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Stubborn Grandparents and IoT Solutions

I, like many people, have stubborn grandparents. Both of my grandparents are in their upper eighties, have had falls and health scares, and refuse to move out of their three-story home into a community where they would have more support and less house to maintain. I'm fairly certain this case is not unique to my own, but as the granddaughter responsible to maintaining their ipads and home internet connections, I felt their had to be some simple and elegant IoT home solution to streamline their daily living and to bring a sense of peace and security to the rest of the family.

With this idea in mind, I decided there were four pillars on which I would build my IoT plan:

  1. Installing Amazon Echos and dots throughout the house so that voice control will work anywhere. If it doesn't work always and reliably, my grandparents will not use it. I have learned this with their ipads which used to only work on wifi but now also use 3G.

  2. Connecting smoke detectors to the lighting in the house and to cell-phone alerts of nearby family. My grandfather has hearing aids and is profoundly deaf - he would sleep right through the smoke alarm. My grandmother is not particularly swift these days and it would not be safe for him to rely on her to get them out of the house in such an emergency. This would allow for an additional sensory output of the smoke alarms, safe exit with a lighted path out of the house, and early alerts to nearby family who could come to help.

  3. Connecting the lighting in the house to voice control. As with many homes built in the 1950's, build-in ceiling fixtures were not the norm, and so most of the lights in my grandparents house must be turned on at the fixture, meaning they must often navigate across a dark room to turn on a light. As my grandmother has already taken a tumble and fractured her hip once, minimizing the number of dark spaces they have to navigate is probably for the better.

  4. Using IFTTT to integrate safety phrases through the Amazon Echo's. LifeAlert was great in 1994, but I know there is no way my fashion-forward grandmother is going to be caught dead wearing that hideous piece of plastic on her neck everyday. If there is an accident, a fall, or some other type of emergency, I want my grandparents to be able to say "call Katrina for help" or some other trigger phrase that will immediately alert nearby family to an emergency in their house.

This post will detail the implementation of this project in the hopes that others who wish to do something similar for the loved ones they care for can learn from this experience.

Current project status

I have only begun to implement this project. Below I have detailed my progress on each of the four objectives. I will update the progress as I move forward. The most important thing I have learned when introducing technology with my grandparents is one piece at a time. They use and adapt to tech differently than myself, and I always seem to underestimate the number and type of user issues they will come across. Therefore, in order for this to be a positive experience, I need things to work reliably and seamlessly.

Objective One: Implementing voice control throughout the house

As my grandfather might be having a love affair with Siri, I figured voice control might be a great way to start. Initially I installed a single Amazon Echo in their family room, which is where they spent the most time. Having seen the Amazon Echo at one of their children's house before they were vaguely familiar with how it worked. After some simple instruction, my grandfather was elated after executing "Alexa, play Johnny Cash". My grandmother, who has a propensity for being contrary, was frustrated that we could no longer talk about her grand-neice in-law Alexa, whom I can't imagine they ever talked about frequently.

After a few days, it became clear that Alexa has become a welcome member to their household. I installed two wifi outlet switches (discussed in detail below) and connected them to the Amazon Echo to see how they would incorporate voice control of the lighting in the Family Room. After tweaking the light names and integrating some alternative naming schemes, the lighting control worked without a hitch. I then purchased an echo dot and additional outlet switch for each of their bedrooms (they are old and each have their own bedroom).

Pillar Two: Connecting the lighting in the house to voice control

As mentioned above, I chose to use wifi outlet switches to connect their lamps, and there were several reasons for this. First, having a hub system myself, I have had frustrating experiences where the hub servers go offline and you now have issues controlling your smart home. Moreover, a hub is just one more puzzle piece in the smart home system, which means one more thing that could go wrong. Second, I wanted something that worked seamlessly with the Amazon Echo, something that would rarely go down and cause panic in their house. Third, the downside of light bulbs is if someone switches off the switch or fixture, the light bulb cannot be controlled.

Based on price and reviews, I chose to go with tp-link wifi connected outlet switches for the lamps, and tp-link wifi connected wall switches for the few lights in their house (kitchen, foyer, hallway) that are controlled by wall switch. For the rooms which are controlled by lamps only, I hope to add a wifi-button of some kind, so they can also operate those lights by switch in addition to voice.

Pillar Three: Connecting smoke detectors to the lights and IFTTT

The primary motivation for this undertaking is safety. After reviewing the options I chose the Roost connected nine volt batteries. This was an elegant and cheap solution to connect the preexisting smoke detectors. Additionally, Roost already has a robust IFTTT integration, which will make connecting myself and the family to the smoke alarms easier.

Pillar Four: Using IFTTT to integrate voice controlled safety calls

Admittedly this is perhaps one of the easier steps which I have not yet completed, however this is my tentative plan. First, connect the Amazon Echo and Android and iPhones of family members into IFTTT. Then, integrate the voice commands in an applet. I will have to think carefully about the voice commands. Any suggestions are welcome.

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