Last month, a new device joined my technology collection, and has quickly become one of my new favorites. I don't have to worry about making it accessible, because it is perfect right out of the box. I can control it with my voice and get more information about the world around me. This little device is the Amazon Echo Dot, with Alexa technology. Here are some ways it has helped me as a college student with low vision. This post is in no way sponsored by Amazon, and I received no compensation for writing about it- I just genuinely love this product.
What is Amazon Echo?
The Amazon Echo ($180) and Amazon Echo Dot ($49) are two devices that use Amazon's voice assist technology, called Alexa. The only difference between the Echo and Echo Dot is that the Echo has a large speaker built in, while the Dot does not. When the device is summoned by saying the name Alexa (or Echo or Amazon, depending on the set wake word- my brother uses the word Computer), the user can request it to complete several different tasks. I have the 2nd Generation Amazon Echo Dot in white.
How do you set it up?
If you are using the device at home, simply connecting to the wifi hotspot is sufficient. However, if you are setting it up at college, where the wifi requires a username and password, the setup is a little different. My school has a device registration website where the user can register up to five wireless devices that connect to the unsecured internet. By registering the MAC address on the college website, which can be found in the Amazon Echo app, the Amazon Echo can be used on a college campus. I keep my Dot across from my bed, on top of my printer, and it can easily pick up my voice no matter where I am standing in my dorm room, without picking up on my suitemates' voices in the hallway.
What common functions do you use the most?
I'm constantly asking Alexa what time it is, as I don't have to worry about focusing to read numbers on a clock. I also can easily set timers and alarms, though it isn't as easy to get the alarms to turn off, which I think is a good thing because I am prone to sleeping through alarms. I also have found the weather forecasts to be very accurate and helpful. In addition, I have used the Echo to add items to my Amazon Fresh shopping list and place orders through Amazon, or just add a product to my wishlist, something that's especially helpful when I am reading something. I also love Amazon Music and have that on frequently.
How do you use it as assistive technology?
The talking clock has been a great feature, but the Amazon Echo can be used for other assistive technology purposes. I installed a calculator function on it from the Alexa App Store, and can use it to perform basic calculations, much faster and less frustrating than a traditional calculator. It can read daily news stories from several different news outlets, sometimes with a live feed of the news channel, so I don't have to worry about reading or flashing lights on the TV. I can also perform simple Google searches and other tasks.
What about those other devices you can hook up to the Alexa?
I haven't tried any of the lightbulbs, thermostats, or other environmental control devices yet, but I'm hoping to set some up in my room next semester! They look awesome.
Can you create your own Alexa functions?
Yes! Stay tuned, I will have a separate post on this soon. By using the app If This Then That (IFTTT), you can sync the Amazon Echo with several other apps and devices. I have mine hooked up to my Android phone and iPad.
When do you mute the Amazon Echo?
I mute the device when I will be leaving the apartment for more than three hours or when I'm on a voice or video call with someone who enjoys summoning the device (shoutout to my friend that frequently asks Alexa to add bananas to my shopping list while we are on voice calls together). From where it's sitting, the Dot can't pick up on anything going on in the hallway or any other room, only in my room. It can hear if someone on speaker says "Alexa."
Does the Amazon Echo Dot use strobe or flashing lights?
I have never seen the device use strobe light effects. It uses a mild flash effect when processing information, but not one that is intense enough to cause a migraine or seizure- it's similar in frequency to a car blinker. Sometimes it may cycle through the color gradient at a slow speed when loading information or syncing, but it will not flash.
Aren't you worried about the device spying on you?
Not really. My other devices are spying on me anyway. I have taken cybersecurity classes and understand that the device is always listening to me, but I don't say anything that would cause alarm, or anything particularly exciting.
I love this device and it has greatly helped me with accessing information. Almost anyone can learn to use it in two minutes or less, and it has many great functions that can replace more expensive assistive technology devices, such as talking clocks. I would recommend it to anyone, especially college students and people with low vision.