Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Google Voice Access

Regular readers of this blog know I’m all about voice control. I use Dragon NaturallySpeaking instead of a keyboard. Click here to see what I’ve installed for voice controls inside my house. Now I'm moving on to my mobile devices. This short video demonstrates Google’s new Voice Access feature:

Or, click here to watch the video on YouTube.

I can’t let brand loyalty cloud my purchasing decisions. Sorry Apple. We had a great run. You even made a software change at my request (click here). I chose you a few years ago because you had the best accessibility suite, but that’s no longer the case. Sure, let’s stay in touch. Who knows, maybe a couple of years down the road we can give it another try.

Yes, Siri and OK-Google do some nice things. They obey a few, higher-level commands. But with the next revision of Android software, Android N, Voice Access will respond to lower-level voice commands too. And, if a developer’s app doesn’t integrate well with this feature, then every clickable point on the screen will have a number next to it, and all I have to say is “tap 3,” for example, and that will be equivalent of touching the screen with my fingertip. Voice Access can be left on at all times, providing truly hands-free control of mobile devices.

The software is in beta testing at this point, and downloads of the beta app are not allowed, unless you signed up a few weeks ago, which I did. So, in the very near future I will become an Android guy instead of an Apple guy.

It sucks to have MS, but my timing has been fortuitous. When I was diagnosed in 2001 the internet had just become a powerhouse. I was able to research my disease and connect with other MS patients. In 2008 when I needed a wheelchair, I found the iBot. Now that my hands don't work well, voice control technology is taking off.

Of course, I could have been luckier. Five, or ten, or twenty-five years from now, people will say, “I’m glad I got diagnosed the same year they found a cure for MS.”

And won't that be a wonderful thing?

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

When I Encounter Mothers

People who are able to walk don’t think much about their legs, and I don’t think much about my wheelchair. My mind is occupied by a million other things. With a few exceptions, I go about my day as if I’m not riding in an elaborate metal and plastic contraption.

But I am. I’m reminded of this when I pass by a mirror, look at a photograph of myself taken in the last eight years, or approach a mother and her young offspring. When I encounter a Mom (not so much a Dad), she collects her brood and pulls them to safety. I can only imagine her thought process. Two possibilities come to mind:

Possibility 1

Maternal instinct, from an ancient part of her brain, screams, danger … situation uncertain… must protect children at all costs, and she gathers them close. Then, from a more evolved part of her brain, social awareness kicks in, mustn’t make wheelchair user feel bad… smile at him... yes, that’s the right thing to do.

Possibility 2

Maybe she doesn’t succumb to base instincts so easily. Maybe she thinks, nice man approaching in wheelchair… my snotty-nosed brats are going to get in his way… must avoid embarrassing situation… maybe if I smile he will forgive our intrusion into his space.

My Reaction

What goes through my head at these times? I usually think, adorable kids ahead ... plenty of room for me to pass by them… I hope their mother doesn’t make a big deal… oh well, too late… now she’s smiling at me…hmm, she’s kind of cute… yeah, I’ve still got it.

This blog post devolved quickly. Let me try to bring it back around.

A mother's reaction probably depends on the circumstances. If she sees me coming from a distance, her more cerebral, social skills have time to manage the situation. If I turn the corner and surprise her, however, Mom's powerful and fast-acting survival instincts may shoot to the surface before her empathetic self takes over. I get that.

And the baby daddies – they’re just lucky I’m happily married.

Sorry, couldn’t help myself.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

My Connected Home – This Is How We Did It

In my previous post, I demonstrated the voice-controlled automation in my home. In this post, I go into some of the details of how we set up the system. It's complicated stuff, however, so only attempt something similar if you have the skills and patience or know someone who does, which includes anyone under the age of 30.

The most important thing is–and you might want to write this down and stick it on your Amazon Echo–DO NOT CALL MITCH WHEN THIS DOESN’T WORK.

Hardware Requirements

It starts with Amazon Echo, which can be purchased in several configurations. The original Echo has an onboard speaker. If you already have a Bluetooth speaker that you like, or if you can be satisfied with a very small speaker, you can buy an Echo Dot instead. We went with a full-fledged Echo in our living area and a Dot in our bedroom. Note that they work together. I can speak to either the Echo or the Dot and control any of my devices.

Echo Dot: $90

Echo doesn’t work directly with many home devices. It usually requires an interface, and these generally take the form of a smart home hub. We chose the Samsung SmartThings hub because it has so much flexibility.

But SmartThings doesn’t interface with my Lutron shades, so I had to purchase a second hub to control those functions.

For each of our two televisions, I purchased a Logitech Harmony hub. Echo doesn’t interface directly with that hub, but SmartThings does.

Next, I purchased smart switches for all my lights. The SmartThings hub communicates with the switches via a radio technology known as Z-wave. I used four types of switches:

Because we would be adding a lot of traffic to our old wireless router, I purchased a new one:


An electrician who owed me a favor installed my switches. For the number of switches demonstrated in the video, plus a few more, an electrician would charge between $500 and $700.


The software is all free. I used the following:

On my PC

         Loaded Logitech Harmony app

         bookmarked Amazon Alexa website

         bookmarked IFTTT website (IF This Then That)

On my iPhone and iPad

Programming and Implementation

This is where the fun began.

Light switches

I used the SmartThings app on my phone to pair with and name each light switch. I used the Amazon Echo website to link my Echo and my Dot with the SmartThings hub. Then, I started talking to my lights.

Lutron shades

I used the Lutron Caseta app on my phone to name and pair up with my motorized shades. I went to the IFTTT website to pair my Amazon Echo devices with the Lutron Caseta hub. Then, I started talking to my shades.

Entertainment system

I followed the directions that came with my Logitech Harmony hub to set up my entertainment systems in the living room and bedroom. I set up commands in the SmartThings hub which mimic the commands in my Logitech Harmony hub because Amazon Echo does not speak directly to Harmony. I went to the Amazon Echo website and paired with the SmartThings hub again. Then, I started talking to my entertainment systems.

Final Thoughts

Amazon Echo is currently designed to deal with things like light switches and not with things like television channels. So I had to play with the names I chose for each function. For example, when I tried to make up a command called “channel 6” it didn’t work. When I renamed it “switch 6” it worked fine.

Consider this a high-level summary of how this setup works–by no means enough information for someone to build a system. A technical mind is required in order to pull something like this off. And obviously, the financial costs are significant.

Good luck!