Extending my Alexa-driven smart home

Guest blog: Colin Hughes

My smart home journey started back in autumn 2018 when the progression of my muscle wasting condition, muscular dystrophy, meant that I could no longer rely on my hands and arms to do things due to muscle weakness. Closing the blinds, turning up the thermostat, and switching on the television had become impossible. As a result, I decided that voice control was the way forward if I wanted to maintain, and even extend, my independence.

Two years ago, I wrote an article about my earlyAmazon Echo with various household task symbols experiences of building a voice operated smart home explaining how, with the help of Amazon Echo smart speakers and connected gadgets such as thermostat, lights, television and blinds, I was able to achieve good levels of independence despite my physical limitations.

However, there were two remaining pieces of equipment I wanted to gain control of and these were old devices from the last century and not easily voice enabled.

1. Open sesame - electric door opener

The first was my electric door opener, which is fixed to my front door. I have never been able to open my front door due to weakness in my arms and hands. My door opener is manufactured by Record, a UK company who make many of the electric door openers you see in office buildings and shops and works by a small hand-held radio remote control, which when pressed, opens the front door so I can get in and out. It is really useful and is my only means of access and exit. However, the problem I have been experiencing in recent years, as my have muscles have got weaker, is reaching for the remote control if it is lying on a table, or on a shelf. So with this in mind I have been looking for a way of opening and closing my flat door with just my voice.

Last year, I saw a YouTube video of someone in the USA controlling driveway gates with Alexa using a inexpensive eWeLink wireless switch module. It got me thinking so I sent the video to Record and asked them whether they could do something similar with their electric door opener. My request got a positive response and the company said their technical department would experiment with my suggestion. However, it wasn't until December when they got back to me to say they had developed a solution.

I live in social housing and my landlord agreed to pay for the works, which are minor, and do not invalidate the warranty. In total the price including labour was £150.00. This was quite a difference to a £5,000 quotation I received from another contractor previously. What is it about companies and exorbitant prices for custom solutions involving disability!

Record's solution involves a smart WiFi switch controlled by the eWeLink Smart Home Control app on my iPhone, which is integrated with Alexa. The smart WiFi switch is hard wired to the door controller. From the eWeLink app you can configure the command you require to trigger the unit to open the door. For example, if you wanted the command could be "Micky Mouse" and the unit would trigger the door to open for a single operation. Both Alexa and the switch unit share my secure home Wi-Fi as a common platform to communicate with one another.

I am also able to open the door from outside my flat Photo of Echo Earbudsbecause Amazon now offer Echo Buds, wireless earbuds with full Alexa integration, which means I can take the Alexa voice assistant everywhere. Inside I can let people in, and myself out, with a voice command to my Echo smart speakers, and outside in the street I can let myself in with my Amazon wireless earbuds.

I should add that the solution controls both my flat door and the communal street door, and both doors also work manually in the normal way with a key, and with the radio remote control. Alexa is just a handy third option for me.

This customisation to an existing system is a good example of how receptive some manufacturers can be to custom requests. The Record engineer told me this is the first Alexa integration the company have ever carried out on their equipment.

I couldn't resist using "open sesame" as my first Alexa command for opening the door but I had to as Alexa didn't understand something obvious like "open the door"; she kept confusing it with another instruction. I will be changing this command regularly in case passers-by happen to cotton on to my Alexa command.

I think it's great that Record have collaborated with me. As one friend joked maybe they should offer me a seat on their board now! However, the serious point is that I wish more companies were receptive to making modifications to their existing products to make them disabled-friendly. Better still, design products from the outset with everyone's needs in mind.

2. Bose home theatre system

In my 2018 smart home article I also wrote of my desire to control my Bose Lifestyle 30 home theatre system with my voice to stream music, podcasts and radio stations. The 20-year-old Lifestyle 30 is no longer manufactured and supported, but I wanted to make it smart and integrated into my Amazon Alexa smart home to essentially turn a 'dumb' stereo into a voice enabled device.

Nowadays this is fairly straightforward. Amazon have been selling Amazon Echo Inputa cheap device called an Echo Input that adds Alexa capabilities to old music systems by connecting via a 3.5 mm audio cable into the AUX input on the back of the Bose, and other music systems. However, the problem I was experiencing was, when the Bose is powered on, it always starts in CD mode by default and it is not possible for me to pick up the Bose remote control to switch it to the required AUX mode to stream music by Alexa commands because it is too heavy for me to handle. It was also not possible to use my existing home radio frequency sender as the RF frequency Bose use is not compatible. Infrared control wasn't an option either as my Bose does not support this.

For two years I looked for a solution with no joy but a breakthrough came last autumn when a friend sent me a YouTube video of someone automating a 20-year-old Bose Lifestyle 20 via Google Home. I could see from this video that what I wanted to do was in fact possible. However, despite this evidence, every expert I spoke to told me it was still very complicated.

As I was unable to get in contact with the YouTube poster I tried the private sector and one company quoted me £5,000 for a custom solution to my problem! That was the highest quote I received and there was another for around £1,000.

With a prompt from AbilityNet, I remembered Remap a UK charity Remap logowith skilled volunteers who custom make equipment for disabled people. Remap headquarters gave me a couple of their branches in London to try to see if they could assist. The first branch I tried had no one with computer skills.

However, when I contacted the second branch they had a computer expert on their committee who volunteers in his spare time. Remap put me in touch with Andy and I sent him the YouTube video, and the Lifestyle 30 service manual, which my local NHS environmental control service managed to obtain from Bose on my behalf, (Bose are very reluctant to hand out the service manual as the Lifestyle 30 is no longer manufactured). With other bits and pieces of information I had picked up, from posting on various hi-fi and Alexa forums, Andy came round before Christmas to carry out a quick assessment.

Remap volunteer Rupert Powell was one of the finalists in the 2019 Tech4Good Awards. Read Rupert's inspiring story and others...


Solution

The solution that Andy came back with in the New Year was to utilise the 3.5mm RS232 data input socket on the back of my Bose, which is normally used by engineers to run diagnostics. A £15.00 Arduino micro processor was programmed to transmit serial codes, which we obtained from the Bose service manual, to first enter the unit into data input mode, this mimics the remote control and then transmits the code to switch the Bose unit to AUX mode as if entered by the front switches on the unit or via the remote control. The TX/RX ports on the Arduino were set to 1200, 1, N and programmed to transmit the codes 1 second after the Arduino was powered on. A test switch was also included in the Arduino circuit to manually transmit the data to the Bose. The Bose and Arduino are powered by separate smart plugs, both controlled by my voice via an Alexa skill.

I have created a group in the Alexa app on my iPhone that will simultaneously power on the Bose, and the Arduino at the same time by the two smart plugs and with a three second delay when it is powered on, the Arduino will switch Bose to AUX mode and then Alexa will play a playlist or radio station of my choice. It is fairly instant. The noise you can hear on the video is simply the CD starting when the Bose is powered on but this stops after a few seconds when the Arduino switches the Bose to AUX mode. An Alexa voice command such as "turn on the Bose" is all that is required to trigger this action simultaneously. Now I am able to build music, radio, and podcasts into my existing Alexa routines.

There is something really satisfying about breathing new life into a dumb but classic old piece of kit and making it smart for the 21st-century. I could have gone down another route and spent a lot of money on a modern system with Alexa capabilities built-in but I am glad I didn't. I am also very grateful that there are charities like Remap, and volunteers like Andy, in existence to help people like me. I do not know what I would have done without them.

Conclusions

As I have discovered over the past two years, voice controlled smart home tech is a great liberator for anyone who is unable to use your hands and arms as the result of a spinal injury, stroke, or muscle weakness. It has literally transformed my life in so many positive ways.

If you are a stroke survivor, sign up to our FREE webinar on 31st March with the Stroke Association: Technology help for stroke survivors


Whilst I am fairly technical, and persistent in achieving my goals, the problems that some disabled people may face with smart home technology is that it is very expensive and there are few sources of funding available. Some disabled people may also need assistance with installation, configuration and maintenance of devices and software.

My big idea to solve these two fundamental issues is to bring together government, big technology companies like Amazon, Google and Apple, the banks, and others and create a Motability-like charity for the smart tech era that will help disabled people to lease or buy smart devices using their disability benefits, and backed up by a support service to assist with with advice, installation, and any problems that crop up.

In much the same way the Motability Scheme has, for the past 40 years, enabled people to get mobile by exchanging their mobility allowance to buy or lease a new car, there should be something comparable for smart technology that can help disabled people with independence.

Whilst I have received great support from my NHS environmental control service, and charities like Remap and AbilityNet, in this Internet of things era we now live in, access to assistive technology is too important to be left to the good fortune of stumbling across a specialist charity. 

It should be a human right and there should be a formal scheme in place to meet the needs of disabled people who could benefit from this technology, whether that is controlling their home, studying, or in employment – in short, so disabled people can enjoy the freedom and independence that so many of us take for granted.

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