“Alexa” and “OK Google” Have Moved to Sunnyside

By Tom Harkins

Well, my fellow residents, the new wave of “Voice Activated Devices,” which are sometimes referred to as “Smart Speakers,” have begun to take Sunnyside by storm. More and more Sunnyside Independent Living (IL) residents, Assisted Living (AL) residents and even residents in Health Care (HC) have purchased and activated their Amazon Echo and Google Home devices and are enjoying communications with Amazon’s “Alexa” and Google’s assistant, “OK Google,” to do a number of things by just using voice commands. Now to be honest, there are other smart Speakers out there for purchase, like Apple’s “Home Pod,” but as far as I can determine, “Alexa” and “OK Google” are the only ones that have taken up residence at Sunnyside. Maybe Apple’s “Siri” will also become a Sunnyside resident in the near future (so be sure to let me know if she moves on campus).

A Little Background. Voice activated devices are representative of one of the fastest growing trends in the world of technology. When Amazon first came out with the Echo series of smart speakers in 2016, we took one step closer to realizing dreams of interacting with artificial intelligence technology with simple voice commands (just like we saw as young adults on television in sci-fi series such as “Star Trek”). Now smart speakers are invading our homes in record numbers. But what do we mean by terms Voice Activated Device or Smart Speaker? According to CNET, “smart speakers are wireless speakers with voice control built into them. Basically, if you can shout commands at your wireless speaker to make it do things, it’s a smart speaker.”

You can ask your smart speaker to play a song. You can ask it to set a timer while cooking a certain dish for dinner. You can ask it to turn down the lights in your room, and even adjust the temperature in your house. You can ask for the weather report and a check of the traffic in Harrisonburg. Smart speakers will play a game like “Jeopardy” if you ask, and also tell you somewhat corny (my description!) jokes. Heck, I know “Alexa” will even insult you if you ask her to.  All you have to do is say the magic (wake) words – “Alexa,” “OK Google,” or “Hey Siri” - and your smart speaker will prick its ears up and wait to hear your command. This is but a small sampling of what smart speakers can do today, and remember they get smarter by the day (If you are interested in a more detailed discussion of smart speakers, you might want to visit my “Alexa” Blog on this Website. The six blogs I have written so far deal with the Amazon Echo, but the basic concept and principles are the same for other lines of smart speakers).

What we are doing.  Your resident “Tech Team” here at Sunnyside is working with residents and the administration to plan, educate, set up, employ, and assist residents with smart-speaker technology on campus. In addition to the entertainment factor that this technology provides residents, we are focusing our main efforts on the emergency assistance and safety capabilities this technology can provide to Sunnyside residents – that “peace-of-mind” effect so to speak. To date we have created the ability for a number of residents on campus to take advantage of smart-speaker voice calling and messaging to friends and relatives on their smart-phone contact lists. More importantly, especially since smart speakers currently are prevented from making 911 calls, we are able to program a resident’s device to contact the appropriate staff member on the Sunnyside campus during an emergency. Recently one of our residents in AL experienced a medical emergency that left her unable to move without becoming violently ill. Even though she was undergoing a very stressful situation, she remembered we had recently installed her Amazon Echo and taught her how to use its voice calling capability. She was able to receive critical help by telling her device: “Alexa, call the nurse,” and nursing assistance arrived to her room within minutes. Was “Alexa” a life saver? I don’t know, but I do know that that this resident views her as her “angel.”

Another area we have focused on is working with the Sunnyside’s Assisted Living Activities Coordinator to set up and program four (4) recently purchased smart speakers for use in the common areas in Assisted Living and on the Terrace. These smart speakers also have the capability to be used in individual resident rooms if AL administrators determine a need for that. In the Eiland Center Library we have initiated a test project by placing a smart speaker there for residents to use and become familiar with prior to purchasing one for their personal use (the reading of electronic books by this device may become a part of the test). We also are working with the Director of Sunnyside’s Health Care and her Activities Coordinator to set up and program smart speakers on the Health Care floors, with the goal of having a smart speaker in every HC Room that will connect, when necessary, to the head nurse(s) on duty.

We have also entered into discussions with Sunnyside’s Director of Wellness to locate a smart speaker in the workout/equipment room of the Wellness Center for emergency use (again by Voice Calling). Residents using the Wellness Center after normal working hours and on weekends, when the center is not staffed, will then be able to voice call for help during an emergency.

Similar to our efforts for smart speaker use in AL and HC, we assist Independent Living residents in setting up and programing their smart speakers. We offer classes on their capabilities and “things to try” as well as working with IL residents to understand and feel comfortable using the ever-evolving capabilities of smart speakers. We especially feel that it is very important for IL residents with smart speakers in their homes to have the option to voice call Sunnyside Security and/or the On-Duty Night Nurse/LPN in the Highlands during an emergency.  Additionally, another initiative under consideration by the Administration is including smart speakers in the Marketing Packages for new residents moving onto the Sunnyside Campus (sale versions of some smart speakers can sell as low as $35.00). If this initiative becomes a reality, your campus “Geek Squad” (that's us!) will be standing by to assist new residents with this amazing technology.

If you are interested in learning more about smart-speaker technology please feel free to drop by one of our technology sessions that are held monthly in the Highlands’ “Allegheny Room.”

“See you there!”