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Five ways smart speakers can keep you company during coronavirus crisis

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If school has been canceled and you’re stuck at home with the kids, you can still help them learn valuable lessons even if you’re not an expert.

USA TODAY

With many Americans still ordered to stay at home to quell the spread of COVID-19, at the very least technology is helping us remain connected, entertained and productive.

From group video conferencing calls and binging TV shows to playing multiplayer video games and downloading ebooks, quarantine life – if healthy – could be far worse.

And don’t forget about your smart speaker, as it, too, can help you feel less “alone” while self-isolated.

After all, it’s estimated more than 160 million smart speakers are in U.S. households, so chances are you have one of these voice-enabled devices, be it an Amazon Echo or Google Nest (both from $29).

Here are several ways you can lean on this technology to get through these unprecedented times.

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Hands free calls with smart speakers

Cooking a meal and hit with a memory of your favorite cousin? Call them with your smart speaker.

An underrated feature of the devices is the ability to make free phone calls to any 10-digit number in the U.S. and Canada. With Amazon devices you can also call Mexico, while Google Assistant lets you call a U.K. number, too.

It uses the Internet to make calls (using Voice Over Internet Protocol or “VoIP” technology), so no landline is needed, and it’s completely free.

There are a few ways to do it:

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First say the wake word – “Alexa” for Amazon devices, or “OK Google” for Google Home speakers – and then say “call” or “dial” followed by the 10-digit number.

If a person is in your smartphone’s Contacts, you can say “Call John Smith or Mary Jones, or call Dad,” and so on. 

Or you can use a smart speaker to call a business – even if you don’t know the specific address – by saying something like “Call the Home Depot near Yonge Street and High Tech Road,” and that will work, too.

If you have a “smart display,” like an Amazon Echo Show (from $69) or Google Nest Hub (from $99), you can also place video calls to see friends, family, and colleagues.

‘OK Google, let’s play a game’

Did you know there are thousands of games to play on your favorite smart speaker?

Whether you’re home alone or with family, both Amazon and Google devices support many kinds of games.

“Song Quiz,” for example, is a music trivia game similar to “Name That Tune.” Challenge a family member beside you, or, if alone, play over the internet against someone else also cooped up at home.

“Akinator,” on the other hand, is a “Twenty Questions”-like game, playable using your voice. You must first think of a character that’s real or fictitious, and “Akinator” will try to read your mind.

Both games work with both Google and Amazon.

If you prefer a virtual escape, verbal adventure game “The Magic Door” (for Amazon) has you explore a magical land with several regions including mountains, sea, and dark forest.  In unraveling the tale, you collect hidden items, solve puzzles, and help magical creatures.

Can you help a princess find her crown? Will you escort a gnome to his home? Or pay heed to a fortune teller who is directing you to a haunted lighthouse?

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Depending on the decisions you make, the 10- to 15-minute story veers off into different directions like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book.

Those who own a Google Home speaker might try a similar verbal role-playing adventure game (RPG), “The Game of Castle.”

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Music, radio, podcasts, and audiobooks

Research shows music can be effective therapy to improve your mental wellness. And with more than 50 million songs at your beck and call, smart speakers might just be what the doctor ordered.

With streaming services, use your voice to call up a song, album, artist, genre, year, or playlist. And you can get creative by adding extra words to get specific, such as asking for a “live” version of a song you like, or a “remix” or “cover” version.

Even if you don’t know what the song is called you can say something like “Play that song that says ‘Ooh, I’m blinded by the lights … I can’t sleep until I feel your touch” and it will tell you it’s “Blinding Lights” by The Weeknd.

Or ask something like “Play me the song in the new Cadillac commercial” (it’s “Nobody Speak” by DJ Shadow featuring Run The Jewels).

Don’t forget, you can also play local radio stations – and ones from any city around the globe. Say “Alexa, play a blues radio station from New Orleans,” for instance.

Your smart speaker can also play audiobooks (which will often require a subscription to a service, like Audible) and podcasts covering a myriad of topics (most are free). 

‘Alexa, tell me a joke’

Feel like you need a laugh? Along with some very funny podcasts you can subscribe to and play on your smart speaker, you can also ask your personal assistant to tell you some random jokes.

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Say “Alexa, tell me a joke” and you may hear “Why was the chiropractor so busy? Back to back meetings.”

Or “Knock-knock. Who’s there? Justice. Justice who? Justice once I wish you’d laugh at my knock-knock jokes.”

(Okay, so we didn’t say there were good jokes.)

Personally, I like a Google Nest joke better: “Why won’t the shrimp share it’s treasure? Because it’s shellfish.”

Badum-bum.

If desired, there are also several joke “skills” (add-ons) you can play on your Amazon speaker, with all kinds of different kinds of jokes, including “adult” ones.

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Meditation and breathing exercises

Finally, your smart speaker can also guide you through mindfulness and meditation sessions.

On an Amazon device, say “Alexa, open Guided Meditation,” and the free skill will open, offering a new meditation session every day. There are more than four dozen meditation and breathing exercises focusing on stress, depression, focus, or falling asleep.

A soothing voice will walk you through various exercises; the session typically runs from three to eight minutes in length.

Another good one for Alexa devices is called Mindful Meditation. Ask to open it and follow along with the sessions at a desired length that suits you.

If you own a Google Nest device, say “OK Google, open Meditation Guide,” and your Google Assistant will take you through a two- or three-minute guided meditation.

Finally, if you like to use a meditation app like Calm or Headspace, both of these popular platforms support Amazon Echo and Google Nest devices, so say something like “Alexa, talk to Headspace” or “OK Google, open Calm.”

Follow Marc on Twitter: @marc_saltzman. Email him or subscribe to his Tech It Out podcast at www.marcsaltzman.com.

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