Barbs Connected World

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Alexa, Sonos, Smart Things, Harmony, Oh My

So I wasn’t invited to the Logitech Harmony Ultimate Alexa beta and I have some concerns about how Sonos activities are going to be handled with respect to Alexa’s voice recognition.

It isn’t exactly transparent how to add/configure the Harmony->Sonos->Smart Things->Alexa routines to start Playlists or Stations from your Sonos favorites after you’ve done an initial setup. You have to roll up your sleeves and get a little dirty.

When you edit your Sonos favorites in any official Sonos App (add/remove, etc.) the Harmony App/Remote doesn’t necessarily reread the Sonos lists. To get a revised Sonos Favorites list to refresh for Harmony, you need to START a Sonos favorite, hit the star key on the bottom of the app, then scroll and hit REFRESH. Then you can edit that activity and select a new channel or add Activities and specify a Sonos favorite from the refreshed, up to date list.

Below is a screen shot of the first “page” of (scrollable) activities. The naming convention is something I’m working on, and I’ll explain a little further along in this post. Ideally, I should be able to use the same Activity Name across the board, but this turns out to be problematic and confusing.

harmony

When you’ve configured and tested your new or edited Activities, next step is to add a Thing to SmartThings. This, too, isn’t intuitive. Select the + on the Things screen on your phone, then Entertainment, Buttons/remotes. Select Logitech. Your already configured Harmony Hub will appear. Select it, watch the spinning cursor as it refreshes and pulls down your revised, increased list of Harmony Activities. Then select additional activities, watch the cursor spin and the app will populate with the revised list of activities.

Smart Things insists on adding [Harmony Remote] to the end of activities imported from Harmony; you’ll need to edit them to at least remove the [Harmony Remote]. To edit, tap the activity to open its page and then the gear wheel to edit the name. Here’s where the name game becomes interesting. I’ll come back to this when I’m done explaining the process to get all of this hooked up to Alexa for voice control.

smartthings

The final step is to access the Smart Home tab in the Alexa Echo app. If you have the SmartThings skill enabled, you will need to disable it and then enable it so that it can re-read the list of “Things”. Then you’ll need to re-run Discovery (a pop-up should automatically appear to action this). All of your new activities should now show in the Your Devices list. And you’ll need to do this each and every time you edit or add a “Thing”.

There’s a big gotcha to be aware of. You can’t use the Station name/Playlist Name in your Sonos Favorites. You can’t use any Artist name or recognizable Playlist Name because Alexa will ignore the SmartThings skill and play music natively on Echo/Dot.

Here’s how I learned what works and what doesn’t.

I discovered that when I selected an Amazon Playlist named ABBA (or even the Pandora ABBA Station) from Favorites for the channel to play from Sonos on the Harmony Activity named Sonos Music and linked it with SmartThings and enabled Alexa that every single time Alexa played something else named Sonos on the current Sonos speaker (or already grouped speakers). And completely ignored the SmartThings list. When I renamed the “Thing” to My Sonos in SmartThings and removed/re-added the skill in the Alexa App, I had better luck, but only some of the time.

I similarly had problems with a John Denver and a Judy Collins playlist in Favorites. Alexa consistently ignored the SmartThings skill and played music by (whomever) on the Echo or DOT. .

After the above limitations sunk in, I decided to try a task based name, Exercise Workout. I set that up and was able to use ANY Sonos favorite without confusing Alexa. So in SmartThings, I currently have Sonos Colorado for John Denver and Sonos Folk for Judy Collins (these work). I’ll have to come up with better, memorable names that are task based.

So now I’m going to finish the task of renaming activities on the Harmony and in SmartThings to get this Harmony-Sonos-SmartThings-Alexa setup to work 100% of the time. Probably using task based and/or some other convention that Alexa won’t recognize. If you have any ideas, let me know on Twitter @barbbowman.

And I hope that the same situation isn’t true with the coming “native” Alexa support for the Logi Harmony Ultimate.

Alexa, turn on my home theater–AnyMote Awesomeness

Heaven forbid that I should have to lift a handheld remote in my very Smart Home. I got to thinking that with everything I’ve voice enabled here, I had not done anything with my home theater equipment. I’ve got a bunch of stuff downstairs in the Living Room and a bunch of stuff in the Master Bedroom. I’ve already got a Harmony Ultimate Hub/Remote in the Bedroom and an old and dying Harmony 1100 in the Living Room that I’m replacing with AnyMote Home.

I decided it was time to experiment with Alexa voice control. The TLDR; version of this post is that AnyMote, which takes concentration and time to set up (and is pretty geeky when it comes to advanced functions), coupled with the Alexa AnyMote skill is awesome.

Here’s a quick list of what my two Home Theater’s include for major components:

Living Room Bedroom
Samsung LN52B750 TV

Sony STR-DA4ES Receiver

Samsung BD-F5900 BD Player

Comcast DCX 3400 DVR

Apple TV

Amazon Fire TV

WD Live Hub

Microsoft Wireless Display Adapter

5.1 Surround Speakers

Old Yamaha Receiver

Old LT-P326W Samsung TV

Comcast DCX 3400 DVR

Samsung BD-5900 BD Player

5.1 Surround Speakers

anymoteHarmony 1100 harmony hub

The Living Room (My Main Home Theater)

In my Living Room, my goal was to replace the dying Harmony 1100. I thought about getting another Harmony Hub for the Living Room to use with my iPad Air, but was concerned that when I got to voice enabling it that there would be conflicts with the Bedroom Harmony Hub (see below on the Master Bedroom) AND I’m not very fond of the individual device control interface for Harmony on the iPad. And Amazon had the AnyMote Home on sale for $89.00. Plus, AnyMote allows Alexa voice control of individual “buttons” (which is not the case with using the Harmony routines) as well as macros (activities).

AnyMote is an amazing tool. It’s a geek treasure hunt (like peeling back layers of an onion) that leads to discovery of the many things this little gadget can do when coupled with a supported device and I’ve barely scratched the surface. I used my iPad Air to set things up (and will also be using my iPhone) as I wanted the larger screen for first time set up. I pretty much found built in codes for most of my (aging) home theater components; I had to use the record a button feature to get a few things to work properly, but I got the basic functions working and tested fairly quickly.

After insuring the remotes were configured correctly and buttons were working properly, I jumped in and created macros that turned on three devices and set the proper inputs, etc. I started with 4 so that I could control my set top box and my BD ROM player; one each to turn everything on and one each to turn everything off. I used longish delays between powering on and off components so that I could properly test (see image below) and have been adjusting the delays as I go. Below is one of the macro in progress where I can stack commands and delays.

macro

I created a blank Smart Home Remote and named it Home Theater and imported the 4 macros. I was itching to try the Alexa AnyMote Skill, so I stopped there and got that up and running. Pairing with Alexa is built in to the AnyMote App; a phrase is displayed that you speak, and Alexa complies and acknowledges.

pair alexa

After pairing is complete, the AnyMote App displays an abbreviated tutorial (which didn’t cover everything I needed, but there is more information on the AnyMote Knowledge Base which answered most of my questions. Basically, you tell Alexa the name of the button to action and the device remote to use, e.g., “Alexa, tell AnyMote to MUTE my Sony Receiver”. For macros, the syntax is “Alexa, ask AnyMote to execute [macro_name]”.

pairing tutor

Watch Alexa and AnyMote in action in my Living Room. Alexa runs my macro to turn on three components to watch Cable TV. Next, Alexa opens MyDVR via AnyMote:

I created some macros for my favorite TV channels as well. When I tested them, I found that Alexa didn’t like some of the names I’d selected – neither MAX HD or MAX was recognized by Alexa, but CINEMAX worked fine. Go figure. Below is a screen shot that pretty much shows where I am at this point (with lots more to figure out and implement)

anymote finished

One of the gotchas’s is that every time you create new macros, apparently you need to disable the AnyMote Alexa Skill in the Echo App, repair your AnyMote with Alexa (which resynchronizes everything). It isn’t a big deal, but it is annoying.

Editing the visuals of a remote is also available. Inside the remote editor, I can change themes, button colors and text and use built in icons. I couldn’t get the channel icons for the United States to appear/work, so I settled for color coding the channels that I created macros for. I’m probably missing something obvious, but for now I can tell Alexa “Ask AnyMote to execute HBO” and the channel changes. Or I can push the buttons on the iPad.

I saw some negative comments about AnyMote, but I highly recommend this device and app if you’re comfortable with doing tweaking and fine tuning to get things “just right”.

The Master Bedroom

I have a SmartThings Hub that I was not using (I’d bought it in my quest to voice enable my Sonos speakers, but it didn’t meet my expectations so I went elsewhere to fill that need). I remembered that SmartThings was supposed to work with Logitech Harmony Wi-Fi based remotes, so with nothing to lose, my first task was to see what I could accomplish with my bedroom home theater gear.

SmartThings requires a whole series of steps, done in a particular order, to add “things” and authorize for use with Alexa (I’d previously disabled SmartThings in the Alexa App after the Sonos experiment.) Harmony remotes use “Activity” based commands (macros) and it looked like that these activities could be voice enabled (but not individual control of devices, like Play, Pause, Stop, Eject, etc. for an individual component). The process for me was a little rocky. SmartThings discovered my activities after I linked with my Harmony account and imported them as “Watch TV [Harmony Control]”, “Watch a DVD [Harmony Control]”, etc., so I had to rename them (deleted the [Harmony Control] part) and then relink SmartThings with Alexa.

Fortunately, the Alexa App is very smart and lets you pick which SmartThings devices to control.

smartthings1

I ran Discovery in the Alexa App and the two “activities” were discovered and added. However, Alexa just didn’t seem to understand the “Watch a DVD” or “Watch TV” syntax. I tried speaking slowly, quickly, but Alexa kept offering to play songs from my Music Library or other responses. After a while I decided that maybe renaming the activities was the solution. So I renamed to “My Movie Theater” and “Xfinity”.

 

smartthings2

I then disabled SmartThings in the Alexa App and unlinked SmartThings and relinked, etc. but couldn’t get Discovery to find the new named activities. I had to unlink/remove AND remove the Harmony Remote from SmartThings and re-run discovery for Things, rename to My Movie Theater and Xfinity, relink to Alexa and THEN run discovery to get the selected activity/Things to appear. Eureka. This works.

When I tell Alexa (via my upstairs Dot) to “Turn on My Movie Theater”, all the right things happen. The components are properly powered on and the handheld Harmony remote actually changes to reflect the running Activity so that I can use the buttons to Play, Pause, FFW, etc. I wish I could tell Alexa to “Play”, “Pause”, etc. and maybe someday I WILL be able to do this. I wasn’t too enthralled by the SmartThings setup process. I know Yonomi also can link to Harmony, but I wanted to first try my neglected SmartThings Hub. I’m sure Yonomi will be smoother, but again, only the Activities (macros) will be supported.

For me, AnyMote is the clear winner in Home Theater control. I’m using maybe 25% of its capabilities and as time goes on, I’ll be experimenting with other functionality.

Taking Alexa with me everywhere using Lexi

 

Just yesterday I was away from home and thinking I needed to add a few things to my Alexa powered shopping list and wishing there was an easy way to do this without typing into the Alexa App on my iPhone or using a web browser on my tablet. And I’ve often cursed out Siri for not turning on lights when I’ve summoned her to action this  from a distance using HomeKit via my Apple TV.

Today I discovered Lexi –a $5 iOS app that changed everything. Press and hold the button, watch the animation, add items to my shopping list, turn lights on or off. This is Alexa “on the road”, giving me control of my Connected Home when I’m miles away from home.

lexi

If you are on the fence about buying an Amazon Echo, you can use this App to try out many of the features of Alexa, as this app will handle shopping lists, queries and many of the Alexa Skills. (But not Amazon Music). And I truly think every home should be Alexa powered.

The open Alexa ecosystem (and it really is an ecosystem) makes the Amazon Echo a really compelling Smart Home controller and virtual assistant. I’m continually amazed and pleased by how developers, like the Lexi team, are extending the Alexa experience and making my life so easy (and fun).

Alexa, change colors on my Hue stuff (thanks Yonomi)

 

I love my Alexa enabled Connected Home and I love the Yonomi App. Amazon’s Echo Smart Home covers an amazing number of products and gets better all the time. One of the missing ingredients for my needs was the ability to change the colors on my Hue bulbs and Lightstrips. Alexa handles turning these on and off and dimming the bulbs, but color changes are not currently in her repertoire. IFTTT can handle single bulbs and Lightstrips and can change colors on a single light or Lightstrip or can change ALL of them at once, but not “scenes” or “routines” (two Lightstrips, or two Blooms, etc.); it’s all lights or just one of them. Once again, Yonomi comes to the rescue, and Alexa can now color my world and set my Hue devices to predefined (or even random) colors.

Most of my Hue gear is configured in pairs or threesomes. I don’t ever seem to turn on all my Hue lights (which are spread over the three floors of my Condo). It’s almost always one room at a time, and every so often, one floor at a time.

Here’s my kitchen, decked out with two sets of Hue Lightstrips showing two of my colored moods (scenes/routines) Kitchen Yellow and Kitchen Blue:

kitchen

 

Apple’s Siri, with scenes, allows me to tell Siri to turn on Kitchen Blue or Kitchen Yellow, but Alexa doesn’t support colors for Hue and IFTTT doesn’t support scenes or routines. Alexa is far more dependable than Siri (like 99.9%) and I was able to solve this last piece of my Connected Home with Yonomi.

First, inside the Yonomi App, I linked to my Hue Bridge. Then, I created two (for starters) Yonomi routines. I created Kitchen Blue and Kitchen Yellow. I turn each of the two Lightstrips on to 100% using Actions and set the color to Blue (or Yellow). There are lots of other options, including dimming, fading, random colors, but these are the two I wanted to start with. Once these were done, I open the Echo web app and ran discovery so that these two new routines were discovered and added to my device list.

Now I can tell Alexa to “turn on Kitchen Blue” or “turn on Kitchen Yellow”. It takes a few seconds, but the lights cooperate. I can turn both off by telling Alexa to “turn off the Kitchen” as this command IS covered using Alexa groups natively.

blueyellow

 

So, I find myself saying thank you again to the folks at Yonomi App for giving me the ability to fully control my Hue colored bulbs and Lightstrips.

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