6 Ways to Use Your New Smart Speaker for Greater Independence

Smart home technology is earning an important place among the ranks of assistive technology. There are a variety of devices and seemingly endless configurations that can increase independence, productivity, safety, and health both at home and elsewhere. People with disabilities and older adults are using these technologies to control their environments (lights, fans, and thermostats), access entertainment (TV, music, and internet), monitor their homes (video doorbells and video services), and control who can enter (smart locks and door openers).

But, while complex smart-home setups with multiple devices are impressive, don’t forget that the humble smart speaker can be powerful all on its own. These little virtual assistants – such as Amazon Echos, Google Nests, or Apple HomePods – can help you stay organized and connected. And, with all of us spending so much time at home these days, what better gift this holiday season than one that makes day-to-day activities at home easier?

Photo of Google Smart Speaker Device on a shelf in a home
Google Home Mini

Whether you are the lucky new owner of a smart speaker for the holidays or you have had one for years, here are six ways you can use your virtual assistant to improve your life without any extra “smart” equipment:

1. SCHEDULING

Imagine you are in bed about to fall asleep and suddenly remember you have an appointment first thing in the morning… or was it the next day? With a smart speaker, all you have to do is ask “What’s on my calendar tomorrow?” You can also add appointments to your calendar, change them, cancel them, and even reply with calendar invitations to other people all with your voice. Check your device’s instructions for details on how to integrate it with your calendar. Note: Amazon Echo can integrate with most calendars, including Google, Microsoft, and Apple, while Google Nest and Apple HomePod currently only integrate with their respective calendar apps.

Did You Know? Amazon Echo, Google Nest, and Apple HomePod are all capable of learning different people’s voices and linking each individual with their own account, making it easy for multiple people to control their personal calendars, make and receive phone calls, play their own music, and shop from their own accounts all through the same device.

2. REMINDERS AND ALARMS

Whether you want a daily reminder to take your medication at a certain time or a one-time reminder to take the chicken out when you get home, your smart speaker has you covered. Reminders and alarms can wake you up in the morning, help you stay on schedule, and make sure you don’t forget something important. Using Amazon Echo, Google Nest, and Apple HomePod, you can set a reminder by time of day or by location (for example, set a reminder to check in with your boss when you arrive at work). You can also set reminders to be recurring or one-time-only, and you can select which device you want to play the reminder.

3. EMAIL

Just as easy as accessing your calendar with your voice, you can listen to and reply to emails using your smart speaker too. Amazon Echo has this functionality built in, all you have to do is connect your device to your account (Amazon currently connects with Gmail, Microsoft Outlook, Hotmail and Live.com). Google Nest, on the other hand, doesn’t officially offer this feature yet, but there are a few possible workarounds.

4. NEWS, WEATHER, INTERNET SEARCHES, AND MORE

Whether you want to know what the weather forecast is for the day, what the score was from the game last night, or how to spell “quarantine,” your smart speaker is ready to find the answer and report back to you. What’s even more impressive? You can teach your Amazon, Google, or Apple device more about your preferences and you’ll get more personalized information when you ask.

Did You Know? You can set up routines with most smart speakers to combine several actions together. For example, if in the morning you always ask to hear the weather, then your calendar appointments for the day, and finally a certain radio station, you can link these actions together with one verbal cue such as, “Alexa, what’s my morning update?” Read about routines for Amazon Echo, Google Nest, and Apple HomePod.

5. COMMUNICATION

Perhaps one of the most powerful features of your smart speaker is its ability to help you communicate with others by making phone calls. If you use Amazon Echo you must associate your calls with your mobile phone for contacts and caller ID purposes. However, you are technically making the call through Amazon’s free Internet cloud services for the connection, not your phone, so your minutes are spared. Google has various methods to use phone numbers for caller ID and, like Amazon, there is no charge. A story from Suria, a member of our Smart Home Technology Advisory Committee who has a spinal cord injury, demonstrates just how impactful this can be:

“This morning I was in the shower chair and about to fall off – I can’t move, I can’t grab the phone, it won’t hear me – Echo was the only one there. All I had to say was, ‘Echo, call Kirby.’ It dialed his Echo and his cell phone and I was able to tell him, ‘Come back! It’s an emergency.’ I almost fell to the floor, but thankfully I have a superhero,” Suria said, “It’s my Echo!”

Did You Know? There are two other communication features you should know about: Announcements and Ask My Buddy. Amazon Echo and Google Nest both have an announcement feature that makes it possible to broadcast a message via multiple devices throughout a home at one time – anything from “Dinner’s ready” to “Help, I’ve fallen!” Ask My Buddy is an independent service available for both Amazon and Google smart speakers that lets you create a personal alert network. If you have an emergency, all you need to do is ask your smart speaker to “Ask My Buddy to send help” and a notification will be sent by phone, text, and/or email to a list of predesignated contacts. Ask My Buddy also has a way to contact emergency numbers like 911.

6. CHECKING IN ON A PERSON OR A LOCATION

Before we dive into this topic, let us be clear: it is PATF’s belief that monitoring should only be pursued after receiving full, informed consent from the individual who may be impacted. While some people find the idea of monitoring to be invasive, others have expressed that they appreciate giving another person – family member, caregiver, or friend, for example – the ability to check in on them using their smart speaker. With Amazon Echo’s Drop In feature, another person can listen in from afar to make sure everything is OK. This feature is even more powerful if you have a smart display like an Amazon Echo Show with its built-in camera and screen. Please note that before connecting, an Echo Show will blur the screen and play a notification which allows the person receiving the Drop In to cancel it by saying “Alexa cancel/stop/hang-up/reject” if they do not want to accept the Drop In. You can also turn on Do Not Disturb to temporarily block Drop Ins on a device.

Note: Smart displays, such as the Amazon Echo Show family of products or Google Nest Hub, are smart speakers with the addition of a camera and touch screen. If you have one of these, here are a few extra things you can do with your device:

Show and Tell feature with Amazon Echo Show – If you are blind or have low vision, you need only hold up an object in front of your device’s camera and ask “Alexa, what am I holding” to find out what it is.

Make video calls – Just like you can use your smart speaker for phone calls, you can use your smart display for video calls. Stay connected with your friends and family, access your physician for telehealth, or give a loved one the ability to check in on you from afar with video calling on the Amazon Echo Show line of products.

Entertainment – Connect your smart display with a streaming account to watch TV shows, movies, and online content. Just check your device to see which content providers it can connect with: Amazon and Google.

Interested in getting some smart home technology? Pennsylvania Assistive Technology Foundations Mini-Loan program can help you cover the cost of purchasing smart home devices as well as the cost of installation. We can also help you determine if you are eligible for other funding resources that might cover the cost entirely. Apply for a loan or contact us to learn more.

Smart Home Subscription Fees and The True Cost of “Free” Services

By: Kirby Smith, Smart Homes Made Simple project consultant, and founder of SunKirb Ideas, LLC

Person sitting at a desk with a tablet and smart phone. Behind the desk is a TV and a smart speaker.
Image: Person sitting at a desk with a tablet and smart phone. Behind the desk is a TV and a smart speaker.

This article is written in response to popular smart home platform Wink’s recent announcement that they will begin charging a monthly $4.99 fee for their services starting July 27th.

First, a (slightly technical) History of the Universal Hub (e.g., Wink)

Smart home devices that are easy for the average person to install and manage started to become popular in 2014. This was driven by startup companies collaborating with mainstream companies to release affordable, easy to set up equipment and devices for the home. Starting with thermostats, cameras, smart doorbells and lights, the movement has since expanded to include many other home appliances.


Because of the popularity of smart phones and tablets, nearly everyone who purchased smart home products already had a centralized control system they conveniently carried with them. People liked the idea that with their phone they could control their home, answer the door, or change the temperature in their house from anywhere in the world.

The Dilemma: How to Connect a Network of Smart Home Devices

For a person to control a smart home device from anywhere, the device needs three things to work:

  1. The device must have electronic chips in it to communicate and physically control its function;
  2. The chips need a way to reach the Internet; and
  3. There must be a service operating on the Internet to receive and send information and commands to and from the chips in the device. Typically called cloud services.

Back in the early 2000’s, manufacturers struggled to find the best way for smart home devices to communicate between one another. We are all familiar with two communication standards used for things like our laptops, tablets and phones to connect to each other. Their brand names are WiFi and Bluetooth (FYI: WiFi is short for “Wireless Fidelity” which people agreed sounded silly, so it was shortened to WiFi). WiFi and Bluetooth use radio signals that send information around.

The electronic chips that use WiFi can send signals very far, but the chips back in the early 2000’s were comparatively large, used a lot of power, gave off a lot of heat, and they were costly. Also, we have all experienced how WiFi signals can drop. Almost every home has a spot where the WiFi stops working.

Bluetooth electronic chips are very small. So small that they can fit in earphones. They use very little power, don’t give off heat, and are very cheap. However, the range of Bluetooth is very short, only about 30 feet and the signal can’t travel through objects like walls and people’s bodies.

ZigBee and Z-Wave Offer a Solution

Two new electronic communication standards, ZigBee and Z-Wave, were adopted in the early 2000’s to solve the problems manufacturers were having. The electronic chips that communicate using ZigBee and Z-Wave are extremely small, energy efficient, and are cheaper to manufacture.

ZigBee and Z-Wave solved another big problem — signals being dropped or lost. Every device that uses one of these radio transmission protocols both receives and broadcasts, allowing each device to act as a relay. If we could see ZigBee and Z-Wave connections, they would look like a web, where everything is connected to each other. This is called a mesh and mesh systems have far better performance because of their dependable redundant connections. In fact, the more devices that are added, the faster and better the connections become unlike WiFi which slows when too many devices are added.

There was still one issue remaining: how the smart home devices reach the Internet. Something local was needed to receive the ZigBee and Z-Wave signals, convert the signals, and connect the devices to WiFi in a home in order to connect to the Internet. Devices that performed this function were called smart home hubs (hubs for short).

The problem was that each manufacturer created their own hub for the devices they made. For example, smart bulbs used a proprietary hub created by the manufacturer that made the bulb, while smart bulbs from another manufacturer used a different one. Smart locks had their own hubs, as did the smart light switches and plugs. Also, each hub used a different app that was installed on phones and tablets. It was normal for some people to have 5-10 apps to control their smart home. If someone wanted to set up a smart home, they encountered chaos and a lot of costs.

A New Player in the Game: Wink

Things changed in 2014 when small startup companies began manufacturing hubs that could communicate with multiple brands of home automation devices. These centralized hubs could talk to a wide range of home automation devices from multiple different manufacturers. This highly simplified the install process when using devices created by multiple companies. Also, for the user, you could use one app to wirelessly control your devices. If your WiFi changed, and if your hub was plugged into your WiFi router, you didn’t have to worry about setting everything up again. And, if you changed the router then you just plugged the hub into the new router, and you were done.


In a two-year period starting around 2013 through 2015 many companies released centralized home automation hubs and almost immediately went out of business because of the tremendous challenge of supporting the vast number of new smart home products that were being released. Companies that got a foothold included SmartThings, Insteon, Staples, Lowe’s and professional firms like ADT and AT&T. One company, Wink, took a different approach.


Wink simplified life for those who were not very technical. When putting new devices on the hub, the Wink app included videos of how to install the products for a vast range of manufacturers. Their support call center was also readily available to assist. From my personal experience, hold times were rarely over 5 minutes. Further sweetening the deal, unlike other manufacturers, Wink did not charge additional costs after the initial purchase of the hub which cost less than $100.

Wink starter kit with HUB, devices, and home automation app
Image: Wink starter kit with HUB, devices, and home automation app

For six years, people could use the Wink hub and its app for free and enjoyed:

Centralized installation
• Centralized management of devices from various manufacturers

• Continual updates for new features
The ability to create smart routines (called robots): One could click one button to dim multiple lights and bring the thermostat to a comfortable temperature to settle down and watch a movie
• Easy dependable security
• Excellent customer support
• Voice control of products on the hub using Amazon Alexa or Google Home

Wink Moves to Subscription-Based Services

Wink users received a shock in May of 2020 when Wink announced they were moving to a subscription service and users had to pay-up in one week or lose access to the hub and app they had used for years. The following is part of their statement:


“Since 2014, Wink has grown to support more than 4 million connected devices. During this time, Wink has relied solely on the one-time fee derived from hardware sales to cover ongoing cloud costs, development, and customer support. Providing users with local and remote access to their devices will always come at a cost for Wink, and over the years we have made great progress toward reducing these costs so that we can maintain that feature. Wink has taken many steps in an effort to keep your Hub’s blue light on, however, long term costs and recent economic events have caused additional strain on our business. Unlike companies that sell user data to offset costs associated with offering free services, we do not. Data privacy is one of Wink’s core values, and we believe that user data should never be sold for marketing or any purpose.”

This move infuriated users, forcing them to drop the product (and thus abandon or rebuild their smart home setup) or pay up. With the change announced during COVID restrictions, the short notice and lack of warning, users were justified in their frustration. The common question was, why should I have to pay for something that was free for so long?

In Favor of Fees

Because of popular free sites and services such as Google, Facebook, Instagram, and others, we have grown to believe we have the right to these services and that they should be “free”. However, if Wink is still committed to privacy, their original model was not sustainable and it was only a matter of time before they would need to make a change.

Companies have costs: staff, buildings and equipment, commerce and a host of other services for which they incur expenses. Also, they must return a profit. For a product to be reliable and worth investing in, the company’s operation must also be reliable and worth investing in. Over the past six years, a long list of companies have released great products, but due to poor management they went out of business. They left their customers with unusable devices and dead apps. These users received no reimbursement. I, myself, lost at least $2,000 worth of devices when Lowe’s shut down their Iris hub. The product lasted for less than 5 years. There are three ways companies cover their costs.


1) Target Marketing. If we look at Amazon and the Alexa Echo, there is the initial purchase that can be as low as $30. Each month there are new features added which have included free video and audio calling, home automation control, music, and other services. Alexa now performs almost all the functions of a central smart home hub.


How does Amazon cover the cost of this? The speakers give them insight into your home and how you use and consume things. In short, our use of the device tells them what to advertise and sell us. Also, many people, including myself, use the Alexa Echo to make purchases directly from Amazon. My family uses a good quantity of AA batteries and when we run low we say to the Echo, “Alexa, order more AA batteries.” It responds, “Based on your last purchase, is this what you want?” A picture of the last order appears, and we respond with, “Yes.” We like the convenience and have safely used our Echo for years.


2) Selling Your Personal Data. The second way companies make money, and the most insidious in my opinion, is they sell everything about you to other vendors and advertisers. They take the Amazon model one step further. For example, Google purchased and recently took complete control of the Nest company, which manufactures some of the most popular smart home products.

In 2019, Google created a new requirement: in order to use the products and all the features you must use a Google account and email. In fine print they state they will be linking your email, calendar, and document information to a pool of information about you. They also link your account to your Google Home account and smart speaker. This means they can sell information about how you use your lights, security, email, events, how you react to weather, etc. to anyone willing to get that information about you. In short, you are paying Google with information about everything you do.


Companies like Google and Facebook are so pervasive in our lives, we never stop to ask how we are getting all their services for free. As we click through the online agreements, we do so not realizing we are selling our privacy and giving them personal information to use any way they choose.


3) Subscription Services. The third and final way companies make money relates to subscription service. This method is typically used by smaller companies than say Google or Amazon. Wink is one of these companies. For Wink to continue to support their products and the users of their products, they must either: 1) receive a payment from companies like Google who pay smaller companies for specialized information about you; or 2) keep your information private but charge you a fee to provide their service.

At the end of the day, nothing is free and we will either pay with our money or pay with our privacy by sharing personal information about how we live.

What will you choose?