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Alexa, pass the popcorn: Smarter entertainment in CNET's Smart Home

In act two of our smart entertainment build-out, we're taking a look at what Alexa can offer your living room media center.

Now Playing: Watch this: Alexa's skills: Useful, fun or downright dumb?
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"Commence couch potato mode."

That's the dream, anyway. After a long day of work, I'll often come home, plop down on the sofa, and wind down from the day with a little bit of Netflix, last night's Colbert on the DVR, or maybe a quick Rocket League match. Of course, that typically means fiddling with a slew of remote controls first to turn the TV on to the right input and get whatever streamer or gaming console I'm going to use fired up and ready to go. Ultimately, that can add up to a good minute or more separating me from a meh Monday and a relaxing evening -- and in the heart of a couch potato, a minute might as well be an eternity.

I'm kidding (mostly), but still: wouldn't it be nice if you could just ask your home to flip all of those devices to the appropriate inputs and settings as soon as you walk in the door, and have your entertainment of choice ready and waiting for you by the time you sunk into your favorite armchair?

We wanted to see if we could make it happen in the CNET Smart Home.

Take it away, Alexa

It's no secret that Alexa is the breakout star of our smart-home setup. Amazon's voice-controlled virtual assistant dazzled us as soon as we first started using her to turn the lights on and off, and she's only gotten smarter since -- so much so, that we've essentially positioned her as the starting quarterback for our squad of smart-home gadgets.

So, with Alexa in mind (and an Amazon Echo sitting prominently next to the 65-inch LG OLED TV in the CNET Smart Home's family room), the question is whether or not the versatile virtual assistant can bring anything special to the home entertainment experience. We already know she can dim the lights down for us, but that's just scratching the surface of the dream couch potato setup described up above. We want Alexa to do more.

Getting Alexa to do more means getting her some help.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Enter Blumoo

First up, we want to be able to tell Alexa to turn the TV on, and to switch inputs. That basically means using her like a voice-powered universal remote, and while there aren't any Alexa Skills that'll put her in direct control of your TV or media devices, there's something else that seems just as good.

It's a $90 device called Blumoo that caught my eye earlier this year. It's a little receiver unit that you plug in near your entertainment center. It uses IR codes that mimic the remotes of a wide range of TVs and media devices -- you connect with it over Bluetooth to control everything from your phone.

And, sure enough, Blumoo has a shiny new Alexa Skill.

Enable that Skill in the Alexa app, and you'll be able to program Alexa voice commands that can control Blumoo-compatible devices. In other words, if you tell Alexa to turn the TV on, she'll pass your wishes on to Blumoo.

alexa-blumoo-gif.gif
Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Things get more interesting when you use Blumoo's "macro" feature. Basically, a macro is just a sequence of button presses that Blumoo can trigger all at once. For instance, you could make a macro that turns the TV on, waits a few seconds for it to boot up, then switches to the Apple TV's HDMI input. You could even add in navigational button presses if you wanted that macro to magically navigate to and open a specific Apple TV app -- say, Netflix, or ESPN.

Blumoo treats macros like any other button on your virtual remote, so you can run one with a single Alexa command. It's really, really cool...

Limitations

...when it works. Voice-initiated macros that stick to a single device worked reliably enough in my tests, but when I started trying to control multiple devices in a single macro, the success rate dropped noticeably. It dropped even more when the macro involved turning a device on -- sometimes, it just wouldn't. And if your phone isn't within Bluetooth range with the Blumoo app running in the background, it won't work at all.

Blumoo, I wish you were better at talking to my PS4.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

To make matters worse, Blumoo isn't as flexible as it ought to be with its phrasing, at least not yet. Commands have to include the words "tell Blumoo to press," as in "Alexa, tell Blumoo to press power." You can't customize the button names, either -- you have to pick from a list. And while that list is fairly extensive, it doesn't have everything (no "YouTube," for instance), and it still gets confusing when you're using different commands to do the same thing to different devices. When I gave a co-worker a quick overview of how the setup worked and asked him to try and use it, his response after a couple of attempts was, "Dude, I hate this thing."

In fairness, Blumoo's integration with Alexa is still in its infancy. A Blumoo representative tells me that the company is working to quickly expand the system's vocabulary, and allow for more natural phrases like "tell Blumoo to turn the TV on." They claim that a lot of these kinds of phrases will work already, although I didn't have much luck testing them out.

Another issue: Blumoo isn't necessarily the most gamer-friendly gadget. You can put it in control over an Xbox One, but if you do, Blumoo's app will warn you that the console's IR sensor isn't very sensitive, and recommend that you purchase an additional IR repeater. And if you game on PlayStation like I do, things are even more annoying -- you'll need to purchase a FLIRC dongle and plug it into your console before Blumoo can talk to it, and even then, it'll only be able to control the system after it's turned on.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Any other bright ideas?

In part one of this post, I talked about bias lighting -- specifically, the potential for smart bias lighting. Don't think for a second I've forgotten.

In fact, smart bias lighting is about as easy a build-out as we've had in the CNET Smart Home. I went with a set of first-gen Philips Hue LightStrips, which enjoy native compatibility with Alexa. All I had to do was stick the LightStrip to the back of the TV set, plug it in, and add it in the Hue app as "Bias Light," and voila: Alexa-ready bias lighting.

It works perfectly (and looks pretty darned good, if I do say so myself). The one caveat: Alexa still can't change the colors of Hue bulbs. She'll gladly turn our bias light on and off or dim it up and down, but if I ask her to switch it to red, she'll just look at me funny.

You could create several IFTTT recipes with this same voice trigger, then fire them all off at once.

Screenshot by Ry Crist/CNET

Of course, we can still change colors in the Hue app (you know, like common cavemen), but if we wanted to bring Alexa back into play, we could use IFTTT, a free online automation service that supports both Alexa and Hue. Aside from creating an IFTTT voice command that changes the color of the light, I could create a command for "movie mode" (or sure, even "couch potato mode") that triggers several things at once.

That's the route I think I'd take in my own home, with perhaps the addition of voice-powered content searches from a platform like Roku, Apple TV, or Amazon Fire TV. I'm keeping an eye on Blumoo, too -- if the voice controls improve, and if it adds in deeper smart-home controls (direct integrations with Hue and with IFTTT are supposedly in the works) then it could be a smart entertainment steal.

You might also consider something that goes above and beyond what you'd expect from an Alexa-centric, DIY setup like ours. I'm talking about companies like Crestron or Control4 that offer the smart-home-as-a-service, with dedicated home entertainment servers and full integration with a wide variety of custom-installed smart-home gadgets. Services like those definitely don't come cheap, but if you've already invested in a luxury home theater, then they might merit a look.