Digital assistants such as Amazon Alexa, Google Home and Siri are very useful, but there’s a catch: They generally don’t provide information unless you ask for it. That approach only solves half of the assistant equation. A truly effective assistant should speak up on its own, based on time, place or events to provide better contextual information.
Lights aren’t ideal notifications for voice assistants
Earlier this week, I shared some smart home automation ideas and one of them was to connect a scene with a calendar event. That go me thinking about how calendar events work on my phone: If configured appropriately, I see a reminder a few minutes before the event. And if there’s travel involved, Google Assistant pops up a suggestion on my phone to leave at a certain time based on current traffic.
This is super helpful and having a little pop-up or sound on the phone makes sense. But this simple approach doesn’t make as much sense to me on smart home assistants where you might get a visual notification. In the Amazon Echo, the light ring will light up in different colors and on the Google Home it will light up the little multi-colored ring on the top. However, while a buzzing or beeping phone in a pocket will surely get your attention, blinking lights on an Amazon Echo or Google Home might be missed.
While home assistants can sound a notification chime, I don’t think that’s the answer. Since the main communication method to and from these devices is voice, wouldn’t it make more sense to have the home assistant speak these event notifications out loud? I think so, although one could argue that they don’t want to hear from an Echo or Home unless you speak to them first. I get that. There should be a “do not disturb” option for these type of audio notifications.
Voice notifications are a natural fit for home assistants
Proactive voice notifications would add more contextual value to the experience and take advantage of the main interface embedded within these devices that have speakers. And it would make that experience more natural. If I have an event that I’ve forgotten about and my wife reminds me it’s time to leave, she doesn’t flash the lights on and off or make a chime sound. She provides me the actionable information I need at the right time.
Maybe I’m expecting too much from what a digital assistant can or should do.
I’d like the option to tie information from my Canary home security system, for example, into an assistant. Using geolocation data, the Canary keeps track of when everyone in my house leaves or arrives home.
I’m often upstairs in my office wondering if anyone is coming or going in my home but I can’t find that out without opening the Canary app and looking at the event timeline. I’d rather have the option of my Echo or Home simply say “Barb is home” when the system detects her arrival, for example.
Another example would be an automation I’ve manually set up and used in the past. If the lights are still on in the home office at 11pm, my smart lights remind me it’s getting late and that I might want to stop working, reading or watching Netflix. At the right time, my lights either briefly dim or I have a colored bulb turn red. I’ve had to create this automation with a workaround Python script built off my ambient notification code because the assistant sitting nearby doesn’t have the capability to gently suggest I call it a night.
Text-to-speech v. natural language processing
Frankly, it’s almost easier to implement these types of proactive voice notifications than it is to handle audio requests. The former uses TTS or text-to-speech technology for an assistant to speak while the latter uses NLP or natural language processing for an assistant to hear our requests. What’s for needed for TTS notifications is the data and a way to get that data from an app, sensor or device to the assistant.
I know that both Amazon and Google are providing some basic notification tools to developers and app makers, but they seem constrained to me. They simply don’t go far enough, at least for the future I envision and want. And while I may be in the minority here, I’m not the only one looking for assistants to actually assist more in this way: A Samsung SmartThings community forum has a number of folks devising their own methods to make such proactive voice events happen.
While not everyone wants their Echo or Home speaking before spoken to, I do think it’s the next step towards a true smart home assistant. Tell me what you think: Is this something you’d want in your house?
Robert Hafer says
The problem with an assistant speaking an alert is; what if you’re not in the room to hear it? Does the assistant assume you’ve heard the notification and mark it delivered, does it keep asking until you say [wake word] all right I got the message, or find some other way to annoy you. I think you need reliable room specific presence location to make voice notification work. If it’s time to turn off the oven and the house knows I’m in the study, then the notification can be routed there with a high confidence that I heard it.
Kevin C. Tofel says
Robert, no doubt that’s a challenge that needs to be part of the solution (if this ever comes to pass). This is why I harp on the need for presence detection in the home; it adds more context to our devices.
Peter Gowdy says
This is a great idea. I definitely want this in my house. All of these assistants should have it as an option, and the user should be able to program in their preferences for what notifications get spoken and which ones go the normal route through your smartphone. Perhaps a gentle tone would sound first so as not to startle users with a voice out of the blue.
Derek Holmes says
In my family’s current status, with babies in the house, I would disagree with unrequested audio. Our Google home does this at times when I use the Google home to set the reminder, and there have been times with a sleeping baby near by that gets woken up from “beep sound, I have a reminder for Derek”.
Once we don’t have people sleeping at random times of day, I have no issue with it but can see it being annoying… Similar to kids toys that make a sound 1 min after they stop playing with it to try to pull them back in
Tim Malone says
Ok, looking everywhere for the podcast that Stacey mentioned with Slate and I can’t find it anywhere?’ Can you share a link here?
Kevin C. Tofel says
Here you go! https://slate.com/technology/2018/04/alexa-chief-al-lindsay-isnt-worried-about-users-privacy-concerns.html
Tim Malone says
Thanks so much for the help!
Rob Kurth says
I have this capability in my home; identical use cases drove me to figure out how to do it. For instance, my home alerts me when I have a guest and tells me my wife is home (and even if she’s not but should be- this helps remind me to check on family)!
My home will notify me with concise verbal updated for predefined conditions such as:
-temperature outside is within my preferred range and I’m uselessly running the AC… I can also instruct my system to shut it off
-tell me if my wife forgot to close the garage door while we are getting ready for bed
-remind me that I haven’t feed the pet
-alerts me if there is a water leak in the basement (and soon I’ll buy a zwave valve so my house can turn the water off without my intervention or even presence
I got this working with Smartthings and multiple smartapps and online services. There is even a fantastic app developed by a fellow user that creates custom Alexa skills such that these and other notifications can be relayed by the Echo, despite Amazon not supporting such granular notifications.
I’m not aware of a really definitive guide on how to do this but the answers are in the Smartthings community bulletin boards. If interested, feel free to reach out or search for “Ask Alexa,” “Big Talker,” and “media renderer”. These are all community-created Smartapps detailed on the official community board site.
Stacey Higginbotham says
Ohh thank you for this. I’m looking at the Amazon Blueprints to adapt something to help my guests out but that’s going to be reactive, not proactive.