Retrofitting a Vintage Intercom to Run Amazon Alexa

The Amazon Echo is a pretty cool piece of tech: it lets you ask questions, queue up music, find out the weather, and more, without having to do anything but talk. But, the device itself is a bit pricey, and looks a little boring. What if you could have all the features of the Echo, but in a cool retro case and at a cheaper price?

Well, you can, and that’s exactly what [nick.r.brewer] did, using a ’50s intercom and a Raspberry Pi. He picked the vintage intercom up at an antique store for $20, and the Raspberry Pi Zero is less than $10. So, for about $30 (and some parts most of us have lying around) he was able to build a cool looking device with all of the capabilities of the Amazon Echo.

The hardware portion of the build was pretty straightforward, with the Raspberry Pi, a sound card, WiFi dongle, USB hub, and microphone all fitting nicely inside the case of the intercom. The software side of things is a little more tricky, but with a device like this it runs well with Amazon’s Alexa SDK. Of course, if you want to add more hardware features, that’s possible too.

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Tape Loop Echo Made With an Actual Tape Loop

A lot of digital processes are named after an old analog device that they’ve since replaced. It’s not uncommon to “tape” a show nowadays, for example, even though the recording work is actually done by a digital video recorder. Sometimes, though, the old analog devices have a certain je ne sais quoi that is desirable even in today’s digital world. This is certainly the case with [Dima]’s tape loop echo which is actually made with a physical tape loop.

The process of building the tape loop hardware is surprisingly non-technical. By positioning a recording head and a playback head right next to one another, a delay is introduced. An echo is created by mixing the original live sound signal with this delayed signal coming from the tape By varying the speed of the tape or altering several other variables, many different-sounding effects can be achieved.

Although in practice it’s not as simple as it sounds (the device required a lot of trial-and-error), the resulting effect is one that Pink Floyd or Beck would surely be proud of. Analog isn’t the only way to go though, there are plenty of digital effects that are easily created, and some with interesting mounting options as well.

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Control Nest Devices with Amazon Echo

[ZPriddy] was looking for a way to control his Nest thermostats with Amazon Echo. He didn’t want to settle for using AWS or some other hosted service. [ZPriddy] wanted something that he could host and manage completely on his own. The end result is what he calls EchoNestPy.

[ZPriddy] started by learning how to use the Alexa Skills Kit (ASK). ASK is the official SDK that allows enthusiasts to add functionality to their Amazon Echo. Unfortunately for [ZPriddy], most of the example code he found was designed to be used on Amazon Lambda, but that didn’t stop him. After finding a few examples of Amazon Echo requests and responses, he was on his way.

[ZPriddy] chose to implement a simple web server using Flask. The web server listens for the Amazon requests and responds appropriately. It also Oauth2 authentication to ensure some level of security. The server is capable of synchronizing the temperature of multiple Nest devices in the same home, but it can also increment or increment the temperature across the board. This is accomplished with some simple voice commands such as “Tell Nest that I’m a little bit chilly”. If you like Amazon Echo hacks, be sure to check out this other one for controlling WeMo devices. Continue reading “Control Nest Devices with Amazon Echo”

Microcassette Recorders Become A Tape Delay

Long before audio engineers had fancy digital delays, or even crappy analog delays, there were tape delays. Running a tape around in a loop with a record and play head is the basis of the Echoplex and Space Echo, and both of these machines are incredible pieces of engineering.

Microcassette recorders are not, in general, incredible pieces of engineering. They do, however, have a strip of magnetic tape, a record head, and a play head. Put two of them together, and you can build your own tape delay.

The basic principle of a tape delay is simple enough – just run a loop of tape round in a circle, through a record and playback head, record some audio, and send the output to an amplifier. In practice, it’s not that simple. [dogenigt] had to manufacture his own tape loop from microcassettes, a process that took far too long and was far too finicky.

For a control circuit, [dogenigt] is using four audio pots and one linear pot for speed control. The audio pots are responsible for input gain, feedback, the amplitude of the clean signal, and the output of the signal after it’s been run through the delay.

Apart from being one of those builds that’s very dependent on the mechanical skill of the builder, it’s a pretty simple delay unit, with all the electronics already designed for a stripboard layout. You can hear an example of what it sounds like below.

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Home Automation With The Amazon Echo

The Amazon Echo is the answer to Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, and [Orwell]’s Telescreen – a device that sits in your home, listens to everything you say, and will gladly oblige if you want to buy something on Amazon. Brilliant. Despite being a pretty cheap device, there’s not really a whole lot it can do; sure, Echo, or more accurately Alexa, the personality in the Echo, can tell you the weather, queue up a playlist, or read a Wikipedia entry, but there’s a definite lack of imagination when it comes to the Echo.

Now, thanks to some clever API hacks, you can do far more with the Echo. [Noel] is using the Echo to turn lights in his house on and off, ring his home phone, and basically everything else you can do with some wire and a bit of code.

[Noel] got his idea from [Owen Piette] who recently investigated the Echo API. It’s all unpublished by Amazon, but it is possible to poll the todo list for random key phrases. By polling this API and getting new results, it’s pretty easy to set up some logic to do arbitrary actions.

Right now [Noel] can turn a light on and off and call his phone, but the sky really is the limit here. If you have a web-enabled thermostat, Alexa can turn the heat on or off. Want to text yourself something? That’s easy too. Anything that can be put in a todo list can be done with the Echo, the only obstacle is doing all the programming and electronics.

Echo, the First Useful Home Computer Intelligence?

We’re familiar with features like Siri or Microsoft’s Cortana which grope at a familiar concept from science fiction, yet leave us doing silly things like standing in public yowling at our phones. Amazon took a new approach to the idea of an artificial steward by cutting the AI free from our peripherals and making it an independent unit that acts in the household like any other appliance. Instead of steering your starship however, it can integrate with your devices via bluetooth to aide in tasks like writing shopping lists, or simply help you remember how many quarts are in a liter. Whatever you ask for, Echo will oblige.

Screen Shot 2014-11-06 at 2.57.14 PMThe device is little more than the internet and a speaker stuffed into a minimal black cylinder the size of a vase, oh- and six far-field microphones aimed in each direction which listen to every word you say… always. As you’d expect, Echo only processes what you say after you call it to attention by speaking its given name. If you happen to be too far away for the directional microphones to hear, you can alternatively seek assistance from the Echo app on another device. Not bad for the freakishly low price Amazons asking, which is $100 for Prime subscribers. Even if you’re salivating over the idea of this chatting obelisk, or intrigued enough to buy one just to check it out (and pop its little seams), they’re only available to purchase through invite at the moment… the likes of which are said to go out in a few weeks.

The notion of the internet at large acting as an invisible ever-present swiss-army-knife of knowledge for the home is admittedly pretty sweet. It pulls on our wishful heartstrings for futuristic technology. The success of Echo as a first of its kind however relies on how seamlessly (and quickly) the artificial intelligence within it performs. If it can hold up, or prove to hold up in further iterations, it’s exciting to think what larger systems the technology could be integrated with in the near future… We might have our command center consciousness sooner than we thought.

With that said, inviting a little WiFi probe into your intimate living space to listen in on everything you do will take some getting over… your thoughts?

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Making a digital delay from a simple microcontroller

If you’d like to start experimenting in DSP, or just want to build a guitar pedal, here’s the project for you. It’s an audio echo using just a microcontroller from the fruitful workshop of [Vinod].

For his circuit, [Vinod] fed the output of a small electret microphone into a small amplifier, and then into the ADC of an ATMega32. Inside the microcontroller, [Vinod] set up a circular array which writes the voltage from the microphone and sends it out to a speaker. Because the array is circular (i.e. it loops around when it gets to the end), [Vinod] has a digital version of a loop of magnetic tape, perfect for recording sounds and playing back echos.

Because [Vinod] is using an ATMega32, he only has a limited amount of RAM to record audio samples. The delay time could be lengthened with a more capable microcontroller, or even the addition of a large RAM chip. With his setup, [Vinod] can do some really interesting experiments with audio and DSP, so we wouldn’t be surprised if an enterprising musician used this project as the basis for a digital delay stomp box.

You can check out [Vinod]’s demo of his echo machine after the break.

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