an article about ‘Skills’.

~PRACTICE asking for what you want for awhile. Wording is important! Become acquainted with what you can ask for and especially what you can NOT ask for on your speaker (no, Amazon Echo does not have Google search engine and does not have YouTube. Things like that!)

~Once you are comfortable talking to a machine, try to add a Smart Lightbulb, or get a Smart Switch and set it up to turn something in your home on or off. Here are some suggestions.

Here again, the articles that guide you with device set up may neglect a few important details, assuming that the reader already knows the basics.  It truly is NOT quite as easy as just screwing in a lightbulb.

Here is a tip that will save you a good 45 minutes of frustration:

The Smart Home devices that you buy (light bulbs, switches, plugs, the HUB) have a specific app for that specific brand.  You need to find the app on your phone and download it first before any connections can take place. In addition, you have to set up an account with them with a password.

YOU WILL HAVE TO DO THIS FOR EVERY DEVICE THAT YOU WANT TO CONNECT! Only then can you move on to connecting it with your voice assistant (ie.Alexa), or your hub.

This article has the clearest instructions on connecting a light bulb

Screen Shot 2018-06-01 at 6.23.21 PM

Wait a minute, there is another new word.  What’s a HUB?  Read about them here.

If you’ve mastered the information in this blog post so far, you are ready to move on to the the more complex subject of home automation. When you start to add more devices to your Smart Home, you will need a way to connect the devices to each other.  A hub manages the interactions between your devices so that that you can set up a series of actions to automate your home.  Thinking about setting the mood after dinner to relax after a long day? You will be able to just ask your voice assistant to ‘Set the after dinner mood’ .

With a pre-programmed ‘Scene’ (or group of actions), your thermostat will turn the heat up, the lights will dim, the shades will lower, and your favorite calming ambient sounds will play softly from your speaker.  Someday soon there might even be a set of robot arms that can do the dishes!

You are on your way with Smart Home Technology!



Life in a Smart Home: From dawn ’til dusk with Suria

The gentle sounds of the Orcas setting on the Amazon Echo Dot alarm wakes Suria from sleep. ‘Alexa, Start my Day‘ , Suria requests. ‘Good morning!’ greets Alexa. ‘In Philadelphia you can expect a sunny day with a high of 55 degrees and a low of 47 with a chance of rain in the afternoon’. A quick run through of the morning’s top news stories and local traffic conditions completes Alexa’s pre-programmed ‘Start my Day’ routine.

After Suria sustained a spinal cord injury in 2015, she and her husband, Kirby,  realized that changes needed to be made in their Philadelphia home so that Suria could continue to actively engage in everyday life. Using standard consumer technology together with Kirby’s technological expertise, they began to transform their home.  Today,  Suria and Kirby live in a state of the art ‘Smart Home‘ that has been adapted to meet Suria’s needs.

It’s early and the overnight caregiver has not yet started her morning shift. Suria commands the X-Box to turn on the morning news, and as she listens to the latest developments from bed, she goes over her day’s to-do list.  ‘Alexa, add “meeting notes” to my to-do list’ she requests. She continues, using the Echo Show to delete the items completed the day before without having to repeat the wake-word.  The new Follow-Up Mode feature allows you to string Alexa commands together without having to say ‘Alexa’ each time. Soon after, the caregiver enters to help her get ready for the day.

Suria often works from her office desk at home

As a Tax Senior Manager at Ernst and Young LLP in Philadelphia, Suria does most of her work from her home office.  Her office desk area has been customized to allow her to work as efficiently as possible. A button adjusts the table height for the wheelchair. Both her laptop’s and her desktop computer’s screens are open to allow her to look at two documents at the same time so that she does not have to flip between pages.  Her iPad sits on the desk to her right, always within reach for a third screen or to record conference calls with her HT Recorder, since she is not able to physically write notes.

SN DOwel keyboard-2Suria’s right hand controls a track ball, which is an adaptive mouse that allows her to
scroll using her palm and also to double click, press and drag. Her left hand controls a dowel that allows her to type on the keyboard. Phone calls can
be made from the computer as well as the office desk phone used on speaker, and a table microphone allows her to do dictation with Dragon.

Suria hears the front door open and looks up from her computer. ‘Alexa, show me the front door’ she asks, and the Nest cam shows that her caregiver is letting herself in with her own personal code that is programmed into the Smart door lock.  The caregiver, in turn, checks her IPhone to see where Suria is in the house.  It’s time for lunch, and they meet in the kitchen.  ‘Alexa, turn on the kitchen lights!’ and the Smart light bulbs illuminate the kitchen area. Suria remembers they are out of coffee, and she asks Alexa to show the shopping list. She deletes the items no longer needed, and adds coffee.  She knows that Kirby will check this list remotely on his Alexa app on his phone, and pick up the remaining items.

 Suria has already ordered Thai food through Uber Eats, an Alexa skill  enabled on her Echo that allows her to order prepared food. When the Smart doorbell rings, Suria can see on her IPad that it is the delivery person, and tells him to come in.  She commands the Echo to open the automatic door and lunch is served!

With her ‘Smart doorway’, Suria is able to come and go as she pleases
Suria speaks to Susan Tachau, executive director of the Pennsylvania Assistive Technology Project, at the March 2018 Smart Home Made Simple advisory board meeting

Suria’s Amazon Echo devices, as well as her IPad, IPhone and Xbox, connect her to her home as well as the world outside. They give her independence and privacy,  keep her safe, manage her personal finances, entertain her, and allow her to perform at her job. She is an active member of the advisory board for the Smart Homes Made Simple project and participates in meetings both in person and from home.

On any given work day afternoon from home, Suria may be using her Amazon Show for setting up meetings,  for participating in conference calls or dictating past work meetings, scheduling appointments and for making phone calls to others who also have a Show. With her IPad  she checks emails and social media, records work meetings, schedules future transportation, does online research, and manages her finances. She can take a break from work and play a game like Words with Friends , also on the IPad.


‘Alexa, set a timer for ten minutes’.

(The chocolate chip cookies in the oven should be perfect by then, and just in time for movie night).  

Kirby and Suria are deciding what to watch on TV after dinner, and  Suria instructs Alexa to ‘Start Movie Night‘. The lights dim, the Nest thermostat turns the heat up, and the window shades close. Another example of an Alexa ‘routine’, this one sets the evening mood with three different actions using just one command.

New ways to streamline the Echo’s functions like this are evolving rapidly.  Using an applet with an IFTTT account also strings together several devices at a time, as does using a Wink hub to create ‘shortcuts’! The Flic button can activate a series of events with just the press of a button.  Flic has a pre-programmed ‘Ultimate Wake Up‘ button that makes your coffee, as well as an ‘Ultimate Go to Bed’ button that even warms up your bed! The possibilities seem endless, and yet still increase every day.


‘Alexa, Good Night’ Suria says softly. She’s finished listening to her audio book in bed with her IPad, and it’s time for sleep. With the Good Night command, Alexa turns out the lights and sets the alarm to wake up with the gentle sounds of the Orcas setting.

It’s been a long day, and a very productive one.  Smart Home Technology helped with that.



Smart Homes Made Simple

A group of people sit around a long wooden table. At the head of the table is a large screen showing two faces. Four of the people are using power wheelchairs, one woman stands and smiling at the group.

An explosion of new smart home devices in the last five years increasingly promises to enable individuals with disabilities to have greater control over their own lives, and to participate in and contribute more fully to activities at home, work, school and in the community. 

A group of people sit around a long wooden table. At the head of the table is a large screen showing two faces. Four of the people are using power wheelchairs, one woman stands and speaks to the group.

While mainstream use of Smart Home technology is gaining ground, the application of these devices in the disability community as Assistive Technology (AT) is lagging, with many people still dishing out thousands and tens of thousands of dollars for older, specialized AT.  While some of these devices are customized and a “specialty” item, many others are “generic,” which means that they can be purchased “off-the-shelf” and used “as is.”  This makes them more affordable and easier-to-use.

The goal of the Smart Homes Made Simple project is to learn about, define, and raise awareness of what this amazing and affordable tech can do for people of all abilities. The information that is gathered by the Advisory Committee and learned from the consulting partner’s installs of 20 new smart homes each year for individuals and from working with a smart technology innovator will be disseminated throughout the Commonwealth.

Smart Homes Made Simple logo

For this to occur effectively and systematically, and be duplicated elsewhere, answers to several questions are necessary, which we seek to answer in this project: How do people with disabilities learn about generic AT devices and how might these devices make a difference in their lives? What are the relationships between technology developers and people with disabilities? How do developers learn about the tweaks that could be made in their inventions so that more people could benefit from the new technology? And, are all of us speaking the same language, and using the same words with a common meaning so that we are able to successfully find a product that is able to do what we want it to do?

Thus, the goals for the Generic Technology Project will be to:

  • Learn more about generic technology, specifically smart home and smart devices;
  • Provide information about the devices, their uses and their availability to the disability community;
  • Foster collaboration between technology companies and individuals with disabilities and their advocates for new generic technology developments;
  • Expand opportunities for individuals with disabilities and their advocates to finance their generic technology needs;
  • Provide expanded information about and access to generic technology for an underserved community (individuals who have developmental disabilities who have significant support needs and are transitioning from institutions to the community in Southeastern Pennsylvania).

Pennsylvania Assistive Technology Foundation (PATF), Pennsylvania’s Alternative Financing Program under the federal Assistive Technology Act, will be the lead on this project, working with a consumer-controlled Advisory Committee. PATF will collaborate with a technology consultant, Kirby Smith, to fulfill the required activities of the Generic Technology project. PATF is a consumer-directed, statewide organization that provides education and financing opportunities for people with disabilities and older Pennsylvanians, helping them to acquire assistive technology devices and services that improve the quality of their lives. PATF helps Pennsylvanians of all disabilities, health conditions, ages, and incomes.