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How to make the most of your new smart speaker

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Nick Kirmse, CTVNews.ca Staff


Published Tuesday, December 25, 2018 7:00AM EST


Last Updated Tuesday, December 25, 2018 7:06AM EST

Christmas has come again, and many Canadians will find themselves unwrapping a voice-activated assistant this year.

Smart speakers have made it into the mainstream, with almost 15 per cent of Canadian homes owning at least one device, according to a Consumer Technology Association study from November of this year.

Though Google’s Home mini is still king, the Amazon Echo Dot is closing the gap, while Apple’s more expensive HomePod pulls up the rear.

Worried that your new smart device might end up just being an expensive paperweight? Never fear – voice-activated assistants are a simple and painless way to streamline home entertainment.

But once you know your way around the device, they have the potential to be much more than that.

With more than a year since the Google Home and Amazon Echo line of voice-assistants launched in Canada, have the smart speakers caught up to what their American counterparts can do?

Not quite yet, but that’s not to say there isn’t a lot your new voice-activated assistant can do for you.

CTVNews.ca takes a look at the best tips, tricks, and tweaks to help you make the most of your new device.

Up your entertainment game

Getting started with your new smart speaker really is as simple as they make it look.

Download and open either the Amazon Alexa or the Google Home app, and you’ll be prompted to set up your device.

Follow the on-screen instructions and create or log into your Google or Amazon account, and you’re good to go.

Once you’ve got the device online and connected to your account, it’s as easy as saying “Alexa, play Despacito” and tunes will start playing from the default music service.

While the default options will work, if you want access to a deeper selection of music, the Echo and Google Home are both good at enhancing your home media choices.

Regardless of what device you own, it’s easy to explore their proprietary music services, as well as free music-streaming mainstays such as Spotify, Pandora, and Deezer.

When it comes to video, the brand divide can start to complicate things.

The little speakers, smart as they may be, can’t control your TV on their own. That’s where devices such as the Chromecast or the FireTV come in.

While Roku-branded devices can play nice with either Google or Amazon products, the companies have decided to restrict their devices to their own AI systems.

That means Echo devices will only control Fire TV, while Home can only co-operate with Chromecast – if you have mismatched devices, you’re out of luck.

But once that’s sorted out, you can use your voice to control what you’re seeing on the screen, casting YouTube, Netflix, Amazon Prime, and more directly to your TV.

Just say “Hey Google, play American Vandal season 1,” and your Chromecast will start playing your show.

You can control playback with your voice, telling the device to pause, rewind, and skip episodes.

Unfortunately, requesting specific episodes or seasons of a TV series is not supported by either Google Home or Amazon Echo, but if you’re looking to binge watch a series over the holiday – you’re set.

Catch up with the latest news

Want to quickly catch up on the day’s top headlines? Alexa and Google assistant can help with that.

Just ask Alexa “What’s the news?” to start the flash briefing function, giving you news and content from the world’s most popular broadcasters, as well as local weather and more.

You can customize your flash briefing experience to have Alexa read news from your favourite sources, including CTV News.

Just say “Alexa, enable CTV News,” to add the skill to your Echo devices.

Other Canadian, U.S., and international news networks are also available.

Google Home devices can also be customized to fit your preferences through the Google News page online.

You can ask them to read you news from specific providers, a particular topic, or the latest news on a category, like sports or technology.

Simplify your morning

Picture waking up to a room slowly lighting up to emulate the sunrise, checking the morning’s news, and heading downstairs to the smell of freshly brewed coffee – all without lifting a finger.

It’s not just science fiction anymore, thanks to Routines.

Routines allow your Echo or Home assistant to execute multiple actions at once, activated through either a key phrase or at a set time.

To get rolling with automation, set up your routine through the Home or Alexa app, telling your assistant what smart devices you want to control.

For example, you could set up a “good night” routine that turns off all the lights, locks the doors, and adjusts the thermostat instantaneously.

With the ability to easily create custom routines, you’re limited only by your imagination – and the number of smart devices you own.

For Amazon Echo users, the company has announced that location-based routines will be coming to Echo devices at some point in the future.

The new feature will allow for routines to automatically start when you enter or leave your home, so you don’t even have to take the time to say the key phrase to get your smart-home humming.

Make your home ‘smarter’

There are a number of smart-enabled devices that you can integrate with your Echo or Home products to start automating your home.

Smart lights, such as the Phillips Hue, are one of the most common smart items, allowing you to remotely turn your lights off and on.

But some of the more expensive smart bulbs go way beyond the traditional on-off, giving you the option to change the colour of the light, dim the brightness, or play music through a built-in speaker.

Smart thermostats such as the Nest or the ecobee can be paired with voice-assistants to let you make the room more comfortable without leaving the couch, while products such as the Ring doorbell allow you to remotely view and talk to anyone who comes to your front door.

You might even want to take it to the next level and install smart locks, allowing you to ask Alexa if your doors are locked, remotely allow people to enter your home, or get warnings when your door didn’t close properly.

Have any other “dumb” devices that you want to integrate into your smart home?

Several companies offer smart plugs that allow you to control your TV, lamp, or other appliances or integrate them into your routines.

Major appliances are also making the jump into the realm of voice-control, with ovens, washers and driers, and refrigerators being developed to allow you to remotely run wash cycles or preheat your oven.

For those looking to try out voice-activated appliances without breaking the bank, Amazon has released an Alexa-enabled microwave.

Retailing for only US$60, the smart microwave can intelligently heat items; picking a power level and time based on what you tell it is inside.

Currently, the microwave is only available in the U.S. on Amazon.com, but keep your eyes open for the device to make it to Canada if you don’t want to go through the trouble of importing one.

Not all gadgets are universally compatible, so before you start buying any and every smart gadget, check the product information to make sure they’re compatible with Alexa or Google Home, and that they don’t require a home hub to operate.

Reach out

Making and receiving phone calls through your Echo or Home device Is an added perk.

Simply register for device-to-device calling in the Alexa or Google Home app, which verifies your phone number, and you’ll be able to use your voice-activated device in place of a phone.

Currently the Echo allows you to make calls to most mobile and landline numbers in Canada, the U.S., and Mexico, while Google Home can reach numbers in Canada and the U.S.

Another cool feature you can take advantage of, if you’ve got multiple Echo or Home devices, is to use the devices as a multi-room intercom with the Announcements and Broadcast features.

Forget yelling downstairs to tell the family it’s time to eat – simply say “Alexa, tell everyone supper is ready” and your voice will be broadcast to any Echo devices or Fire HD tablets around the house.

If you’re after a more in-depth conservation, both the Echo and the Home can do device-to-device calling, including video chats if you own an Echo Show or Echo Spot or a Google Home Hub.

Call another room in your house, a friend, or a relative on the other side of the world, and their device will let them know you’re waiting to talk.

Sort out dinner plans

One of the most touted functions of voice-activated assistants is their usefulness in the kitchen.

Echo devices and Google Home can become your personal sous chef, talking you through 60,000+ recipes step by step – but they have plenty of other uses in the kitchen you may not know about.

The devices can convert measurements, keep multiple timers running, and even play music while you cook – all you have to do is ask.

Build a shopping list by telling Alexa or Google assistant what you need to buy, which you can print or check on the go through the respective apps on your phone.

If shopping isn’t in the cards today, enable the Allrecipes skill on Echo devices to receive recommendations of what meals you can make based on the ingredients you have on hand.

Or, if you don’t feel like cooking at all, ask Alexa or Google Assistant to order from Foodora, giving you a curated choice of local restaurants.

The skill, launched last summer for Alexa and last month for Google Home, allows you to order food by name, ask for your “usual” order by setting your preferences online or in the app, or to repeat a past order.

You can also track your delivery through your virtual assistant, getting an estimate for how long it will take until the delivery is at your door.

Have some fun

Google Home and Amazon Echo may have plenty of more serious uses, but they also know how to have fun.

Both have a variety of fun activities that you only have to ask to play, including riddles, jokes, and games.

The games range from the simple – Blackjack, 21 Questions, and Hangman – to more in-depth fun such as trivia and quizzes, Mad Libs, or voice-based RPG and exploration games such as 6 Swords.

Both Alexa and Google Home have an endless knowledge of pop culture, making for some fun Easter eggs.

Alexa who she’s gonna call, to set beam you up, or where in the world is Carmen Sandiego and see what happens.

Some of the best Easter eggs for Alexa and Google Home have been compiled by Reddit users, if you don’t want to search them out by yourself. 

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The 3 Best Canadian Tech Stocks I Would Buy With $3,000 for 2021

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The majority of the Canadian tech stocks went through the roof in 2020 and delivered outsized returns. However, tech stocks witnessed sharp selling in the past 10 days, reflecting valuation concerns and expected normalization in demand. 

As these high-growth tech stocks shed some of their gains, I believe it’s time to accumulate them at current price levels to outperform the broader markets by a significant margin in 2021. Let’s dive into three tech stocks that have witnessed a pullback and are looking attractive bets. 

Lightspeed POS

Lightspeed POS (TSX:LSPD)(NYSE:LSPD) stock witnessed strong selling and is down about 33% in the last 10 days. I believe the selloff in Lightspeed presents an excellent opportunity for investors to invest in a high-growth and fundamentally strong company. 

Lightspeed witnessed an acceleration in demand for its digital products and services amid the pandemic. However, with the easing of lockdown measures and economic reopening, the demand for its products and services could normalize. Further, it faces tough year-over-year comparisons. 

Despite the normalization in demand, I believe the ongoing shift toward the omnichannel payment platform could continue to drive Lightspeed’s revenues and customer base. Besides, its accretive acquisitions, growing scale, and geographic expansion are likely to accelerate its growth and support the uptrend in its stock. Lightspeed stock is also expected to benefit from its growing average revenue per user, innovation, and up-selling initiatives.     

Shopify 

Like Lightspeed, Shopify (TSX:SHOP)(NYSE:SHOP) stock has also witnessed increased selling and has corrected by about 22% in the past 10 days. Notably, during the most recent quarter, Shopify said that it expects the vaccination and reopening of the economy to drive some of the consumer spending back to offline retail and services. Further, Shopify expects the pace of shift toward the e-commerce platform to return to the normal levels in 2021, which accelerated in 2020.

Despite the normalization in the pace of growth, a strong secular shift towards online commerce could continue to bring ample growth opportunities for Shopify, and the recent correction in its stock can be seen as a good buying opportunity. 

Shopify’s initiatives to ramp up its fulfillment network, international expansion and growing adoption of its payment platform are likely to drive strong growth in revenues and GMVs. Moreover, its strong new sales and marketing channels bode well for future growth. I remain upbeat on Shopify’s growth prospects and expect the company to continue to multiply investors’ wealth with each passing year. 

Docebo 

Docebo (TSX:DCBO)(NASDAQ:DCBO) stock is down about 21% in the last 10 days despite sustained momentum in its base business. The enterprise learning platform provider’s key performance metrics remain strong, implying that investors should capitalize on its low stock price and start accumulating its stock at the current levels. 

Docebo’s annual recurring revenue or ARR (a measure of future revenues) continues to grow at a brisk pace. Its ARR is expected to mark 55-57% growth in Q4. Meanwhile, its top line could increase by 48-52% during the same period. The company’s average contract value is growing at a healthy rate and is likely to increase by 22-24% during Q4. 

With the continued expansion of its customer base, geographical expansion, innovation, and opportunistic acquisitions, Docebo could deliver strong returns in 2021 and beyond.

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Manitoba to invest $6.5 million in new systems

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WINNIPEG – The province of Manitoba is investing $6.5 million over three years to replace technical systems used in healthcare facilities, including replacing current voice dictation and transcription services with more modern systems and upgrading the Provincial Health Contact Centre (PHCC)’s triage, call-recording and telephone systems, Health and Seniors Care Minister Heather Stefanson (pictured) announced.

“Our government is investing in the proper maintenance of information and communications technology to ensure digital health information can be safely stored and shared as needed,” said Stefanson. “These systems will ensure healthcare facilities can continue to provide high-quality services and allow Manitobans to get faster access to healthcare resources and information.”

Dictation, transcription and voice-recognition services are used by healthcare providers to write reports. There are currently approximately 80 healthcare sites across Manitoba using some combination of dictation, transcription and voice-recognition services. Many of these systems are nearing the end of their usable lifespans.

“Across our health system, radiologists and nuclear medicine physicians use voice-dictation services to help create diagnostic reports when reading imaging studies like ultrasound, nuclear medicine studies, X-rays, angiography, MRI and CT scans,” said Dr. Marco Essig, provincial specialty lead, diagnostic imaging, Shared Health. “Enhanced dictation and voice-recognition services will enable us to work more efficiently and provide healthcare providers with quicker access to these reports that support the diagnoses and treatment of Manitobans every day.”

The project will replace telephone-based dictation and transcription with voice-recognition functions, upgrade voice-recognition services for diagnostic imaging and enhance voice-recognition tools for mobile devices.

“Investing in more modern voice-transcription services will help our health-care workers do the administrative part of their jobs more quickly and effectively so they can get back to the most important part of their work – providing top-level healthcare and protecting Manitobans,” said Stefanson. “The transition to the new system will be made seamlessly so that services disruptions, which can lead to patient care safety risks, will not occur.”

The new systems will be compatible with other existing systems, will decrease turnaround times to improve patient care and will be standardized across the province to reduce ongoing costs and allow regional facilities to share resources as needed, Stefanson added.

The PHCC is a one-stop shop for incoming and outgoing citizen contact and supports programs such as Health Links–Info Santé, TeleCARE TeleSOINS and After-Hours Physician Access, as well as after-hours support services to public health, medical officers of health, home care and Manitoba Families.

The current vendor that supplies communications support to the PHCC is no longer providing service, making it an opportune time to invest in an upgraded system that will provide better service to Manitobans, the minister said, adding the project will provide the required systems and network infrastructure to continue providing essential services now and for the near future.

“The PHCC makes more than 650,000 customer service calls to Manitobans per year to a broad spectrum of clients with varied health issues. This reduces the need for people to visit a physician, urgent care or emergency departments,” said Stefanson. “The upgrade will also allow Manitobans in many communities to continue accessing the support they need from their home or local health centre, reducing the need for unnecessary travel.”

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Telus and UHN deliver services to the marginalized

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Telus’s Health for Good program has launched the latest of its specially equipped vans to provide medical services to the homeless and underserved, this time to the population of Toronto’s west end. The project relies not only on the hardware and software – the vans and technology – but on the care delivered by trained and socially sensitive medical professionals.

For the Toronto project, those professionals are working at the University Health Network’s Social Medicine program and the Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre. The city’s Parkdale community, in the west end, has a high concentration of homeless and marginalized people.

First launched in 2014, Telus’s Health for Good program has delivered mobile clinics to 13 Canadian cities, from Victoria to Halifax. Originally designed to deliver primary care, the program pivoted to meet the needs of patients in the COVID-19 pandemic, said Nimtaz Kanji, Calgary-based director of Telus Social Purpose Programs.

Angela Robertson of the Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre (CHC) asserted that marginalized people are particularly susceptible to the spread of COVID-19, as they don’t have access to the basic precautions that prevent its spread.

The clinic is located near a Pizza Pizza franchise; homeless people shelter under its overhang on the weekends, she said. Some have encampments under nearby bridges.

“The public health guidelines and requirements call for things that individuals who are homeless don’t have,” Robertson said. “If the response calls for isolation, that suggests people have places to isolate in.”

And in the shelter system, pre-COVID, the environment was very congregate, with many people in the same physical space, said Robertson. Some homeless persons, in order to keep themselves safe, have created encampments, and the city has opened up some hotel rooms across the city to create spaces for physical distancing.

Even proper hand-washing and hygiene becomes a challenge for the homeless.

“COVID calls for individuals to practice constant hand-washing. Oftentimes, individuals who are homeless use public washroom facilities that may be in restaurants or coffee shops, and many of those spaces are now closed. So there are limitations to accessing those facilities. It’s not like they’re in a community where there are public hand-washing facilities for people who are homeless.”

The mobile health clinic allows the CHC to take “pop-up testing” into communities where there is high positivity and where additional COVID testing is needed. The CHC can take testing into congregate sites and congregate housing to provide more testing, Robertson said.

“The other piece that we will use the van to do is, when the vaccine supply gets back online, and when the health system gets to doing community vaccinations … we hope that we can be part of that effort.”

COVID has contributed to a spike in cases of Toronto’s other pandemic: opioid overdoses. Some community members are reluctant to seek care because of the stigma attached to substance abuse; and COVID has a one-two punch for users.

The first rule of substance abuse is, don’t use alone; always be with someone who can respond to a potential overdose, ideally someone who can administer Nalaxone to reverse the effects of the overdose, Robertson said. “It’s substance abuse 101,” and the need for social distancing makes this impossible.

Secondly, COVID has affected the supply chain of street drugs. As a result, they’re being mixed increasingly with “toxic” impurities like Fentanyl that can be deadly.

The van itself is a Mercedes Sprinter, modified by architectural firm éKM architecture et aménagement and builder Zone Technologie, both based in Montréal. According to Car and Driver magazine, the Sprinter line – with 21 cargo models and 10 passenger versions – is “considered by many to be the king of cargo and passenger vans.”

Kanji said the platform was chosen for its reputation for reliability and robustness.

While the configuration is customized for each mobile clinic, it generally consists of two sections: A practitioner’s workstation and a more spacious and private examination room, so patients can receive treatment with privacy and dignity, Kanji said. The Parkdale clinic is 92 square feet.

“While the layouts vary across regions, they typically include an examination table and health practitioners’ workstation, including equipment necessary to provide primary healthcare,” the Telus vice-president of provider solutions wrote in an e-mail interview. The Parkdale Queen West mobile clinic is designed for primary medical services, including wound care, mobile COVID-19 testing and vaccination efforts, harm reduction services, mental healthcare and counseling.

The clinic equipped with an electronic medical record (EMR) from TELUS Health and TELUS LTE Wi-Fi network technology.

Practitioners will be able to collect and store patient data, examine a patient’s results over time, and provide better continuity of care to those marginalized citizens who often would have had undocumented medical histories.

The EMR system is Telus Health’s PS Suite (formerly Practice Solutions). It is an easy-to-use, customizable solution for general and specialty practices that captures, organizes, and displays patient information in a user-friendly way. The solution allows for the electronic management of patient charts and scheduling, receipt of labs and hospital reports directly into the EMR, and personalization of workflows with customizable templates, toolbars, and encounter assistants.

But like others tested for COVID, it’s a 24-48 hour wait for results. Pop-up or not, how does the mobile team get results to patients who have no fixed address?

The CHC set up a centre for testing in a tent at the Waterfront Community Centre. Swabs are sent to the lab. “We are responsible for connecting back with community members and their results,” Robertson said.

“This is the value of having Parkdale Queen West being in front of the testing, because many of the community members who are homeless we know through our other services, and there is some trust in folks either coming to us to make arrangements to collect their results, or we know where they are.”

This is a key element of the program, said Kanji – leveraging community trust. In Vancouver downtown east side, for example, where there is a high concentration of marginalized members of the indigenous community, nurse practitioners are accompanied by native elders in a partnership with the Kilala Lelum Health Centre.

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