The Alexa Podcast - Episode 4
Duration: 28 minutes, 44 seconds
Bradley Metrock: [00:00:00] In Episode 4 of The Alexa Podcast we speak with Alexa Champion and solo entrepreneur Andrea Bianco of Smart House Consultant. We talked to Andrea about the unique and fascinating work she does with Alexa to outfit homes with smart technology.
Bradley Metrock: [00:00:30] Hi, and welcome back to The Alexa Podcast, Episode Four. Our sponsors for this podcast are FOURTHCAST. Turn your podcast into an Alexa skill using Fourthcast - go to fourthcast.com today.
[00:00:51] Our second sponsor is The Alexa Conference - the annual gathering of Alexa developers and enthusiasts. Learn more and get registered at AlexaConference.com.
[00:01:02] Keynoting The Alexa Conference is Dr. Ahmed Bouzid, CEO and Founder of Witlingo, our third sponsor of this podcast. Witlingo, based in McLean, Virginia, focuses on building products and solutions to deliver far-field conversational experiences. The Witlingo team is conducting a workshop on August 16 entitled "Learn How to Design an Alexa Skill on Voice User Interface Design." People in the D.C. area can find out more about that, as we'll have the link posted on VoiceFirst.FM in the show notes for this episode.
[00:01:41] Kevin Old is my co-host tonight, and our special guest is Andrea Bianco. Andrea, I'm going to give you the floor - please tell us your title and your company and explain a little bit about what you do.
Andrea Bianco: [00:02:12] Surely. My company is Smart House Consultant, LLC, and I'm located in Tucson, Arizona. I have a background in business analytics and was formerly in the world of corporate America doing business analytics for a customs brokerage firm. A couple of years ago our company went through a lot of transformation and changes, and unfortunately was I was downsized things got offshored. I was looking for what to do next in my career, and I decided to venture out and start my own business. Just about that time was the release of the flagship product the Amazon Echo. I had always been interested in home automation; I was somewhat familiar with some of the basics. I found it to be interesting but it didn't always serve my use case and wasn't always the most convenient thing for me, as I felt that within the home I was always tied to a hardware device. Always having to pick up my phone or my tablet to do something was no easier for me than to just walk over to the light switch or the thermostat. But with the release of the Echo, I dove in and did my research and just thought, this is it. This what I consider the holy grail of home automation. For home automation enthusiasts, this was such a dynamic shift in how we work around our homes!
[00:03:55] So I thought I could make a go of it. I really thought this is just where it's at, and could see potential and growth there. So I started out; I'm a one-man band, started my own company here in Arizona as Smart House Consultant. And that took me not only into having to learn the smart house end of it, all the mesh networking and other companies and devices and how they all worked together, but really deep-diving into Alexa voice technology. I began sitting in on the Amazon office calls and making inroads and building relationships with some of the Evangelists at Amazon.
[00:04:36] They were so great to me, I can't even tell you! A couple of them took me under their wing. They'd sit on the phone with me when I had problems on a Friday night and help me through things. And I just kept learning the technology and getting deeper and deeper into it. Last Fall I became an Alexa Champion, and I've gotten heavily into the whole voice automation scene. I continue to really try to be out there and evangelize the voice technology.
Bradley Metrock: [00:05:14] Cool. OK - Smart House Consultant does what?
Andrea Bianco: [00:05:18] My home is actually set up as a demo; it's a pretty full-scale smart home. A lot of people think they know what a smart home is - or they've heard of one component of a smart home; the place that most people start is with lighting. They'll say "Oh, I have a smart light" - and that's their understanding of what a smart home is. So, often I'll have people come over and take a look at my home, and ask them to let me know what they think. To date, I'm still batting 100: everybody who comes here, their jaw absolutely drops because it's nothing like what they had in mind. My smart home is pretty full- scale - it runs the gamut from locks and garage door openers to all kinds of sensing - motion sensors, open/close sensors that control things. After I walk people through, I sit with them and work on designing what would be practical for them to install in their situation and what would work for their lifestyle. So we work on the design and architecture phase.
[00:06:34] If they want to proceed forward, the next step is to determine if there are to be hardware devices. I sublet out to a third party to set up any electrical work that requires a licensed contractor. Then I come in and do all the programming and technical install. Getting the devices paired to the hub, getting the programming the way they want it to be: when they walk in a room, what happens? does a light go on? does it go off after so many minutes? Those type of things. And then I help them with the technical install at the end. It's sort of a soup-to-nuts service.
Bradley Metrock: [00:07:13] Did I see correctly that your company also helps realtors add technology to help houses sell? Or am I just making that up?
Andrea Bianco: [00:07:25] No, you're not making that up. I work with a lot of realtors, and also with an appraiser here in town. We're trying to get the word out about what putting in home automation does to the valuation of a house. Because it's so new - sort of a whole new animal again - kind of its own little business being formed around that. Part of working with realtors involves telling home owners how to highlight smart devices to increase home resale values and speed up the process.
Bradley Metrock: [00:08:09] That is really cool! What you're doing is unique and so innovative - taking the technology and applying it on a household by household basis. But the thing that really pushes it over the top for me is working to sell houses quicker, and for more money, using this technology. I think that's a total game changer.
[00:09:04] Can you share any data with us along the lines of ... maybe there was a house that wasn't selling, and you added some smart speakers or Alexa automation to it, and then it sold? Or maybe a house that sold for a little bit higher?
Andrea Bianco: [00:09:24] I don't have a lot of the data back yet because I'm only a year into this. But I will tell you with some of the appraisers I've worked with, in them trying to go back and do things, even people trying to get HELOCs to do these improvements - that's a whole other avenue that's being explored. I've had some bankers in as well, to mesh this all together and bring the technology in and then see what the valuation is. And some of the smart homes I've seen have raised the value anywhere from $10,000 to $30,000, depending on just how much is in the home, what will be staying in the home, what's hardwired in the home. Of course there's a ton of variables about that. It's really a one-to-one basis, because a lot of these devices are able to be moved and some people want to take some of their sensors and things with them. However, the hardware devices obviously have to stay with the home - for instance, light switches in gang boxes, outlets, garage door openers, locks. Those types of things definitely increase the value of a home, especially for the millennial set - that really tends to be a hot area for them right now.
[00:10:47] So I find it to be either that, or the very high-end homes that have used the old X10 type systems. I just recently had a woman in a community who wants to get switched over to this type of mesh networking because of the its flexibility compared to the old hard-wired systems.
Bradley Metrock: [00:11:09] It's easy to understand how families in existing houses want technology and they don't know how to do it. So they look up Smart House.
Andrea Bianco: [00:11:20] That's another thing. Not quite there yet, but I'm eager to get some of the homebuilders on board with this. I've knocked on doors, of course. I've reached out to Lennar - they have homes around where I live, and are pretty aggressive builders in the Arizona area. I think working with builders is really going to be a big opening space for somebody very soon, because as these millennials start buying their first homes, they're going to almost mandate it. It's not even an option. Look at some of the statistics. In some of the Nielsen market research, millennials were asked in a survey "What is important to you in your first home or your first apartment-type setting?" One of the things I found absolutely hysterical was that millennials said strong Wi-Fi connection and stability is more important than a washer and dryer service in their first apartment.
Bradley Metrock: [00:12:26] I could see that.
Andrea Bianco: [00:12:27] I think that just speaks to where they're at.
Bradley Metrock: [00:12:30] For sure. I think this is just brilliant - a smart house consultant. You're going to have all sorts of angles to play. Everyone's familiar with staging a house: you take the personal stuff out, you move the furniture around, maybe bring some stuff in, so that you cast it in the best light to prepare to sell it. And the idea of having a technology consultant right there, hand-in-hand with the furniture stager - to move a house that's a little bit difficult to sell for whatever reason, or one that the owner just wants to sell quickly - the concept of bringing in a consultant who can set up some Alexa-based hardware and give it a new tech selling angle - I think that's incredible.
Kevin Old: [00:13:34] I have some questions about networking. You mentioned mesh networking being a new option, and I'm wondering what your approach is with getting a network set up - how do you deploy that within the house so that it doesn't interfere with the consumer devices?
Andrea Bianco: [00:14:03] I've learned so much in a year and a half. My partner is also a cloud engineer and has helped me a lot on some of the networking aspects of this. One thing that I tell people I give presentations to, or who come to my home for a demo - and I'm becoming more and more adamant about this: they need to have some type of system like Orbi or Eero throughout. Because what we're finding with the standard type equipment like Comcast or CenturyLink - and I don't mean to point any one vendor out - but when you start putting a lot of smart devices into a home and on a network, we find a lot of bouncing issues. The WiFi is bouncing up and down and causing interference. So I tell people going into this that I strongly recommend they plan on getting their own Eero or something like it to get out the dead spots and the pockets and really maximize the WiFi. That's the first approach.
[00:15:28] The second is building a strong network. That's also what people utilize me for, to know how to design the Z-Wave mesh - because every so often we need those repeaters put in. How is the home designed? Is it a very linear home? Where does the router sit? Are we trying to go bi-directional, or unilaterally down a line of sight? Directing people and the electricians about where we need things put in to have those hops to build the most stable network possible.
[00:16:05] Also, guiding people - because a lot of people take the quick first grab. Phillips Hue tends to be one of the leaders, good name recognition - and maybe GE. Trying to work with people who are building both mesh networks - so if they're building a Zigbee and a Z-Wave, trying to make them understand we can't just pool all this kind of lights in one place and all that kind of lights in another - we need to scatter them so you have more stability in your mesh, and that type of thing. Doing that layout for people has become very vitally important.
Kevin Old: [00:16:47] Awesome. Do you recommend network segmentation for the devices themselves?
Andrea Bianco: [00:16:57] Not necessarily. It's so one-to-one. It just depends on what the customer is actually looking to do, and how many devices and what type of devices they want. It's just a complete one-to-one design layout for them.
Kevin Old: [00:17:15] Do you have clients in remote areas with limited Internet access or access to providers? If so, how do you handle those - cellular?
Andrea Bianco: [00:17:26] We're not using any cellular right now. All the ones I've personally done are in more populated areas. So I'm not really "off the grid" using cellular-type service. I know it's an option, but since I personally have not built those out yet, I wouldn't want to give anybody wrong advice.
Kevin Old: [00:17:50] No worries. One more question related to hardware - you mentioned some brands, like Philips Hue. What are some of the brands that you see that are winning in the area of home automation?
Andrea Bianco: [00:18:05] Oh, goodness. Getting ready for this interview, I was just looking at the Alexa skills - and I noticed there are 563 smart home skills on there right now! I would definitely say GoControl Nortec - those guys have been around for a really long time, but don't yet have that kind of name recognition that Phillips Hue or Wemo do. The products I've used from them, from outlets to garage door openers, I've never had a fail on their products and have found them really stable. And their customer service is good. They're kind of back end - you don't see them when you're looking for those things at Home Depot or Lowe's. But I've even integrated the Philips Hue or the Lowe's Iris into a Samsung SmartThings Hub and system. All the GE products, the GE link stuff. I have multiple lightbulbs like that - Sylvania Osram Lightify light bulbs. TCP's direct two by five - the list is becoming endless.
[00:19:10] Another thing I ask people: what is the functionality? There are two things we take into heavy consideration - what do you want the product to do, what functionality do you need? And what is the price point or the budget we're working within? I find that there are products for almost everything, and sometimes multiple products, just depending on those two factors alone. So if you want a light bulb that just simply dims or whatever, you can get a less expensive bulb. You can get a smart lightbulb for 10 or 15 bucks on Amazon, or you can go all the way up to $50-75 if you want multicolor spectrum, the RGB bulbs, you want them to dim slowly - the more features you add, the price points probably go up on you. So taking budget and functionality into consideration is often what steers me to products, as well as what we can get to work together. One of the things I really pitch hard is trying to use the most open source system to get the most products we can on a hub. And right now I'm finding that to be the Samsung SmartThings.
Bradley Metrock: [00:20:23] Very cool, Andrea. Let me ask you a question that I've been curious about. I'm surprised it hasn't come up on this podcast until now. What is an Alexa Champion?
Andrea Bianco: [00:20:34] There are 27 of us in the world right now. They are developers and what I'd call Alexa evangelists as well. As good favor we go out and evangelize the products. Most of them are also skilled developers; you'll find a lot of the Champions have certified skills in the Alexa Skills Store. And you'll find a lot of Champions sitting on the weekly calls during office hours. We also have our own special Champion call every month or two with a representative from Amazon. We get early release to product knowledge. We have a more direct avenue up to Amazon - we have a couple of contacts so we can report back on bugs we find. A lot of feature requests come from the Amazon Alexa Champions. We're the ones who are out there more or less testing and hammering the products. I myself have 16 Alexa devices in my home, so we're heavy users of the product and know a lot of its nuances. It's similar to the Microsoft MVP program - just people out in the community who can help other people with the Alexa product.
Kevin Old: [00:22:12] I'd like to know what your impression is of the AWS Smart Home Skill API.
Andrea Bianco: [00:22:17] I love it. It provides for a lot of continuity, so the end user experience is very much the same all the time. The user very quickly knows how to interact, what language to use, those type of things, if you use that set. I think it's a very good template to start with. That being said - if you want to get into a lot of further customization, you can only customize it so much. I have a developer I work with and we do a lot of custom-type development of it so we can really tweak on the Alexa service and build out. In my personal one, I call it the brain. So when we invoke it I say "Madame A's name: Open the brain." Then it opens that skill for me and I'll say almost everything can be done. Here's a little caveat: about six months ago, Amazon enabled the ability to lock your front door. There's always been a controversy about locking and unlocking doors, or opening and closing garage doors, and upon release she couldn't do any of that functionality. Then Amazon decided to take that first step forward and allow for locking the door so you can invoke Alexa to lock the front door. However, if you ask her to UNlock the front door, she says at this time she cannot do that. With our Custom Skills, we're able to get all that functionality in. So I'm able to unlock my front door or open my garage door or do all those types of things. If you can get in there and hone it down and get further drilldowns built in the slots, you're able to get all that complete functionality of a home, as well as what I like to call data metrics back out of your home. I have a bunch of reports: I can, for instance, ask her for my house state. That goes through the doors and windows and locks in my home and lets me know what state my house is in. If I had any windows or doors open it also tells me what my alarm feature is set to and what mode my house is running in.
[00:24:40] The template is a good place to start, then building it further out really just blows the doors off of it, because then you're pretty much able to fully function and do everything in your house. I do everything from my locks to asking for metrics to turning on my garbage disposal while I'm cooking. It automatically goes after 17 seconds, and you can get all that stuff built in then.
Kevin Old: [00:25:04] Other than your home, what's the most elaborate setup that you've installed?
Andrea Bianco: [00:25:11] I would say my home is probably one of the biggest, because I have not only the devices for my own use - but I also try to help the developmentally disabled population, and work a lot to get homes to function around their use cases. I like to say my home talks to me. I use the Sonos system as well, so my home is able to give me a lot of information as things are happening: any time my door is locked or unlocked, those announcements come on certain speakers - or if my garage door is open, whatever you want it. I have a lot built in, not just with what people think of as the traditional devices, like locks, front doors, door bells, lights - but metric-like things in the home speaking to you. It's like voice squared - I can talk to my house, and my house can talk to me, too.
Bradley Metrock: [00:26:22] Very cool. So, Andrea - for folks listening to this podcast who have heard about you, heard about Smart House Consultant - who have a need either for their own or someone else's house - what's the best way for someone to reach out and contact you directly?
Andrea Bianco: [00:26:42] On my web site is the best way. It's the full business name: w w w dot smart house consultant dot com - there's a "contact me" page they can fill out. I also have an e-mail: SmartHouseConsultant at gmail dot com.
Bradley Metrock: [00:27:05] Awesome. Well, thank you for sharing your insight and your expertise. What you're doing is so unique and interesting!
Andrea Bianco: [00:27:21] I really appreciate your taking the time to get the word out there, because I feel I really need to help people do this. I've found in my research, when I've talked to Best Buy management and some of the other bigger retail stores that sell some of these devices, that there's a high return rate on a lot of these smart home devices. And the reason is clearly not hardware device failure. It is integration. Integrating is the tough part of it; buying the device is the easy part. Getting it to do what you want, how you want, when you want - it tends to be pretty technical for some people. So that's what I'm here to help with.
Bradley Metrock: [00:28:15] Absolutely. Again, we appreciate you, Andrea. And that's it for Episode 4 of The Alexa Podcast. Thank you for listening, and until next time.