It all started with two sights. One beckoned Scott Harlan, the other taunted him.
The sight that beckoned was a forest. Trees towered and swayed on the other side of a pond at the edge of Harlan's backyard on the fringes of Redmond, Washington. The acres belonged to someone else, so he admired from afar—for 15 years—until the day he decided to go exploring.
"I just got lost in the woods and stumbled and found this," he said recently, standing in a lush grove. "We're 10 miles out of town. Yet here there are these beautiful, moss-covered, rolling hills. It feels like you're walking on marshmallows. Luckily, the property turned out to be for sale, and I was blessed to be able to purchase it and clean it up and give people a place to come to and have a great outdoors experience."
The sight that taunted Harlan glowed inside a treehouse 200 feet behind his home—nice, bright, energy-wasting lights that he had a bad habit of leaving on. He and his wife rent out the treehouse to people searching for a retreat. On evenings when it was vacant, Harlan tended to notice the lights at the coldest, rainiest, and generally most aggravating moments for a person to step outside, navigate stairs, cross an aerial footbridge, unlock a door, and turn off a light switch.
"So I went on Amazon and started searching," Harlan said. "I bought one Alexa-controlled switch that I could plug lights into and control remotely. I went back to the family room and said, 'Alexa, turn off treehouse lights.' And to be able to see those lights dim down, well, that was 150 devices ago. Now everything is connected."
Alexa-enabled devices are connected to the treehouse's ceiling fan, heater, and lights, as well as the jets of the nearby hot tub and a twinkly lightshow guests can enjoy during their soak. And thanks to Harlan's passion for trial and error, Alexa even runs a magnetic release mechanism Harlan devised that sends a picnic basket—carrying breakfast—down a zip line to the treehouse.
"I've seen the breakfast on numerous [social media] feeds from our guests because they're always out there filming it coming over," he said. "It's a highlight of their stay in the treehouse, which is thrilling for me."
Harlan realized he could also use Alexa-enabled technology in an area he renamed the Emerald Forest Theater. Along with the trees and the marshmallow-soft ground, the area is now home to a spacious open-air gathering spot full of nooks, benches, cargo nets, and perches for enjoying what Harlan's website calls a "climb-in movie theater."
For Harlan, the space had some downsides. There were many manual and tedious tasks in walking around, such as turning one switch on, turning another switch off. "By using Alexa devices, I got the ability to turn things on or off remotely without having to actually be there,” Harlan said. “And once I got that bug? Everything—every light switch, every light string—is connected now. That, and the advent of LED lighting that uses so little power, made this work for me."
At first, Harlan used the Alexa app on his phone to control the action. That saved him from walking around and flipping switches, but he didn’t feel as present as he would have liked. "I found when I was over here with guests, I was like a teenager—looking at my phone all the time, it's just not a good experience. So I started dropping Echo Dots in the different areas. And then I could just say, 'Alexa, turn off Emerald Forest.' And it just turns off."
Harlan also utilizes Alexa Routines, which allow users to group Alexa actions together into shortcuts, schedule automatic actions, and more. All the Alexa-enabled automation—and the addition of a half-mile of lighting leading to the Emerald Forest Theater—deliver another boon for Harlan and his guests.
"I can't be here all the time," he said. "So I have it set up almost like a scavenger hunt. I've got Alexa-enabled devices that will turn on trail lights for them, so they can see to get over here. And when they get to the forest, there are Routines set up to guide them to the next thing. It'll tell them where to go, what to experience, what's happening. They can have almost as good of an experience having this forest revealed to them after dark as they would have if I was here, which frees me up incredibly."
Using Alexa Routines, Harlan has even created a light show, which he paints on the pitch-black canvas of the nighttime forest. "It started out with 'Alexa, turn lights on.' And then, with the power the Routines give me, I'd add a command here, have Alexa say something interesting, then turn these lights on, time it … put some music in there—some meaningful music that people just love to hear out here in the forest."
On the day he first experienced his next-door wonderland, Harlan did not know that it would become such a large part of his life.
"I was boring," he said. "I was an accountant. I went to work for a bank for 23 years. Now my main career is as the owner of a finance company, and I spend full time on that. Every other spare minute of my life—now that my kids are grown and out of college—is back here, working.
“I use the word 'working.' It's not working. It is absolute joy and pleasure trying to make something that I'm proud of and something that I would want to experience. Nothing makes my heart warmer than having people come in and experience this in a way that is meaningful to them."