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.
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.