Alexa, Sudo Read My Resistor! A Challenge for Hackers

Nothing makes us feel more like we’re on Star Trek then saying “Computer, turn on desk light,” and watching the light turn on. Of course, normal people would have left the wake up word as “Alexa,” but we like “Computer” even if it does make it hard to watch Star Trek episodes without the home automation going crazy.

There’s a lot of hype right now about how voice recognition and artificial intelligence (AI) are transforming everything. We’ve even seen a few high-profile types warning that AI is going to come alive and put us in the matrix or something. That gets a lot of press, but we’re not sure we are even close to that, yet. Alexa and Google’s similar offerings are cool, there’s no doubt about it. The speech recognition is pretty good, although far from perfect. But the AI is really far off still.

Today’s devices utilize two rather rudimentary parts to provide an interaction with users. The first is how the devices pattern match language; it isn’t all that sophisticated. The other is the trivial nature of many of the apps, or — as Alexa calls them — skills. There are some good ones to be sure, but for every one useful application of the technology, there’s a dozen that are just text-to-speech of an RSS feed. Looking through the skills available we were amused at how many different offerings convert resistor color codes back and forth to values.

There was a time when building electronics meant learning the resistor color code. With today’s emphasis on surface mount components, though, it is less useful than it used to be. Still, like flossing, you really ought to do it. However, if you have an Amazon Alexa, it can learn the color code for you thanks to [Dennis Mantz].

Don’t have an Alexa? You can still try it in your browser, as we will show you shortly. There are at least eight similar skills out there like this one from [Steve Jernigan] or [Andrew Bergstrom’s] Resistor Reader.

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Sudo Google Assistant

A Raspberry Pi kicking around one’s workbench is a project waiting to happen — if they remain unused long enough to be considered a ‘spare.’ If you find you’ve been pining after an Alexa or your own personal J.A.R.V.I.S., [Novaspirit Tech] might be able to help you out — provided you have a USB mic and speaker handy — with an accessible tutorial for setting up Google Assistant on your Pi.

A quick run-through on enabling a fresh API client on Google’s cloud platform, [Novaspirit] jumps over to the Raspbian console to start updating Python and a few other dependencies. Note: this is being conducted in the latest version of Raspbian, so be sure to update before you get underway with all of your sudos.

Once [Novaspirit] gets that sorted, he sets up an environment to run Google Assistant on the Pi, authenticates the process, and gets it running after offering a couple troubleshooting tips. [Novaspirit] has plans to expand on this further in the near future with some home automation implementation, but this is a great jumping-off point if you’ve been looking for a way to break into some high-tech home deliciousness — or something more stripped-down — for yourself.  Check out the video version of the tutorial after the break if you like watching videos of guys typing away at the command line.

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Say Hello to This Cortana Hologram

Halo’s Cortana enters the real world with this internet appliance. [Jarem Archer] has built an amazing “holographic” home for Cortana of Halo and Windows fame. The display isn’t really a hologram, it uses the age-old Pepper’s ghost illusion. A monitor reflects onto 3 angled half mirrored panels. This creates a convincing 3D effect. Cortana herself is a 3D model. [Jarem’s] wife provided gave Cortana her moves by walking in front of dual Kinect depth-sensing cameras. This motion capture performance drives the 3D Cortana model on the screen.

The brain behind this hack is the standard Windows 10 Cortana voice assistant. Saying “Hey Cortana” wakes the device up. To make the whole experience more interactive, [Jarem] added a face detection camera to the front of the device. When a face is detected, the Cortana model turns toward the user. Even if several people are watching the device, it would seem as if Cortana was “talking to” one person in the audience.

The cherry on top of this hack is the enclosure. [Jarem] 3D printed a black plastic stage. An Arduino drives RGB LEDs whenever Cortana is activated. The LEDs project a blue glue that works well with the Pepper’s ghost illusion. The result is a project that looks like something Microsoft might have cooked up in one of their research labs.

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The Internet Connected Dog Treat Machine

[Eric] and [Shirin] have a dog called [Pickles], who is the kind of animal that if you are a dog lover you will secretly covet. They evidently dote upon [Pickles], but face the problem that they can’t always be at home to express their appreciation of him. But rather than abandon him entirely, they’ve applied technology to the problem. [Eric] has built an Internet-connected dog treat dispenser, through which they can dispense treats, and watch the lucky mutt wolfing them down.

The body of the machine has been made with lasercut acrylic, and the dispenser mechanism is a rotating hopper driven by a stepper motor. The whole thing — in all its transparent glory — is controlled through a Raspberry Pi, which plays a sound clip of [Shirin] calling [Pickles] for his treat, records his dining enjoyment with its camera, and emails the result to his owners. Behind the scenes it hosts an MQTT server, which can be triggered via an iPhone app, Alexa, or the adafruit.io site. Imagine for a moment: “Alexa, feed my dog!”. It has a ring to it.

He makes the point that this machine is not simply limited to dispensing treats, it could be used to engage [Pickles] in more activities. He hints at a future project involving a ball throwing device (have you ever seen such joy from a dog). There’s no substitute for being there with your dog, but maybe with this device they can make their dog’s life a little less of, well, a dog’s life.

You can see the machine in action in the video we’ve posted below the break.

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Control Alexa Echo from anywhere in the World

If you are not within ear-shot of your Alexa Echo, Dot or Tap device and need to command it from anywhere in the world, you’d most likely use the handy mobile app or web interface to control it. For some strange reason, if you’d rather use voice commands from anywhere in the world, you can still do it using apps such as Alexa Listens or Reverb, among many others. We’d be the first ones to call these out and say “It’s not a hack”. But [pat dhens] approach is above reproach! He has posted details on how to Remote Control the Alexa Echo from Anywhere in the World. Short version of the hack — he’s using a Raspberry Pi with a speaker attached to it which commands his Alexa Tap using a text-to-speech converter program.

The long version is short as well. The user uses a VPN, such as OpenVPN, to log in to their home network where the Alexa device is located. Then, use VNC to connect to the Raspberry Pi to access its shell. Finally, the user issues a text command which is converted to speech by the ‘festival‘ program on the Raspberry Pi. The output goes to an external speaker via the Raspberry Pi’s 3.5 mm audio out jack. And that’s all there is to it. You’ve just issued a voice command to your Alexa from across the world.

Maybe it will save your vocal chords from damage due to excessive hollering, we guess. He’s even made a short video to prove that it works. Now all it needs is a microphone to listen to Alexa, convert speech-to-text, and then transmit it back to you across the world to complete the cycle.

We’re not sure, but he thinks this hack will lead him to world domination. Good Luck with that.

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A Little IoT for Your PID Tea Kettle

For some folks, tea is a simple pleasure – boil water, steep tea, enjoy. There are those for whom tea is a sacred ritual, though, and the precise temperature control they demand requires only the finest in water heating technology. And then there are those who take things even further by making a PID-controlled electric tea kettle an IoT device with Amazon Echo integration.

Nothing worth doing isn’t worth overdoing, and [luma] scores points for that. Extra points too for prototyping an early iteration of his design on a RadioShack Electronics Learning Lab – the one with a manual written by Forrest Mims. [luma] started out using an Arduino with a Zigbee shield but realized the resulting circuit would have to live in an external enclosure. Switching to an ESP8266, the whole package – including optoisolators, relays, and a small wall-wart – is small enough to fit inside the kettle’s base. The end result is an MQTT device that publishes its status to his SmartThings home automation system, and now responds when he tells Alexa it’s time for tea.

Projects that hack the means of caffeine are no strangers to Hackaday, whether your preferred vector is tea, coffee, or even straight up.

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Build Your Own P-Brain

I don’t think we’ll call virtual assistants done until we can say, “Make me a sandwich” (without adding “sudo”) and have a sandwich made and delivered to us while sitting in front of our televisions. However, they are not completely without use as they are currently – they can let you know the time, weather and traffic, schedule or remind you of meetings and they can also be used to order things from Amazon. [Pat AI] was interested in building an open source, extensible, virtual assistant, so he built P-Brain.

Think of P-Brain as the base for a more complex virtual assistant. It is designed from the beginning to have more skills added on in order to grow its complexity, the number of things it can do. P-Brain is written in Node.js and using a Node package called Natural, P-Brain parses your request and matches it to a ‘skill.’ At the moment, P-Brain can get the time, date and weather, it can get facts from the internet, find and play music and can flip a virtual coin for you. Currently, P-Brain only runs in Chrome, but [Pat AI] has plans to remove that as a dependency. After the break, [Pat AI] goes into some detail about P-Brain and shows off its capabilities. In an upcoming video, [Pat AI]’s going to go over more details about how to add new skills. Continue reading “Build Your Own P-Brain”