You may have heard about Amazon’s Echo, a hands-free, voice controlled device that uses Alexa (Amazon’s version of Siri, a talking digital assistant) to perform various tasks such as play music, control ‘smart’ home devices, read the news, set alarms, add items to shopping lists and more.
I met up with Sense member Tony Lodge to learn more about using the Echo and how it might be of help and accessible to disabled people. Tony brought one with him and we and put it through its paces.
The Echo comes in two sizes, the original echo and the Echo Dot, a smaller version which is significantly cheaper. Tony has the larger version, but apart from being smaller and having a poorer quality speaker, the Echo Dot works in exactly the same way.
To set it up, you will need a Wi-Fi connection and access to a computer or smartphone so that you can use the Amazon Echo app. The device can now be controlled entirely through your voice.
As well as the pre-installed functions, you can download additional free ‘skills’, which are similar to third party apps that enable Alexa to do extra things such as look up news stories, order a taxi or write a text message. Whilst most people will use the app to enable skills, it is possible to set up skills using spoken word alone.
The Echo is cylindrical in shape and it’s quite nice to the touch. You can turn the volume up or down by twisting the top of the device or simply say “Alexa up, or down”. Alexa has a clear well-modulated voice. Both Tony and I have hearing loss but we were able to understand her. Tony said “It’s a great boon”; the Echo is what he’s been waiting years for.
Tony had previously tried other voice assistants such as Siri but found them hard to use and expensive. Tony appreciates the fact that it’s entirely voice activated, no fumbling about with buttons and enjoys asking Alexa for the definition of words or for information from Wikipedia. This has ‘freed up’ his wife who he used to ask to look things up. Similarly, it allows him to access all the information he needs. Tony outlined that sometimes, when he asks people to read information, they would read what they thought were the important sections, when he wanted to hear everything.
Alexa will also add things to your shopping list. Say ‘Alexa, add chocolate to my shopping list’ and she will. I would say that makes her the perfect friend!
Tony enjoys listening to music and the radio, and Alexa can do this for him. Simply ask Alexa for the name of the song, artist or radio station you want (for example, Alexa, play Barry Manilow) and if she can access that particular piece of music, she’ll play it.
Lastly, we talked about any limitations to Alexa. Tony said that you need to ask exactly the right question. He gave an example of wanting to listen to a radio station in Ireland but not knowing its name. Fortunately, I did, so Tony is now able to enjoy RTE Radio 1 to his heart’s content! Although we are impressed with Alexa’s voice, Tony did say that the ability to change the voice (to a male voice for example) would be a good feature for the future.
Tony’s final comment was that the Echo could be a really helpful piece of technology for people with disabilities, although it does rely on you being able to speak and hear Alexa’s responses.
Read about accessibility and Apple devices: