Alexa, Turn on My Home Theater

As if the act of reaching for a remote control were just too much of burden, I’ve now added the ability to control my home theater by voice command. It’s a neat parlor trick, but will the function really prove useful?

When I was a kid, my family’s living room TV was connected to a cable box with a corded remote control selector switch. It looked just like this. Anyone else have one of these?

Corded remote control

I also had a TV in my bedroom, a tiny black & white set with no remote at all. To change the channel, I had to walk up to it and physically turn a dial. We’ve come a long way since then, haven’t we? If my eight-year-old self could have seen the home theater I have today, it would have seemed totally fantastical, like something out of ‘The Jetsons’.

Harmony 880 Remote ControlI’ve used Harmony universal remote controls in my home theater for years. Even today, I still favor the older 880 model, because I like having tactile buttons that I can push in a darkened room without needing to step through a dozen menu pages on a touch screen that illuminates the entire area. I’ve played around with some of Harmony’s newer models, but none has ever quite been to my liking. One downside to hanging onto an 880, however, is the remote’s antiquated, wizard-based setup software, which is very clunky and frustrating. Making even a tiny change to an activity programmed into the remote requires walking through an aggravatingly repetitive series of steps every time. Nonetheless, once it’s programmed, I like the remote’s ergonomics and broad range of control options for up to 15 different devices.

This holiday season, Amazon has been aggressively pushing its Alexa virtual assistant. Among her many tricks, Alexa can pair with Harmony to control home theater equipment by voice. In order to accomplish this, you need both an Alexa device (either the Amazon Echo, the Amazon Echo Dot, or the Amazon Tap) and a Harmony Hub. Alexa on her own will not turn on your TV without the Harmony Hub. Around Black Friday, Amazon offered a bundle package that included the Echo Dot and a Harmony Hub for a price I couldn’t resist. I was eager to play around with the voice control options in my home theater.

Aside from the Alexa integration, the primary purpose of a Harmony Hub is to allow you to use a smartphone as a remote control device by way of the Harmony app that’s available for either iOS or Android. Even if you adore your smartphone and think you want to use it to do everything it possibly can, a phone makes a lousy remote control – especially with this Harmony app, which is terribly unintuitive and has really confusing menus that require you to flip through dozens of screens to find any command outside the most basic options. Trust me, at the end of the day, you’ll still want to use a real remote control. The Hub can be paired with several current model Harmony remotes (including the Harmony Companion, Harmony Ultimate, and Harmony Elite). My older 880 can’t interact with the Hub, but I don’t need it to. It still controls my equipment just fine on its own, whether I use the Hub or not. I bought the Hub only to use with Alexa. Regardless, you’ll still need the Harmony app for most of the Hub’s setup.

Right off the bat, I found the Harmony Hub frustratingly limited. It can only control a maximum of eight devices, which may be enough for the average homeowner but is woefully insufficient for my needs. I have two projectors, a TV, three A/V receivers (though two of them are identical and can be controlled with one signal), a video processor, a DVR, a Blu-ray player, a Roku, an HD DVD player, a Laserdisc player and a couple of game consoles. Because the Hub can’t handle them all, I had to prioritize the essential devices that I use the most. For the others, I need to keep my Harmony 880 handy.

Harmony Devices

The Harmony app is kind of awful. Anytime I try to do anything in it, the damn thing has to first reconnect to the Harmony server, then sync the phone to the Hub, then check for firmware updates. It goes through all three of those steps every time you try to add or edit an activity, even if it just did them five seconds earlier. As a result, even simple edits are agonizingly slow to accomplish.

Fortunately, even though the Hub is limited to only eight devices, it can handle a greater number of activities. Obviously, your primary activities are going to be those that turn stuff on (“Watch TV,” “Watch Blu-ray,” “Watch Roku,” etc.). Beyond that, you can also create custom activities within each device. For example, my OPPO Blu-ray player has a region code hack that requires a specific series of button pushes to activate for each Blu-ray region. I have therefore programmed three macro activities, one for each region, into the Harmony app. I can tell Alexa to “Turn on Region B,” and she’ll enter the code to make that happen. I find that pretty handy.

After you’ve programmed all of your devices and activities into the Harmony app, you then need to enable not just one but two separate Harmony skills within the Alexa app. One allows Alexa direct access to turn on or off your Harmony activities. You can say, “Alexa, watch TV” and she’ll turn on your TV, your A/V receiver and whatever else is needed to make that happen. So far, so good. Unfortunately, that’s basically the extent of what you can do directly. If you wish to enter a one-off command that isn’t a dedicated activity, that requires you to tell Alexa to tell Harmony to do it. In other words, if you want to turn up the volume or change the channel, you have to say, “Alexa, tell Harmony to raise volume” or “Alexa, tell Harmony to go to NBC.” This gets really annoying if you forget to add in the extra “tell Harmony” step and Alexa has no idea what you’re asking.

It’s pretty clear that both the Alexa and Harmony apps are at an early stage of development regarding their integration with each other, and are both full of bugs and glitches that desperately need to be resolved. Among the available options, you should be able to program a list of favorite TV channels that you watch, and then assign them so-called “Friendly Names” to make jumping to them easier (i.e. “CBS” instead of the station number or call letters). I got a couple of these Friendly Names to take, but several others refuse to stick no matter what I do. One that doesn’t is Fox. The Fox station number in Boston is 806. For some reason, when I say, “Alexa, tell Harmony to go to channel 806,” she completely misinterprets this and asks if I’d like to change the default volume. Meanwhile, if I ask her to tell Harmony to go to channel 805 (ABC), that works fine. I hope that a software update will eventually fix these problems. In the meantime, I still keep my other remote at hand.

I’ve encountered some other issues and annoyances that I could spend time griping about, but I’m still getting the hang of this software and I may just need time to figure stuff out a little more. I’d rather end this post on a positive note. Once I got over the initial hurdles of programming my activities, the voice control actually does work. It may be a parlor trick, but I think it’s a pretty cool and impressive parlor trick.

[WARNING: Do not watch this video in a room with an Alexa device listening or you may confuse the hell out of it.]

17 comments

  1. Jason Radcliff

    Maybe it’s just me, but it still seems easier to get off my ass to turn the lights on and off and to use a a few remotes to control everything.

    • Josh Zyber
      Author

      For certain tasks, including changing channels, I’ll admit that using the remote is usually easier. For turning the lights on and off, though, no way. This is much better than getting up and walking to the back of the room.

      • Deaditelord

        I’m sure the Alexa is a better voice recognition system, but that’s also been my experience with using the Kinnect voice commands on the Xbox One to control my HDTV, cable box, and A/V Receiver. Turning devices on and off work great. Everything else you are better off in most cases using the remote. At least Alexa is able to change channels by stating the channel number. With Kinnect, you have to state the entire channel name to switch channels which can be quite cumbersome with some of the Fox Sports channels.

    • Heh…Jason, I was thinking the same thing. It’s neat, but after a few weeks I think I’d just get off my lazy ass and do all that stuff on my own. It’s a nice thing for people that are disabled or can’t get around well, I suppose. 🙂

  2. Joao Lima

    I would use this only for more unusual tasks, like ensuring the receiver is using a specific sound decoder or program, opening specific menu entries in some devices, etc.

    All this “Alexa, tell Harmony to…” seems annoying. Currently it seems Amazon devices need to work with a single, unique word to trigger voice recognition (usually, Alexa) but Amazon should try to allow the customization of specific trigger words for specific skills. “Alexa, tel Xxx to do that” would be simple “Xxx, do that”.

    Anyway, the most favored with this solution would be wives, as they usually do not know how to deal with inputs and many devices. Maybe this is something that, finally, our wives might be willing to pay for themselves.

    • Deaditelord

      The reason they make the phrasing somewhat wordy is to avoid having the voice recognition accidentally trigger while watching a movie, TV show, etc. Before the Xbox One updated Kinnect’s voice recognition commands from “Xbox [insert command]” to “Hey Cortana [insert command]”, there would be occasions where the voice recognition would trigger because Xbox was spoken during a commercial. That doesn’t happen anymore. I agree that having to say the same starting phrase each time is annoying. However, I don’t see any way around that until a device comes out that can remember a person’s voice.

  3. grewterd

    I hate you Josh, not only do I want 2 more AVRs, but now I want an Echo!

    Local place had a 5.1 Dennon for $100, it was all I could do not to snatch it up, I still may.

  4. I’ve got the latest…at least that I want…Atmos, 4K, etc. But…I sort of always assumed that electronics should make life easier for us. I felt a tension headache coming on just reading your description. I think I’ll just wait for Siri to evolve to the point where she (or he) will just read my mind and react…hopefully not against my will.

  5. cardpetree

    I think it would be cool to turn the lights on and off with it and I find the technology of it very cool and fascinating. I kind of want one but it reminds me of Siri on my iPhone. The way I can say “Hey Siri” and then request it search Google, call someone, set a timer or set my alarm. I pretty much never get Siri to do it, I just end up doing it manually.

  6. My wife wondered why I got the Echo. She just would not use it. Then one night, she came home alone to an empty dark house. She asked Alexa to turn on downstairs light, and now she uses it all the time. Having it control the Christmas lights has been a real bonus.

  7. Richard

    Try using the Yonomi app to use ‘Turn on’ and ‘Turn off’ as phrases directly with the Echo. Each Harmony Activity is treated as a device as far as the Echo is concerned so no need for a separate trigger phrase.

  8. EM

    News flash: I’m a Trekkie. One of the niftiest promises of the Star Trek future is interaction with a powerful computer by voice command. Why, sometimes when I’m in a frustrating situation, I cry out, “Computer, arch!” or “Computer, end program!” It never works, but perhaps someday it will.

    But even Star Trek characters frequently interact with their amazing technologies by touch instead of voice. Voice is not always practical or desirable. That may be especially true when there are other people present. If I think the TV volume’s too low, barking instructions to raise the volume might annoy those people trying to listen to the TV while I shoot my mouth off. In fact, I would say there‘s generally less showmanship in giving commands orally. Pressing a remote button to turn the TV on is somehow more magical than saying, “Turn the TV on” to produce the same effect. Buttons also lessen the chance you’ll disturb someone who’s fallen asleep.

    For years I’ve been turning the home-theater lights on and off while sitting on my duff. I use RF-remote tech for that.

    And yes, I remember having a cable device similar to the one pictured. The 36 channels make me chuckle. Nowadays I get a lot more channels, but I don’t think I’ve ever gotten 36 worthwhile channels, let alone more. The channel selector simply sat atop the TV. Maybe it could have been used like a remote from the couch, but I don’t think it ever occurred to us to try. But I’ll tell you what did have a corded remote: my first VCR. The remote had just one button—for pause and unpause! It was handy for both playback and recording.

  9. Matt

    Going through the same thing here. Found glitches like you describe, most of the favorite channels work, but I can’t tune TV to “Fox, Fox TV, Fox Channel”. Can’t tune to Roku “Sling TV, Sling”. Can’t tune TV to “Channel Five, Channel 14, etc”. Have to figure out just the right wording?? Tedious.

    Found I can have Alexa control activities on multiple Harmony Hubs by tying them together via the Yonomi app.

    • Josh Zyber
      Author

      I’ve also found Yonomi to be very helpful since it was recommended by an earlier commenter. With that app, I can now group devices together both within and outside of Harmony. For example, when I say “Turn on Theater,” Alexa will now automatically turn off the room lights (via WeMo) and turn on all my home theater gear and projector (via Harmony) in one step.

      I’ve given up trying to change the channel with voice command. It’s easier to just use a physical remote for that.

    • Matt

      Tried it again today, it seems to be working pretty well! Fox TV, Sling TV, YouTube, Netflix. Roku+Harmony+Alexa is a good combo!

  10. I think I’ve only used my light switches a handful of times in the last couple of months thanks to my Alexa. Home cinema wise I use it to turn it all on or off and switch sources but then rely on my harmony assistant remote for volume changes and movie selection etc… That’s the little hard button remote you can buy with the harmony Hub which works alongside your harmony touch, one, elite etc…

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