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Using your Augmentative Alternative Communication (AAC) to control Smart Speakers

Kim Magee

Kim Magee

Kim is the Manager of ComTEC as well as the Electronic...

Did you know that Smart Speakers like Google Nest, Amazon Echo, and Apple Homepod Mini can all be controlled by children and adults who use AAC? (Find out more about AAC here)

This can be a great way for them to control things around the home as well as just have fun!

Plus, and this is a big one, success can be its own reward - so if someone is a bit reluctant or unsure on how to use their communication device to speak to other people, making things happen by telling their Smart Speaker what to do helps provides them with immediate feedback and a sense of achievement.

What kinds of things can you use your AAC to direct a Smart Speaker to do?

Kate Ahern (US based Specialist Educator and AAC expert) suggests the following  options:

Help with leisure activities:

  • Listen to music, audiobooks and podcasts
  • Play audio games
  • Hear jokes and riddles
  • Hear rude noises
  • Set a timer to count up or count down
  • Roll dice, pick a number, flip a coin
  • Compliment me

Use as a personal assistant:

  • Connect to your calendar to hear your daily schedule
  • Set timers
  • Set reminders
  • Set alarms
  • Hear the weather forecast
  • Hear the date and time
  • Hear answers to factual questions
  • Hear sports scores
  • Make a call

Control your environment:

  • Use with a compatible thermostat to control temperature
  • Use with compatible outlets, light sockets,light bulbs or hubs to control the lights, light level, light color, and set lighting scenes
  • Use with the IoT (Internet of Things) to control compatible items eg microwaves, crockpots, doorbells, vacuums, essential oil diffusers, locks, air purifiers, and more

(From a Presentation to Closing the Gap Conference 2018) 

What's involved in getting Smart Speakers working well?

  1. Make sure you've got good wifi. All current smart speakers are internet connected - so good wifi is a must.
  2. Make sure they have electricity connected. These devices also need mains power and so as a rule, aren't portable. However, some of the same functionality can be achieved by running the device's companion app on a phone as long as the person can operate this. There are also options available from other suppliers for non standard back up battery packs which can make Smart Speakers portable; but be aware that using these can void the warranty!
  3. Get an account. You will also need a Google, Amazon, or Apple account to register the Smart Speaker to their servers, as well as any related and linked log ins for other connected accessories (like smart lights and plug in modules).
  4. Be patient. The process of getting everything setup can take an hour or two so be patient. Fortunately, all the companies provide online help and there are hundreds of YouTube videos to help with set up! 
  5. Get support. I'd also suggest heading over to the Google, Amazon and Apple smart speaker sites to find out the specific command phrases which each will accept. Existing ones generally remain constant (with one or two frustrating exceptions such as the times Amazon removed the ability to have Gmail messages read out by Alexa and Google dropped location-based triggers for Reminders and Routines); but new options are added all the time.

Improve reliability

Here are our top tips for making sure your smart speakers are the best they can be for you! In our 1:1 sessions we can personalise our support especially for you.

  • In our recent testing we have found the quality of the speaker output of the AAC device has a big bearing on how well the voice command is detected. For example, lower cost recorded message devices usually aren't effective enough. However, if the person has a phone, tablet, or dedicated Speech Generating Device and the environment is set up well (not too much background noise and the device or a paired speaker located near the smart speaker) chances are the message will be heard and the desired control response achieved. 
  • Apps like GoTalkNow are a great way to organize commands and have them labelled meaningfully. You can start with one command and build up to an array of many. This app is also switch accessible.
  • It's worth trying a range of pronunciations to see what works best in the context of the room the system is being used within. 
  • Two current AAC apps actually incorporate direct connections to Google and Amazon servers. TD Snap (which has both iOS and Windows versions ) talks straight to Assistant via the cloud and Speakprose 3 (iOS only) communicates similarly with Alexa.  In both instances this means that people can interact with digital assistant technology wherever and wherever it is needed. 
  • Another workaround if the person has a recent Android device is to use the excellent Google Action Blocks Accessibility service which allows the creation of Tiles on the device desktop that perform desired command such as speaking a message out loud or directly to Assistant via the cloud. 

Emotional and social support

One ultimate aim of all of the above to encourage someone to use their app or device more for communicating their needs, wants, feelings and to share news and to participate in life more. Smart Speakers can be a way to practice and consolidate basic communication skills.

We've already heard stories both anecdotally and in the literature of some children and adults carrying on conversations with Assistant and Alexa which provides them with a way to practice using their AAC when a human partner isn't available. However, it's important to remember that the AI behind these systems isn't (yet) quite flexible enough to understand everything which is said to it. 

We can help

ComTEC is available to provide support to people and their teams around setting these systems up.

Make a referral or book a call to find out more about our advisory and training services.

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ComTEC is a team of allied health professionals who specialise in communication technology.

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