‘Tis the season for commercials featuring your favourite smart home speaker showing off what it can do—which means you may have experienced your Google Assistant, Alexa, or Siri responding to questions that come from your TV. And it’s annoying to have to shout, “Hey Google, stop,” or the equivalent phrase for your smart speaker, every time this happens.
Some companies are already working on solutions for this problem. For example, in preparation for last year’s Super Bowl spot featuring celebrities posing as Alexa, Amazon reportedly altered its commercials to prevent the audio from triggering Echos in viewers’ homes.
But this hasn’t stopped smart speakers of all kinds from offering answers to unasked questions. Here’s how to limit the likelihood that your smart speaker accidentally activates when it shouldn’t.
Amazon allows you to change the wake word on your Echo device, though you can’t customise beyond four programmed options: Alexa, Computer, Echo, and Amazon. If you’re trying to prevent commercials activating your device, you’ll want to steer clear of “Alexa”—though you’ll also have to consider which words you hear or use in everyday conversations.
To change the wake word on your Echo device, simply say “Alexa, change the wake word” or open your Alexa app, tap the Devices icon in the lower right corner, select your device, and hit Wake Word. From there, choose your preference.
For Echo devices with screens, you can do this directly on the device in Settings > Device Options > Wake Word.
If you prefer to mute your Echo—while you’re watching commercial-heavy TV, for example—you can turn off your speaker’s microphone. Press the Microphone Off button on your device; the ring and button will turn red, and voice commands using your wake word will be disabled until you turn the microphone back on. (Unlike Google and Apple’s smart speakers, you can’t tell Alexa to turn the microphone off for you.)
Officially, Google Home only responds to “Hey Google” and “OK Google,” so you can’t change your wake word. A 9to5google report last year suggested that Google may add support for custom “hotwords”—though that hasn’t yet made its way to Google Home.
The best option to keep your Google Home from activating unexpectedly is to disable the microphone. Find the microphone button or switch on your device and toggle or press to turn it off. You can also say “OK Google, turn off the microphone.”
Similar to other Apple devices, the HomePod listens for “Hey Siri” and doesn’t have other trigger words. If you want to turn off the always-listening feature, you’ll have to disable “Hey Siri” functionality.
You can simply say “Hey Siri, disable ‘Hey Siri’” to have your assistant do the work for you. Otherwise, take out your iOS device and open your Home app. Press and hold HomePod, and tap Settings. From here, navigate to Siri settings. You can toggle “Listen for ‘Hey Siri’” on or off.
While the HomePod won’t listen for the wake phrase, you can still activate Siri by pressing the top of the speaker—similar to other iOS devices.
Keep in mind: If you disable voice commands on your device, you lose most of its smart functionality until you turn the microphone back on. Your speaker won’t be able to hear or respond to queries, which renders it close to useless.
Of course, not all users experience these particular headaches with all devices. Some smart speakers ignore wake words even when you mean for them to hear, and others selectively activate in response to TV noise, other human voices, and phrases that sound similar to wake words.
Some smart assistant-enabled devices are trained to recognise your voice. For example, my boyfriend’s iPhone won’t respond to my “Hey Siri” shouts. Android phones and tablets with Google Assistant have a similar process for training “OK Google” commands, and Google Home has a Voice Match function that is intended to prevent other voices from accessing some personal information.
In general, though, smart speakers aren’t that discerning — so if you’re worried about yours listening when it shouldn’t or are annoyed at the random babbling in response to commercials, disable the microphone or just unplug the device completely.