It’s no secret I’m a huge fan of smart speakers, and thanks to Black Friday deals, my collection has now grown to 11. Now, I bet there are some of you out there thinking “of course you like smart speakers, you’re a geeky nerd”. Well, firstly, let me say that’s just rude and secondly, yes I do love my tech and gadgets, but it’s more than that. Smart speakers are just incredibly useful.
If you are of a certain age, you may remember a time when access to the internet was seen purely as a geeky hobby, but now internet access is an essential utility for any home. I think the same is true of smart speakers. People are beginning to see them not as gimmicky gadgets but as a mainstream home product like a television or radio. Of course, the audio only aspect of a smart speaker make them ideal for people who are blind or visually impaired. You control the smart speaker with your voice and get spoken information back from it. No buttons you need to identify and press, no icons to click or tap on, just pure audio. It’s VI heaven.
For those of you who are still unconvinced, below is a list of the top 5 things I use my Amazon Echo speakers for. I’m sticking with the Amazon Echo just because it’s the one I use the most but I’m sure a lot of the things on the list can be done using a Google Home smart speaker too.
Accessible Radio & More
Although I still get slightly nostalgic for the static, pops and whistles of good old AM / FM radio, there’s no denying that digital radio is a better option. It offers a far greater choice of stations and makes it easier to find them. Sadly, most peoples first experience of digital radio came in the form of expensive and mostly inaccessible DAB radios. OK, there were some accessible DAB sets but it wasn’t a great experience and accessibility was easily broken if a radio station moved or changed its name. Smart speakers, on the other hand, make fantastic, and more importantly, totally accessible radios. Firstly, you can pick up an Amazon Echo Dot or Google Home Mini without breaking the bank. Secondly, they are incredibly easy to use. Simply ask it to play whatever station you want and it’ll start playing in a few seconds. No more jabbing buttons or turning dials hoping to stumble on the station you want. Also, they’re not limited to just radio. You can subscribe to streaming music services such as Spotify, Amazon Music, Google Music etc to play any song from a library of millions. If that still isn’t enough, you can listen to almost any podcast through Tune In or your favourite audio book through Audible.
I know listening to radio or audio books probably doesn’t sound like the most futuristic or impressive aspect of smart speakers but it’s great to be able to do this in an accessible and easy way, I find it’s the thing I use my speakers for the most. If you’re looking to replace that old, battered alarm clock radio in the bedroom or kitchen, then a smart speaker is a no brainer.
While it is true that TV manufacturers seem to be, slowly, adding more accessibility to TV sets, we’re still a long way from every TV being accessible to the visually impaired. And the situation with set-top boxes etc is even worse. When I talk about accessibility on a television, I’m talking about simple things like the ability to browse the EPG, (electronic program guide), or flick through channels and being told what show is currently on.
Luckily, I’ve recently discovered a feature on my Amazon Echo that can help with this. I can ask something like “Whats on BBC1 tonight?” and I’ll get a spoken list of the shows on that channel tonight. If I’m just channel surfing I can also ask “Whats on BBC1 now?” and again Alexa will tell me whats on now.
I find it really useful and although by no means is this feature an answer to all your accessible TV problems, it’s a nice little tool to have.
All the major channels are covered here in the UK, and I’m sure other countries will have something similar. Give it a try.
OK, I’m just going to say it. Online shopping is amazing. Yes, of course there is a debate to be had regarding the future of our high street bricks & mortar stores but shopping online is just so damn convenient. From the visually impaired aspect it’s particularly useful. Store shopping can be a bit of a nightmare when it comes to mobility, finding the product you want and getting assistance in store. Online shopping takes care of those problems. Well, as long as it’s accessible. Amazon is the undeniable leader when it comes to online shopping, and of course, their smart speaker allows you to order products very easily. For example, I can say “Buy razor blades” and first, Alexa will check my previous orders from Amazon to see if I’ve bought razor blades before, and if I have, ask me if I’d like to re-order them. If I haven’t bought them before or I just want to order a different brand, Alexa will then read through a list of popular razor blades and after each one ask me if I’d like to buy that one. You can set up a 4 digit security pin that you’ll need to tell Alexa in order to buy the item, which although hardly foolproof, can help with the worry of your kids bulk ordering their favourite toys while you’re out. Quickly ordering items using the Echo works really well and is incredibly convenient, particularly for products you’ve ordered before. I will say though the whole “audio only” shopping experience has some way to go when it comes to browsing for products but I’m very hopeful it’s only going to get better.
You may be surprised to learn that I’m actually not a huge fan of audio games. At least, I think there is a lot of room for improvement. However, there are some genres that work well such as quiz or puzzle games, card games, adventure games etc. In episode 57 of Double Tap Canada you’ll hear Tim, Steven and myself battle it out on a game called Trivia Hero. In this game you have 60 seconds to answer as many general knowledge questions as you can. This is an example of an audio game done well. You’ll find hundreds of games to play on the Echo, and yes, there are some terrible ones but lots of good ones to. You can also buy Amazon Echo Buttons that pair with your Echo speaker and can act like buzzers for games like Trivia Pursuit Tap.
The main reason I’ve added games to my top 5 list is that playing games with others on a smart speaker is actually a nice experience. If you’re visually impaired, trying to play board games etc with your family or others feels a bit like going through the motions. You never really feel that involved as someone has to read the dice or some other bit of info for you, or move a piece on a board for you. When you’re all playing a game on a smart speaker you can actually feel involved and enjoy the experience. So say “Open Trivia Hero skill” to your Echo and try to beat Tim Mr Trivia Schwartz score of 7 answered questions in 60 seconds…
For a long time now I’ve been saying, along with others, that the smartphone will eventually be almost like a universal remote control. As we get more and more smart devices such as washing machines, lights, thermostats etc the more accessible they become because we can control many if not all of their functions through a companion app on the smartphone. Well, I still believe that but I think smart speakers are actually on a whole other level when it comes to ease of use and accessibility.
I’ve recently installed a Nest thermostat in my house and being able to simply say “Turn the heating on” or “Set heating to 20 degrees” is not only just futuristic and cool, it’s, here’s that word again, convenient.
Turning on or off electrical appliances such as heaters or fans using smart plugs, controlling lights, not only to turn on or off, but to dim or change colour to suit your vision and controlling white goods such as the Amazon microwave are all, not only possible, but totally accessible and at a price that is affordable.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t expect home appliances to be accessible to us on their own, but it does mean, at the very least, we can use them. We’ll have a feature on setting up a smart device here on Double Tap soon.
So what do you think? Did I miss something out that you think is important? Leave a comment below.
Co-host & audio producer on the Double Tap Canada radio show. Occasional contributor to Double Tap TV, full time shed resident.