EAVESDROPPING WITH ALEXA

Twenty-two million Americans now have what’s called a “smart speaker,” a gadget that sits on a table or shelf and responds to commands. The numbers have doubled in the past year.

This is without doubt the hottest product out there and we expect the numbers to jump sharply again this year. The market leader, with about 72 percent, is the Amazon Echo; Google has about 18% and the rest is “other,” which includes Apple’s “HomePod,” and Sonos’ “Sonos One.”

Now the Amazon Echo not only listens to you, it can listen for you. In short, it can be an intercom. If someone turns on its “voice calling and messaging” feature, you can either call them or listen in. There have to be certain agreements here: You must have put them on your approved list and vice versa. This last should be a big sigh of relief for all involved, because otherwise you are bugging their house without bothering to get a judge’s order.

This is a lot like spying. You can “drop in” on a friend’s home if they have an Amazon Echo, Echo Dot or Echo Show. If they have the latter, you can not only hear what’s happening in the room, you can see whatever the device can see. You pay extra for eyeballs in the room; It’s $160 for the one with the video camera.

More than a year ago, Joy bought an extra Echo Dot for a disabled friend. In the Alexa app settings, she named the second device “Joy’s Second Echo Dot.” Then she tapped the speech bubble to turn on calling and messaging. Back home she said, “Alexa, drop in on Joy’s Second Echo Dot.” She then heard her friend talking with the helper who comes in twice a week. The sound was clear, as if she were in the room. It’s also like an intercom, in that she could have also talked back to Joy – if she knew Joy was there.

Time to play defense. If you don’t want anyone to eavesdrop on what you’re doing, you simply say to the device: “Stop Drop-In for my household.”

The intercom feature kicks into play usefully if you have Amazon Echo devices all over the house or business. You can drop in on the one in your child’s bedroom, for example, and call her to dinner. You would start that call by saying something like “Call the Echo in Jane’s Bedroom.” Go further afield: check on grandma, check on someone next door, check on the dog.

We’re still exploring the features of these devices. For instance, we just found out we can use Alexa to control the TV. Joy asked her to play the movie “Mother’s Day,” which is free for Amazon Prime members. It worked because we have a $30 Amazon Fire Stick plugged into the back of the TV. We then asked Alexa to pause the movie so we could write this column. She got confused and searched for a movie named “Pause.” But that stopped the movie anyway. The “Google Home” device can also send movies and videos to your TV; it has the advantage of access to the millions of shows and talks on YouTube, which Google owns. Amazon Fire TV also has access to YouTube videos, but in our tests, Alexa couldn’t find them.

Special Effects at Home

If you’ve ever been to the Haunted Mansion at Disneyworld or Disneyland, you’ll remember spooky ghosts floating through the air and 3D figures waltzing before your eyes. A similar kind of magic, from AtmosFX.com, is now available for your home. It requires no virtual reality headsets, starts at $7 and is called “animated decorations.”

On June 1, the company is coming out with a new set of animated decorations, but we’re held in check by one of those non-disclosure agreements for the time being. We can only say that they’re basically kid friendly; fans of a certain blockbuster movie will be thrilled to see 3D creatures projected onto their windows or TV. Okay, that’s enough hints. (Hate those non-disclosure agreements. Bob’s regular response is: “If you don’t want it disclosed, don’t tell us about it.”)

To watch these effects, you need a DVD player or a computer connected to a TV, monitor or projector. We first looked at the “Party Time” decorations, which bring you virtual balloons, confetti, fireworks and streamers. But what really blew us away was their Halloween set. Wacky pumpkins sing songs and tell stories from a virtual shelf. Moving shadows create mayhem in your windows. A creepy portrait follows you with his eyes from your TV screen; reminds us of Uncle Max.

Finding a Good Bridge Game

Bob has been playing Microsoft’s Bicycle Card Games for years. He likes it because of the graphics.  He also likes it because the Microsoft programmer who made it is probably the worst bridge player in the world, and is very easy to beat.

It’s a friendly game with friends, if you don’t mind that one of your friends is Sam Spade  and another is a guy who looks like he needs a shave.  But the game suddenly went kaput on us, showing a haze of colored blocks.  This set us off on a quest to find the best substitute.

Many people like “Bridge Baron,” but we hate paying $65 for a bridge game and the graphics are junk compared to Bicycle Card Games. We next considered the free game at 247Bridge.com, but it kept getting stuck on Bob’s computer. We also tried BridgeBase.com (which was too confusing), and the bridge game at Pogo.com. (Cards were too tiny). Then we tried Arkadium.com, but the players were really dumb. “Bridge Bandit” looked promising but the download button didn’t respond when we clicked it. The bridge game at Games.AARP.com was the same Arkadium we’d already tried. Worst yet was the free “Quick Bridge for Windows.” Our electronic partner bid three spades when he had almost none.

Just when we were ready to give up, we put the Bicycle Card Games CD into the computer one more time and it worked! By the way, it’s an old program and lists Windows 98 as the most recently compatible operating system. But it works on our Windows 10 machines. Amazon had only two copies left when we checked. The cheapest was $20; golden oldies still sell.

 

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