Leveraging Two Types of Alexa Skills

I’ve been progressively expanding my RV’s automation system. At this point I have 14 automated lights, and I expect that number to at least double over the next year.

Voice control using Alexa is working fairly well. Currently, I use the Patriot Alexa smart home skill to control both activities (aka scenes) and individual devices. And I think this is becoming a problem.

As the number of devices grows, it gets harder to remember the exact name of each specific light, and harder for Alexa to accurately hear the correct device or activity name. For example, I have lights on the front, rear, and ramp awnings. I’d like to be able to control them individually, as well as being able to turn them all on or off with a single activity name. It’s easy for me to say “Alexa, turn on the awning light” as I’m heading out the rear door, when what I really mean is the “rear awning”. Sometimes Alexa responds with something like “I have several devices with that name. Which do you mean?”.

So I’ve been thinking about how to simplify the vocabulary that I use with Alexa. I really like that Alexa smart home skills provide a very simple and terse vocabulary (eg. “Alexa, turn on xyz”). So I’m currently allowing it to control both activities as well as individual devices. One of the things I’ve realized is that as the number of devices grows, I rarely want to control individual lights. So I use activity names most of the time. The large number of individual device names just provide opportunities for conflicts with activity names, and misinterpretations. It would be nice if I could clearly separate device names from activity names.

Also, I’d like to be able to dynamically create and edit activities. A smart home skill certainly won’t allow this. So I’ve come to the conclusion that I also need a custom skill to provide that additional functionality.

At this point a light comes on in my head, and I think “why not use a smart home skill for the commonly used things, and a custom skill for the rest?” This equates to using the smart home skill to only turn activities on and off, and use a custom skill to control individual devices, and add or remove them from activities.

So this is the direction I’m going now. I’m going to remove individual device control from the published Patriot hobbyist smart home skill. This doesn’t mean it can’t control an individual device. It just means that an activity will be needed to do that.

I’ve already started on the custom skill, and have published the beginnings of it on Github. I’ll be expanding both it and Patriot to allow defining new activities, as well as allowing activities to be edited or updated using voice also.