It seemed that last year was the year of the voice assistant. The marketing was everywhere, the discounting was heavy and early adopters were talking about them at every opportunity.
Like many households, we received an Alexa for Christmas. These are my observations of note from our first few weeks with her.
Losing the phone
Until Alexa arrived in our home, in order to listen to music a phone needed to be present. This is no longer the case. It makes little difference in terms of the process of playing music, but when you don’t need your phone on hand to control the music, you slip into using it less as you sit there. I’ve noticed that I use my phone a little less at home. That’s probably a good thing.
Losing the phone has also meant the children don’t need our phones to play music. Our kids are quite young and we’d like to filter out some of the stronger swearing in some songs. It turns out neither Alexa nor Spotify let you do this.
This raises a question: do we switch to Apple Music, which does have parental filters? At the moment, we’ve decided against the move, instead taking the view that swearing happens everywhere and that it’s our responsibility to monitor our children’s use of Alexa. We might rapidly change our minds though. It’s only been a few weeks. This is not a settled position.
How do you choose what music to listen to? I tend to ask for specific albums or artists. Occasionally, I ask for a playlist I know. My son, however, just says “Alexa, play bmx music please.” Music then begins. Is this how people generally choose music? To me, at least, this is a new and interesting option. It goes beyond the compilation to something more random.
Another thing I’ve noticed is how fragmented media is. The kids want to hear the songs from Horrible Histories as much as they do pop songs. Alexa has real trouble sourcing songs from the former much to the annoyance of the children.
Lots of parents I’ve spoken to have concerns about children demanding things from Alexa and whether that’s a good thing. More by luck than skill, we’ve got our kids saying “please” to Alexa (a mumbled request by me was not heard by Alexa, the kids are now convinced it’s because I didn’t say please, they believe you have to say please for it to work).
Is there any point in saying please to a machine that will never say no? Is it just nice manners disguising the development of a habit of making random demands and expecting then to be fulfilled immediately? Am I overthinking it all? I don’t know.
Alexa had a volume range of 1 – 10. We rarely need to go above level three. So, really we have a range from 1 – 3. It’s not a decent level of control. I’m not harking back to the infinite control of analogue dials, but give me more than three choices please.
What the future holds
A lot of uses for Alexa seem pointless (whale facts, fart noises, knock knock jokes). However, there are some that I think have potential.
I’ve discovered that in the US, owners of a WiFi enabled Roomba (a robot vacuum cleaner) can ask Alexa to clean their home and the Roomba duly obliges. This is the type of smart home integration, which goes beyond switching off lights, that is genuinely useful. But it’s mainly useful because a robot vacuum saves a task. Alexa only adds small amount of convenience on top.
Routines, where a series of tasks are bundled into a single command could make a real difference. With the right purchases, and a bit of time setting it all up, it’s possible for Alexa to wake you up with a news bulletin and turn on your coffee machine. The bundling of several small tasks into a single command is useful and materially time saving.