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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Dan Moren

By Request: Using the Amazon Echo as an intercom

Reader Eric is an audiologist with a mobility-challenged patient and he was wondering if the Amazon Echo might help his patient and their spouse communicate:

My patient has hearing loss and since they will no longer sleep in the same room, there is a concern about hearing her if she needs him at night. … They bought an Amazon Echo for his wife to use for household control. Turning on lights, tv, etc. I have a hearing aid that is straight bluetooth and can pair to (in theory) any bluetooth capable device.

Do you know of a way to have the Echo send a voice to a bluetooth device? (like a remote speaker, or in this case a hearing aid) Like an intercom?

I was fascinated by this question, so I dusted off my Echo Dot and played around with a couple possible solutions. The answer ended up being “sort of.”

The Dot is the key in this situation, since it allows you to not only pair a Bluetooth device—like a phone—for input but can also pipe audio out to a Bluetooth speaker. Since it seems that most Bluetooth-compatible hearing aids present essentially as a speaker/headphones, it should be possible to pair one to the Echo Dot, and thus get most audio routed directly from the Echo to the hearing aid. So far, so good. (Note: the newly announced Echo Plus and Echo also allow you to output audio to an external Bluetooth device, but the Dot is still the cheapest option, especially if you don’t need a good internal speaker.)

As far as communication goes, Amazon has in recent months added the ability to call and send voice messages between Echoes. In my tests, in which I paired my Bluetooth headphones with the Dot, messages played back through the headphone just fine (with the caveat that you’d want to ake sure to turn on the audio notification for when messages arrive, otherwise it’s on you to notice the Dot’s colored ring pulsing). So that would easily enable the ability to send a voice message from the Alexa app or another Echo directly into the hearing aid.

The intercom idea presented a bigger challenge. You can call between Echoes, but since calling requires a contact name, you’d essentially have to call yourself. (Which does seem to work; it’s just awkward as it might ring multiple devices.) What’s much closer is using the much maligned Drop In feature, which just automatically initiates a call—much more like a traditional intercom—and can work with a specified device rather than a contact. (You can also limit the Drop In feature to only devices from your household, which prevents others from just being able to access your device.) The problem is that in my tests, when the call connected, the Echo Dot would disconnect from the Bluetooth headphones I was using and just default to the Dot’s internal speaker. Less than ideal.

I haven’t found a solution to that problem yet, since it seems to be an innate problem related to the Dot’s software. It may require Amazon to make a deliberate choice about how Drop In and external Bluetooth devices work; I wonder if the company decided to have the audio kick back to the internal speaker so you wouldn’t miss the call if a Bluetooth speaker or headphones were turned down or not being used? Hard to say, but for now, you’ll have to make do with what Amazon lets you do.

[Dan Moren is the East Coast Bureau Chief of Six Colors. You can find him on Twitter at @dmoren or reach him by email at dan@sixcolors.com. His latest novel, The Nova Incident, comes out in July and is available to pre-order now, so do it!]

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