People who were subscribed to updates on the Alexa Connect Kit (ACK) would recently have received an email informing that this kit is now available for sale. Last time we covered the ACK was back in September of 2018, the ‘release’ moniker meant ‘preview’ and there wasn’t any hardware one could actually purchase.
Over a year a later it seems that we can now finally get our grubby mitts on this kit that should enable us to make any of our projects Alexa-enabled. What this basically seems to mean is that one can spend close to 200 US dollars on an Arduino Zero and an Arduino shield-mounted WM-BN-MT-52 module from USI (though not listed on their site, but similar to the WM-BN-BM-22?) that integrates a 192 MHz Cortex-M MCU and a WiFi/Bluetooth module, as summarized on the Amazon Developer page for the ACK.
Getting Started with ACK
The idea behind the kit is that one uses the Arduino IDE to program the Cortex-M0+-based Arduino board with the application firmware. The fully assembled kit will listen on the network for any service discovery broadcast from an Alexa app (on a smartphone or similar), responding to such a broadcast with a summary of its capabilities, following the Smart Home Skill API protocol. This is essentially the application of mDNS with DNS-SD (Service Discovery).
After the Alexa app on one’s smarthome has found all Alexa-enabled devices, you can then use the Alexa voice interface to control those devices, such as turning them on and off, or adjusting parameters like the speed of a PWM-controlled fan. The Amazon Developer site provides an overview of what kind of devices are supported by the Alexa system for reference.
Welcome to the Amazon Walled Garden
For those who already rushed out to get an ACK, they will have run into the unfortunate realization that the ACK is not merely a fun piece of hardware to play around with. By purchasing it, you are literally signing up to become a part of the Amazon ecosystem, starting by registering the Amazon Developer Account. As noted by the intrepid reporters over at The Register last year, part of the cost of the ACK is you paying for the Amazon cloud services that enable the ACK to work, with Amazon’s Alexa servers doing the heavy lifting of interpreting customer utterances for you.
The WiFi/Bluetooth module that one gets with the ACK also seems rather secretive, with no datasheet or detailed information available on the internet at the time of writing. It appears to be limited to 802.11 b/g/n (2.4 GHz single-band) WiFi with no mention of anything newer than Bluetooth 4.1 support, meaning it misses out on the energy-saving features in Bluetooth 5 (and BLE).
So then there is the cool thing on one hand that with a bit of Arduino wrangling and the use of the Alexa Android app (or that Echo in your living room), you can make that smart toaster you have always dreamed of, allowing you to burn toast with a simple voice command. On the other hand it means that you fully rely on Amazon’s Alexa infrastructure and the continued existence of ACK support.
We Have Been Here Before
Those with a few years of Internet-of-Things news under their belt may remember Apple’s Homekit, which from a distance at least looks to be a carbon copy of the Alexa Connect Kit, with Apple-blessed hardware and SDK that people would have to integrate into their product to enable Smart Home goodness. Homekit is now pretty much on life-support.
Apple decided to throw in the proprietary towel last year, instead joining the Thread Group, which was started by Google and ARM, and which focuses on creating a low-power wireless networking protocol, suitable for connecting smart devices within the home. Thread is built around IEEE 802.15.4, which specifies a low-rate wireless personal area network (LR-WPAN). This same standard underlies Zigbee. Networks supporting this standard are low-power and feature data rates of <1 Mb.
The skeptical view then is that WiFi-based home automation like what ACK offers is beating the same dead horse which Apple seemed to have been beating with Homekit, merely with Alexa instead of Siri. The same skeptic is also likely to note that the Thread protocol is not the open and free panacea some may see it as, with one having to be a (paying) member of the Thread Group to be allowed to have any input on its development, and to be allowed to ship Thread-enabled devices. But if you’re still itching to jump on the Alexa-enabled bandwagon and can live with the spectre of Amazon rule, the door is now open.