I seldom recommend products other than books, but I’ll make an exception in this case because I’ve recently acquired two products that I think are exceptional. Furthermore, these products could enhance the lives of people with certain disabilities. I cannot vouch for the quality of the items, and since I’ve had them for a short time, I cannot assure you that they will continue to function properly over a long period of time. And finally, let me assure you that I am not receiving compensation of any kind from the manufacturers of these devices.
I was recently given an Amazon Echo for my birthday by my daughter and granddaughter. It is a plain black cylinder that is about nine inches high and slightly more than three inches in diameter. The bottom half of the cylinder has perforations all around so that it can “hear” me when I speak to it, and so the sound from its downward-pointing speaker can be heard in all directions. There is also a light ring along the top edge of the cylinder that changes colors to let you know certain information.
I was able to tie the Amazon Echo into my home Wi-Fi network through an app that I installed on my iPad. With that done, the device was able to do some remarkable things. The unit remains dormant until you address it by its name which is “Alexa.” I say “Alexa,” wait for the light ring to turn blue, then give her my instructions. If I say, “tell me the news,” or “what’s new,” it gets the news from one or more internet sources that I have chosen via the iPad app. At the moment I get news summaries from both NPR and the BBC. After that Alexa gives me local weather information. Then she shuts down until I make my next request.
Alexa, as I will now call the Amazon Echo, has access to numerous radio stations through an internet service called TuneIn. If I say, “Alexa, I want to listen to WQXR radio,” she accesses it through TuneIn and I can listen to it all day if I wish. I can control the volume of the music by turning a ring near the top of the cylinder or by instructing Alexa to increase or decrease the volume from 1 to 10. I say, “Alexa, volume 3,” and she sets the volume at 3. If I say, “Alexa, volume 6,” she increases the volume to 6. Though the music is not in stereo, the speaker in Alexa is surprisingly good. If I tell Alexa that I want to listen to WRBH, she immediately retrieves WRBH which is a station in New Orleans that provides reading services for the blind and print handicapped. I can also access most of my local radio stations in the same way.
If I ask Alexa to give me information on someone or something, she retrieves it from Wikipedia and reads it to me. If I say, “Alexa, what does the word ‘sanguine’ mean?” she gives me the definition. If I ask her to spell “sanguine,” she does so. She can give me all sorts of random information. If you want to know how many teaspoons equal one tablespoon, how many kilometers equal one mile, or how far the moon is from the earth, she will tell you. I have books from Audible on my iPad, and I can have Alexa access them by giving her a simple voice command. Want to hear a lame joke? Alexa is there for you (“Alexa, tell me a joke.”). The first time I asked her to tell me a joke, she said, “Why is 6 afraid of 7? Because 7 8 9.”
Amazon is continually adding new “skills” to Alexa. You can now play a trivia game, get facts about cats, get “Angry Bard” quotes that come from Shakespeare’s plays, play Bingo, listen to famous quotes, and much, much more. I recently used the “Campbell’s Kitchen” skill to access a recipe. I started by instructing Alexa to ask Campbell’s Kitchen what’s for dinner. She began by asking me which category of food I wanted. I chose seafood. She said that she could suggest five different seafood dishes, and I chose crab cakes. She read the recipe to me and asked if I wanted her to send it to me. I said yes, and she e-mailed the recipe to me. The Campbell Soup Company, which owns Campbell’s Soups, Pepperidge Farms, Pace, V-8 and other companies, provided the “skill” (actually an app). It’s a win-win situation for everyone: Alexa can provide food recipes, and Campbell’s recipes all contain something that they make.
To make Alexa even more flexible, connect your smartphone or tablet to her via Bluetooth (a technology that provides wireless communication between electronic devices) and anything you would normally listen to through the device’s small speaker can be heard through Alexa’s instead. I like to listen to albums on Spotify, so I tell Alexa to “connect” Bluetooth, and any album I choose with my iPad’s Spotify app is played through Alexa. If I call up a podcast on my iPad, it plays through Alexa as well.
Though I haven’t tried it yet, you can buy devices that allow you to turn things on and off without touching a switch. For instance, you can purchase a device that plugs into a wall electrical outlet, and plug your reading lamp into it instead of plugging it directly into the electrical outlet. Connect it to Alexa, and you’re in business. Say, “Alexa, turn on my reading lamp,” and she turns it on for you. You can turn on any electronic device (such as a radio or TV) similarly. If you have multiple devices that you want to control in the same way, give each one a unique name, and Alexa will control them for you via a simple verbal command.
Here’s the main reason I’ve decided to write about the Amazon Echo: I was recently talking to an ophthalmologist who specializes in diseases of the retina. I asked him if he had ever heard of the Amazon Echo, and he said he had. I mentioned that some of his patients could probably benefit greatly from it because of their vision problems. He said he had never thought of that, but agreed that it could be very helpful to them. And imagine how wonderful this device could be for people with limited mobility! The Amazon Echo costs approximately $180. You don’t have to buy anything else in order to use it, but you must have a Wi-Fi connection to the internet.
For years I’ve looked for a clock-radio that is more than a cheap piece of junk. I finally found one in our hotel room when my wife and I visited Washington, D. C. last month. It is made by iHome, and is the best thought-out clock radio I’ve ever seen. The digital numbers on the display are slightly less than an inch high and are easy to see even without glasses or contact lenses. By pressing the snooze/dimmer bar you can choose any of the seven or eight brightness settings – from very bright to off. The day and date are shown below the time (such as Wed. Nov 4). When you turn the radio on the day/date is replaced by info concerning which function is being utilized. On my radio the function are: “FM,” “Aux-In,” “Dock,” and “USB Dock.” The FM radio can have up to six presets that work like the presets on your car radio except that you access all six by pressing one button over and over until you reach the preset station you want. Note that these radios have no AM radio or CD player. Auxiliary in allows you to run a cord from the headphone jack on any device (such as a smartphone or tablet) to the radio. Dock allows you to plug an Apple iPhone, iPad, or iPod directly into the radio. The device must have the new, small plug, not the old 30 pen plug. The USB Dock allows me to plug my older model iPad in for both charging and listening to music, etc. from my iPad. When I first set up the radio I thought I would have to set the correct time, day and date on the display manually, but a moment after I plugged my iPad into the USB Dock, the clock displayed all of that information – which it obtained from my iPad. If it doesn’t set everything automatically, you can easily set it by following simple instructions in the guide that comes with the radio. Some models of the radio are Bluetooth enabled so that you don’t have to physically connect the radio to an external device. The iHome radio in my hotel room had Bluetooth technology so I was able to wirelessly connect both my iPad and my old Bluetooth-enabled flip-phone (Don’t laugh!) to the radio. Note: if you buy a model that doesn’t have Bluetooth, you will not be able to use a smartphone through it.
The “separation” between the stereo speakers is phenomenal as is the quality of the sound (for a table model radio). It uses something called “Reson8” sound technology to get the enhanced stereo separation. It reminds me of the stereo settings on a Toshiba portable radio I had many years ago. There were two settings: “stereo,” and “stereo wide.” The difference was quite noticeable. The iHome radio also has an equalizer to set bass, treble, and left/right balance to your liking.
There are two alarms on the radio. One is for Monday-Friday and the other for weekends. You can also customize the alarm. Once set, the alarm time is shown below the time on the display (see the image above). Pressing the “sleep” button brings up a timer. Choose a time such as 30 minutes, and the radio will continue to play whatever is on, lower the volume slowly during the chosen time period, then totally shut off. If you want to take a nap, you can press the “Nap” button and choose how long you want to sleep (5, 10, 15, 20, 30, 45, 60, 90, or 120 minutes). By default it will wake you with a buzzer, but you can choose to wake to an Apple device instead.
Be aware that iHome makes many models of their clock radio, and that each has its own features. Be very careful in choosing which one you buy. Also, remember that I can’t speak for the robustness of either of the items I’ve written about in this post. The iHome radio in particular has so many features (and buttons) that I think it would be more probable that something would cease to function properly with it than the Amazon Echo which only has two buttons on top (which you will seldom use) and a volume control ring.
O brave new world that has such gadgets in’t!