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You may have started seeing the number of smart speaker devices that have hit the market and wondered how they could help you. Alex Kidman tells us more about these devices and how they could help seniors around the home.

A smart speaker can do a lot more than just play music. At a basic level, a smart speaker is still an audio speaker. Many smart speakers can still connect to external audio sources via a standard 3.5mm audio cable and most will include Bluetooth connectivity for pairing with your mobile phone. This means that they can play your music and even act as a speakerphone for incoming mobile phone calls. These are functions that you can get with any decent new speaker these days.

Your options include Google Home or Amazon Echo speakers at the cheaper end of the scale, up to more Hi-Fi centric options from Apple, Panasonic or Sonos. What makes a smart speaker “smart” is the inclusion of a smart digital assistant. A smart speaker can listen to your queries and commands and respond intelligently. If you have a current model smartphone, you’re probably already familiar with the concept of a smart assistant.

Accessing a smart speaker’s assistant is no harder than saying its key phrase. These are simple phrases such as “Okay Google” for Google Assistant-based speakers. You then speak your query, and the speaker goes to work sorting out a response. The key phrase means that your speaker won’t chirp up when it’s not wanted. Usually, it’ll also light up to show that it’s working or listening. If you don’t want it listening, it’s easy to disable its microphones with a tap or a spoken command.

To answer your question, an Internet connection of some type is an absolute must. Smart speakers work best with a home Wi-Fi connection, but that’s probably part of your home Internet connection already.

You can try simple queries such as the current weather forecasts or the latest news for quick responses. Many speakers will also answer the kinds of searches you might do on the Internet, all without a keyboard. If you’re not comfortable (or happy) typing, that’s a real boon right away. You don’t even need to fire up your computer, smartphone or tablet to find out something new.  Smart speakers can’t answer every single query, but they’re built to get smarter over time thanks to regular software updates.

A smart speaker can also talk to compatible appliances such as light bulbs, power switches and security cameras. You might think that a light bulb isn’t that great a conversationalist, no matter how bright it might seem. But you can actually hook your smart speaker up to a smart light bulb to bypass your physical light switches entirely!

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There are some obvious benefits there for seniors with mobility issues. No more stretching for that hard-to-reach light switch. If security is a concern, being able to raise the lights at a command is a huge plus.

It gets even smarter when you combine devices and build useful scenarios around them. A single command could switch on your lights and flick on a smart switch attached to a kettle to boil water in the morning.

For Friday nights when you want to settle down on the sofa with your favourite show, how about a single command that dims the lights, switches on the TV and even locks the front door?

That does involve the extra cost for smart-ready appliances. You can get power plugs that can turn most normal electronic gadgets smart-ready, at least for switching things on and off. An increasing number of devices, from TVs to kitchen appliances, are starting to integrate with smart speakers.

If you’re keen on that idea, it’s important to make sure that the smart gadgets you’re buying will talk to your brand of smart speaker. There are only three smart assistants to check for: Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa or Apple Siri/Homekit. Some of the smarter gadgets will talk to all three, so you could even switch brands if a better smart speaker takes your fancy.

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Alex Kidman
Alex Kidman is a multi-award winning consumer technology journalist working out of Sydney. He has written for the likes of CNET.com.au, ABC Technology+Games, Gizmodo, Techlife and a whole host of others. He is currently the Tech and Telco editor at comparison site finder.com.au.