In our previous article we took a look at how Amazon has implemented Groups in Alexa for controlling multiple smart home devices, and how groups could be “Alexa-enabled” by adding an Echo device into the mix to provide more intuitive control of single areas or rooms.
Unlike many other smart home platforms, Alexa’s “Groups” are a generic layer designed to allow you to organize your devices into much more arbitrary collections than “Rooms.” This one organizational unit easily covers almost all of the use cases for the more fixed organization of zones, rooms, and groups used in platforms like Apple’s HomeKit.
However, while Groups are great for controlling several smart home accessories at once, they’re limited to setting all of the grouped accessories to the same setting. For instance, you can use a Group to turn all of your lights on or off, or even to set them to the same color or intensity level, but you can’t call upon a Group to turn some lights off, dim others, and set others to blue, nor can you easily combine unrelated actions, such as dimming the lights and setting the thermostat or closing the blinds. This is where Scenes come into play.
A “Scene” in home automation parlance is really just a set of predefined device settings that can be applied to one or more devices with a single command. This is actually quite similar to Alexa’s Routines that we discussed last week, although in Alexa’s world, Scenes are a bit different.
Scenes aren’t something you can create within Alexa — you inherit them from other smart home platforms via Alexa skills, and you pretty much inherit all of them. If you’re using a Philips Hue system, you’ll have a bunch of default Scenes that will all show up in Alexa (although you can disable those you don’t want to make available). A number of other systems such as Lutron’s Caséta also support scenes, although you’ll have to create these yourself using the platform’s own app. This also means that any given Scene in Alexa is vendor-specific — you won’t normally be able to combine devices from multiple vendors into a single Scene, so they’re really just used to affect multiple devices in a room in one single action.
On the other hand, Routines in Alexa are something that you create specifically in the Alexa platform, which can then in turn be used to control individual devices, Groups, or even Scenes.
Using the right tool for the job
The fact is that you can use Alexa Routines to do almost anything that a Scene could do. So what is the point of using a Scene instead?
Well, just as one example, Scenes are particularly popular with Philips Hue users due to the wide variety of lighting configurations that Hue makes possible — it’s far simpler to pick a lighting and color setup you like and save it as a scene, instead of trying to re-adjust your lights every time. It’s the difference between saying “Alexa, set the Evening Chill scene in my living room” and saying “Alexa, set my living room ceiling light to dark blue. Alexa, set my left table lamp to deep purple. Alexa, set my right table lamp to indigo.”
While you could also do this in a routine, a vendor’s own first-party app usually provides better tools for saving a lighting configuration than the Alexa app does, and if they already provide this capability, why not use it?
Adding a Scene to an Alexa Group
Further, you can actually add a Scene directly into an Alexa Group, which makes their use even more versatile. Let’s say you simply want to turn on all of the lights in your living room, but you want some of your Hue lights to be set to specific colors and brightness levels when they come on, and not to be set to full white. Simply add all of your main lights to the group for your living room, and then add the Hue Scene to the group by itself.
Keep in mind here that if you’re adding a Scene that controls specific lights, you shouldn’t add any of those lights directly to the group — the Scene will take care of turning those lights on and off when you give Alexa the appropriate commands.
Note that you can add multiple Scenes to a Group, and Scenes, or Groups containing Scenes, can also be included directly in Routines for even more sophisticated setups. Also be careful if you’re disabling Scenes — you may have turned some off just to avoid voice control confusion, but disabled Scenes won’t work in Groups or Routines either.
So far we’ve discussed the use of Groups for controlling all of the devices in a room, which will likely be how most people will use them — especially in the case of the “Alexa-enabled” Groups that we discussed earlier this week. However, it’s important to keep in mind that Groups are in no way limited to being used only to define all of the devices in a room, and really the sky is the limit in terms of how you can group and organize your devices.
For example, you could create a Group that contains all of the overhead lights throughout your house, so you could issue an Alexa command to turn all of those off without affecting table lamps, floor lamps, and other kinds of lighting. Or during the holiday season you could create a “Christmas lights” group that includes all of the smart plugs and other lighting accessories controlling your Christmas lighting so you could easily turn that on and off — both inside and outside your home.
Groups can also be used to create “zones” — a term used by other home automation platforms for organizing multiple rooms — although sadly Alexa doesn’t yet allow you to nest Groups within each other, so if you wanted to create an “Upstairs” Group, for instance, you’ll have to re-add every smart home accessory on your upper floor specifically to that Group, even if they’ve already been organized into room-based Groups.
Although there’s definitely room for growth and expansion — we’d like to see the ability to nest Groups within each other, for instance — Alexa’s come a long way, and between Routines, Groups, and Scenes, it’s now possible to create pretty sophisticated home automation routines with a platform that was once really just a voice-based remote control.