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Voice Activated Virtual Assistants: What to Know and Why You Need One

Posted by Ronald Cifuentes on October 23, 2017 at 11:59 AM. Filed under Smart Home, Around the Home

Voice Assistants Amazon Alexa Echo and Google Home Assistant

At this point, you have seen or at least heard of voice activated virtual assistants somewhere online or from a friend. These devices have been around since 2014 and have continued to rise in popularity and are quickly becoming a device that you will find in most homes. The major players in the voice activated virtual assistant space are Google’s Home Assistant and Amazon’s EchoEcho Dot and most recently, the Echo Plus, which has a built-in hub that seamlessly connects and controls ZigBee smart devices.

I will not be comparing the Amazon Echo Devices or Google Home Assistant and recommending one over the other. If you know you want to add one to your home and are trying to decide on a specific device, check out this article for some insight on which device is best for you.

This particular post is simply to further inform you of voice activated virtual assistants and how they function as well as some ways you can use virtual assistants in your day-to-day to make life a little easier.

What kind of setup do virtual assistants require?

Voice activated virtual assistants are relatively simple to setup and require 3 main things: Power, Wi-Fi access and a little bit of time.

2 What you need to setup a voice assistant power ac wifi and time.jpg

Power: Most of these devices need to be plugged into an available outlet to function and provide you with a reasonable length cord however if you have a longer cord or purchase one you can use those as well. (The Echo dot uses a standard USB-to-mini USB cord while Google Home Assistant uses a 16.5V 2A AC adapter cable).

Wi-Fi Access: These virtual assistants do require access to your Wi-Fi in order to function properly. This allows the assistant to be able to search any questions you may ask and assist you with tasks. Be sure to keep this in mind when deciding on the location of the device as you want to position it in a location that will have reliable access to your Wi-Fi network.

Time: These devices usually require a device to be downloaded to a smartphone or tablet in order to fully setup the device. This app allows you to connect it to Wi-Fi, learn more about the device and its capabilities, enable certain features and even keep track of any pending tasks you may have activated.

Virtual assistants have many functions and will take some time to fully understand and use, however simple tasks (that we will cover later) are ready to go once setup is finalized. Take some time to research your device to see what all you can do and control using just your voice.

How do I use my virtual assistant?

To put it simply, with your voice. Virtual assistants are voice controlled devices that use cloud computing (thus the need for Wi-Fi) to process tasks and requests that are initiated via what is called a “wake word”. Wake words are a specific word that wakes up the device in order to listen to your request or question (i.e., "Alexa" or "Hey Google").

For the examples below, I will be using “Assistant” as the wake word, however, devices have specific words and some offer alternatives that you can choose from that need to be said in order to activate the virtual assistant.

These devices are not voice specific, meaning that if you have a roommate, significant other, or family members around the device, they can also take advantage of the virtual assistant’s functions as long as they use the appropriate wake word.

Something to keep in mind is this does mean the device will “always be listening” but in order for it to be activated, it has to hear the wake word. Both devices offer a “mute” button if you want to mute the device at times. However, the only downfall of this current feature it that this requires the physical mute button to be pressed on the actual device and then pressed again to unmute the device. This can be inconvenient especially if it is located in a hard to reach location.

What can I do with a voice-activated virtual assistant?

These devices have a slew of capabilities and functions (some depend on the device you choose) however here are eight things you can do with most voice-activated virtual assistants that are useful in your day-to-day life:

  1. Check the time
  2. Set an alarm/timer
  3. Check the weather
  4. Set reminders
  5. Make a shopping list
  6. Ask random questions
  7. Track your Amazon orders
  8. Control your Chromecast

Now, I'll go into more detail and provide examples of how you can use each of these tasks to make your life a little easier and more fun. 

Check the time:

A simple task that can be done by checking your phone or watch however sometimes those items are out of reach and you quickly want to know what time it is. Simply say “[Assistant], what time is it?” and it will let you know what the time is currently in your area.

  • If you ever wanted to know what time it is in a different time zone or country you can simply ask your device “[Assistant], what time is it in [location]?”
Ask Alexa or Google Home what time it is

Set an alarm or timer:

Need to leave for work in 10 minutes or make sure you don’t burn that pizza you just put in the oven? Simply say “[Assistant], start timer for 10 minutes” and your virtual assistant will alert you when the timer ends. You can also set an alarm to wake you up to start your day or perhaps as a back-up for that necessary mid-day nap. 

  • Simply say “[Assistant], set alarm for 6:30 pm” and you are all set.  
  • In the off chance that you set a timer and then leave the room where your virtual assistant is located, your device will also send a notification to the smart device that has the virtual assistant app installed on it as another way to alert you that your timer has finished.

4 Set a timer at any increment that you want-154199-edited.jpg

Check the weather:

If you live in a location where the weather changes constantly this is a very useful feature in order to make sure you are prepared for your day.

  • Simply say “[Assistant], how is the weather?” and your assistant will tell you the current temperature in your area. Some devices will even provide you with the high and low for the day, humidity levels, and chance of rain.

Checking the weather for the day and week with your voice activated virtual assistant

Set a reminder: 

There are always those random tasks we want to remember to do but often forget when solely relying on ourselves. Now simply set a reminder to call your friend or pay your bill by saying,

  • “[Assistant], remind me to call John at 8 pm.”
  • You can even set a reminder for a different day, just include the day you would like the reminder along with a time, “[Assistant], remind me to pay my electric bill on Tuesday at 9 pm.”

Set reminders, alarms, and timers with Amazon Echo or Google Home

Shopping list:

If you still write down items you need from the store, or worse, just try and remember on your own, you have most likely forgotten the list at home or just forgotten one or more items once you are at the store. With virtual assistants, you can add items as they come to mind and then via the app, you can access your list once you get to the store.

  • Simply say “[Assistant], add milk to shopping list.”

Use Virtual Assistants to make shopping lists

Ask a random question:

Have you ever wanted to know how many days until your favorite holiday? What about when your favorite celebrity's birthday is? How many feet are in a mile? Simply ask your assistant:

  • “[Assistant], how many days until Halloween?”
  • “[Assistant], when was Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson born?”
  • “[Assistant], how many feet are in 3 miles?”

Ask Alexa Random Questions

Track your Amazon Order [Echo]:

If you decide to go with Alexa as your virtual assistant, you have the ability to track your recent orders on Amazon by saying, “Alexa, track my package” and you will be told who made the most recent order, when it was ordered and when it will arrive. Find out more Amazon Echo exclusive functions here.

Amazon logo for order tracking

Control your Chromecast [Google Home]:

If you have a Google Chromecast device, you can control Netflix and YouTube with quick voice commands (Amazon's latest Fire TV Sticks also offer this feature). Examples of controlling your Chromecast with Google Home include, “Okay Google, pause” or “Okay Google, play next episode.” For more Google Home Assistant exclusive functions click here.

Google Chromecast logo for video streaming to devices

A voice assistant is an easy and fun way to accomplish daily tasks around the house and these are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what you can do with these devices. You can control lighting in your home with your voice by connecting your virtual assistant with any compatible smart home automation devices, control and play music, control certain media streaming services (YouTube, Hulu, and Netflix), order a pizza, or even call for an Uber.

What you can do depends on your device of choice. Over time more and more applications and tools are being developed and becoming available. 

These virtual assistants are already very helpful and will only continue to expand in capabilities. No matter your choice, these devices will take your home to the next level.



About the Author | Ronald Cifuentes

Ronald is currently an undergrad at the University of Oklahoma and the newest member of the Digital Marketing team at Jasco. Ronald enjoys discovering new music and listening to podcasts. He strongly believes Batman is the best superhero of all time and is most at peace when his phone has 0 app notifications.

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