I've been part of the Vera beta program for their Alexa skill since it was announced. Initially there were the usual glitches you'd expect such as problems discovering devices. But when it worked, it was glorious. You'd speak and Vera would act almost instantly, so much more convenient than pulling out your smartphone.
We'll park Alexa's difficulty with the Aussie accent for now, Amazon is working on it.
At some point in the development process, Vera and Alexa started to have a bit of trouble communicating with each other. You'd request something and Alexa would flash her blue LED's at you before announcing that "Bedroom Lights isn't responding". Between 5 and 30 seconds after that, the lights would turn on. As an issue, it's been reported by a number of beta testers in the supported regions (US and UK) and elsewhere.
Obviously those of us in Australia are in the elsewhere category and don't get support.
While I can't prove it, my suspicion is that the way the skill has been implemented has changed from a network communications perspective and now looks a little something like this:
MS Paint may be dead, but crappy diagrams live on in Sketchpad. Anyway, you don't have to be The Lord of the Pings to know that there's a lot of network latency involved here as bits bounce around the world. However the bulk of the delay as far as I can tell is in the connection between Vera's internet servers, and my local Vera. This is the same delay I see when I try to connect to my Vera across the internet from http://home.getvera.com
At least I hope that's the case because the only other explanation for why Vera haven't fixed it yet is their developers aren't very good.
Suffice to say this delay made using Alexa for home control fairly painful and the Wife Acceptance Factor dropped to Zero. The only thing Alexa was being asked for was Funny Puns.
What was needed is some way to cut out all that latency until Vera and Amazon offer Australian servers and I get NBN some time in 2019.
Enter ha-bridge. This little bit of software emulates a Philips Hue light system and can control other systems such as a Vera, Harmony Hub, Nest, MiLight bulbs or any other system that has an http/https/tcp/udp interface. All you need is a Raspberry Pi or some other means of running Linux software. I have a QNAP NAS that lets me run Docker containers, so I set up ha-bridge on there. There's a ready to roll Docker container to make it easier.
As we know, the Echo communicates on the local network with Hue. Because ha-bridge is running on the local network as well the only time the cloud is involved is when Alexa tries to figure out what the heck you just said. For the most part AWS has no problems delivering that with very little delay at all. So now our picture looks like this:
Now voice commands are back to being executed almost immediately and the only barrier to full WAF is producing a list of device names she can control with Alexa. The amusement you experience from listening to your partner try to guess device names with Alexa will be quickly cut short when their frustration turns towards you - trust me on this.
ha-bridge can also interface with other Automation controllers, Google Home and just about anything that can accept a http request. Chances are you can leverage it to tie a number of devices you have at home together, while we wait for manufacturers to produce a consistent way for all smart home devices to inter-operate and be controlled by our choice of Voice Assistant. Good luck with that.
If you're reasonably tech savvy you can get ha-bridge up and running in a few hours with a bit of research on the web. Feel free to reach out to us at email@example.com or post in the comments below with any questions and we'll put you on the right track. If there's enough interest we'll do a video tutorial on how to set ha-bridge up with Vera and Alexa.
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