Earlier this week, I read about St. Louis University equipping every dorm room on campus with an Amazon Echo Dot. It’s a great idea and not just a simple device deployment: SLU has a custom Alexa Skill that provides answers to more than 100 questions about the college, helping students get relevant information about campus life, academic policies, facility hours and more. If soon you’ll be living on campus and you find yourself living in Seattle, with your new found dorm room space, it would be easy to sell your house fast in Seattle.
Even more interesting is how the university is handling the privacy aspect of an always listening digital assistant. Each Echo Dot is centrally managed by the school so students won’t be adding their personal Amazon account information. And there’s a simple fix for any students that want to completely ensure their privacy: The school says they can simply unplug the devices and not use them.
This news is rather timely because we’re moving my daughter into college this weekend for her freshman year. She actually lived on campus for five weeks this summer for some early classes, so this is our second move in two months. And the first move already got me thinking about how to bring the convenience of the smart home to campus.
It can be done, but there’s an immediate challenge that comes to mind: Most hubs, not to mention digital assistants, require connectivity to the cloud. And although colleges by and large have implemented large Wi-Fi networks campus wide — particularly in dorms — bandwidth can easily be eaten up quickly. Aside from online research and web-based portals for homework submissions, there’s surely audio & video content streaming, video chats with peer and online gaming activities to name a few of those Wi-Fi activities.
So bringing a smart home hub — say a Wink or SmartThings unit — to the dorm isn’t likely a great idea, but again, it’s possible, especially when you consider that controlling smart devices generally doesn’t use too much of the wireless pipe.
Then there’s lighting control. Sure it might sound silly: Your kid is in a relatively small dorm room, so what do they need smart lights for? I would have thought the same except for the observation that I might have spoiled my daughter with our smart home. Although she often rolls eyes at me when I install new devices at home, she said something surprising when moving in for her summer session: She laid down on her bed and said, “Wait, how am I supposed to turn off the lamp in the corner at night when the light switch is over by the door?” I was my turn for eye roll when she said that. But again, there are simple solutions, and not all of them require a hub.
A Wi-Fi outlet to plug the lamp in to is one easy way to fix this “unacceptable and stressful” problem. If Wi-Fi is spotty through, a better option might be using a ZigBee bulb and app. The Philips Hue lights fit the bill here although you’ll need a bridge to convert your lighting commands from the phone to the Zigbee radio in the bulb. Don’t like bridges? No problem: A smart bulb with Bluetooth like this one from TikTeck can be controlled directly from a phone. Other similar choices are available from Ilumi, Flux, and Feit.
You know this is where IKEA’s Tradfri bulbs really shine. For a relatively small price, you get the bulb, the hub and the remote controller that you can place by your bed. They dim, and you can use Amazon Alexa, HomeKit or Google Assistant, which means they can control it via their phone or with geofencing.
A smart outlet with a fan installed might be just the ticket for dorms without A/C. It could be worth having a look at the best value tower fans to cool college dorm rooms as these could be lifesavers for anyone stuck without A/C. The fan could be programmed via an IFTTT command to turn on when temps get too high. I might even send the Awair Glow with my daughter. It does double duty as a sensor tracking humidity temperature and air quality inside the room. If you plug a fan, A/C unit or an air purifier into the Aware Glow, it will trigger the appropriate device when the air quality worsens. When shopping for a smart outlet, look for one that can ride on the school’s Wi-Fi network.
A Google Home Mini or Amazon Echo Dot ought to be fine as well and — unless you go to SJU with its custom Alexa Skill — is handy for some light music, weather forecasts, alarms, timers and maybe even some voice calls. Depending on what other devices are installed in the dorm room, these can be used for voice control too. They’re not necessary for that though: You can voice control many connected devices directly from the Amazon Alexa, Apple Siri and Google Assistant phone apps.
These are just some basic ideas to get your student started in a smart dorm room. Those moving into an on- or off-campus apartment will have more flexibility for create comforts, ranging from connected coffee makers to multiple smart speakers and sensors on the bathroom door that trigger a green light when the shower is open. Regardless, moving to college doesn’t mean the kids have to leave the smarts of the smart home behind these days.
Jonathan Jesse says
The question is how or what do you have to do to register your smart devices on the campus network? For work I’ve been doing a lot of work with Higher Ed and one of te problems they come into with Smart Devices is registering these devices on the network. One school I recently talked to limits the # of devices to 9 per student and each device’s MAC Address needs to be registered on the network. Another school allowed 5 devices per student, once again registering the MAC Address on the network. This can be challenging when you don’t know where to find the MAC Address on the light bulb, or the packaging is no longer available which listed the MAC.
Schools are finding this to be a challenge these days. Might be something to mention in the article is to know what the limits on the # of devices per student, how to do it. etc.
Kevin C. Tofel says
Great point, Jonathan, and I’m glad to see some campuses treat their networks like I did in my IT days: Whitelisting devices. That can be tricky with many of today’s devices because not all of them have the MAC address clearly available on the outside of the device. Some do and some don’t. Perhaps the kids can set up smart devices at home before moving in and then get the MAC addresses through their apps.
Whitelisting can be a pain. I’ve talked w/ Helpdesk workers that have to deal w/ students being mad they can’t connect because the packaging for their Phillip Hue lights is at home and they don’t know where to find the MAC, etc. Portals to register these devices are pretty user-unfriendly as well.
There needs to be a better solution.
Jonathan Jesse says
The other problem is what type of controls are built in to protect connections to these devices.
What prevents me from Chromecasting to your Chromecast inappropriate material or loud music in the middle of the night? Or adding your Smart Plug to my Smart Device/App and flashing the lights in the middle of the night waking everyone up? Is it the responsibility of the device (Light or Alexa) to build control/security into things or should each dorm room be microsegmented so only people in that dorm room see their devices?
All kinds of challenges these day outside of what device needs to be connected.