Alexa, Shoot Me Some Chocolate

[Harrison] has been busy finding the sweeter side of quarantine by building a voice-controlled, face-tracking M&M launcher. Not only does this carefully-designed candy launcher have control over the angle, direction, and velocity of its ammunition, it also locates and locks on to targets by itself.

Here comes the science: [Harrison] tricked Alexa into thinking the Raspberry Pi inside the machine is a smart TV named [Chocolate]. He just tells an Echo to increase the volume by however many candy-colored projectiles he wants launched at his face. Simply knowing the secret language isn’t enough, though. Thanks to a little face-based security, you pretty much have to be [Harrison] or his doppelgänger to get any candy.

The Pi takes a picture, looks for faces, and rotates the turret base in that direction using three servos driven by Arduino Nanos. Then the Pi does facial landmark detection to find the target’s mouth hole before calculating the perfect parabola and firing. As [Harrison] notes in the excellent build video below, this machine uses a flywheel driven by a DC motor instead of being spring-loaded. M&Ms travel a short distance from the chute and hit a flexible, spinning disc that flings them like a pitching machine.

We would understand if you didn’t want your face involved in a build with Alexa. It’s okay — you can still have a voice-controlled candy cannon.

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Stay Smarter Than Your Smart Speaker

Smart speakers have always posed a risk to privacy and security — that’s just the price we pay for getting instant answers to life’s urgent and not-so-urgent questions the moment they arise. But it seems that many owners of the 76 million or so smart speakers on the active install list have yet to wake up to the reality that this particular trick of technology requires a microphone that’s always listening. Always. Listening.

With so much of the world’s workforce now working from home due to the global SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, smart speakers have suddenly become a big risk for business, too — especially those where confidential conversations are as common and crucial as coffee.

Imagine the legions of lawyers out there, suddenly thrust from behind their solid-wood doors and forced to set up ramshackle sub rosa sanctuaries in their homes to discuss private matters with their equally out-of-sorts clients. How many of them don’t realize that their smart speaker bristles with invisible thorns, and is even vulnerable to threats outside the house? Given the recent study showing that smart speakers can and do activate accidentally up to 19 times per day, the prevalence of the consumer-constructed surveillance state looms like a huge crisis of confidentiality.

So what are the best practices of confidential work in earshot of these audio-triggered gadgets?

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Smart Speakers “Accidentally” Listen Up To 19 Times A Day

In the spring of 2018, a couple in Portland, OR reported to a local news station that their Amazon Echo had recorded a conversation without their knowledge, and then sent that recording to someone in their contacts list. As it turned out, the commands Alexa followed came were issued by television dialogue. The whole thing took a sitcom-sized string of coincidences to happen, but it happened. Good thing the conversation was only about hardwood floors.

But of course these smart speakers are listening all the time, at least locally. How else are they going to know that someone uttered one of their wake words, or something close enough? It would sure help a lot if we could change the wake word to something like ‘rutabaga’ or ‘supercalifragilistic’, but they probably have ASICs that are made to listen for a few specific words. On the Echo for example, your only choices are “Alexa”, “Amazon”, “Echo”, or “Computer”.

So how often are smart speakers listening when they shouldn’t? A team of researchers at Boston’s Northeastern University are conducting an ongoing study to determine just how bad the problem really is. They’ve set up an experiment to generate unexpected activation triggers and study them inside and out.

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Wearable Cone Of Silence Protects You From Prying Ears

Careful,  the walls have ears. Or more specifically, the smart speaker on the table has ears, as does the phone in your pocket, the fitness band on your wrist, possibly the TV, the fridge, the toaster, and maybe even the toilet. Oh, and your car is listening to you too. Probably.

How does one fight this profusion of listening devices? Perhaps this wearable smart device audio jammer will do the trick. The idea is that the MEMS microphones that surround us are all vulnerable to jamming by ultrasonic waves, due to the fact that they have a non-linear response to ultrasonic signals. The upshot of that is when a MEMS hears ultrasound, it creates a broadband signal in the audible part of the spectrum. That creates a staticky noise that effectively drowns out any other sounds the microphone might be picking up.

By why a wearable? Granted, [Yuxin Chin] and colleagues from the University of Chicago have perhaps stretched the definition of that term a tad with their prototype, but it turns out that moving the jammer around does a better job of blocking sounds than a static jammer does. The bracelet jammer is studded with ultrasonic transducers that emit overlapping fields and result in zones of constructive and destructive interference; the wearer’s movements vary the location of the dead spots that result, improving jamming efficacy. Their paper (PDF link) goes into deeper detail, and a GitHub repository has everything you need to roll your own.

We saw something a bit like this before, but that build used white noise for masking, and was affixed to the smart speaker. We’re intrigued by a wearable, especially since they’ve shown it to be effective under clothing. And the effect of ultrasound on MEMS microphones is really interesting.

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2019: As The Hardware World Turns

Well, this is it. The end of the decade. In a few days the 2010s will be behind us, and a lot of very smug people will start making jokes on social media about how we’re back in the “Roaring 20s” again. Only this time around there’s a lot more plastic, and drastically less bathtub gin. It’s still unclear as to how much jazz will be involved.

Around this time we always say the same thing, but once again it bears repeating: it’s been a fantastic year for Hackaday. Of course, we had our usual honor of featuring literally thousands of incredible creations from the hacking and making community. But beyond that, we also bore witness to some fascinating tech trends, moments that could legitimately be called historic, and a fair number of blunders which won’t soon be forgotten. In fact, this year we’ve covered a wider breadth of topics than ever before, and judging by the record setting numbers we’ve seen in response, it seems you’ve been just as excited to read it as we were to write it.

To close out the year, let’s take a look at a few of the most popular and interesting stories of 2019. It’s been a wild ride, and we can’t wait to do it all over again in 2020.

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Programming Arduinos With Voice Commands

Programming is a valuable skill, though one that can be daunting to learn. Throw hardware in the mix, and things ratchet up another level again. However, there are many projects that have sought to reduce the level of difficulty for newcomers. HeyTeddy is a new project that allows users to program an Arduino with voice commands, and the help of on-screen tutorials.

It’s a system that initially sounds cumbersome, but through smart design, is actually quite streamlined. Users can talk to the system, which uses an Amazon Alexa device for natural language voice recognition. This enables HeyTeddy to respond to questions like “how do I use a flex sensor?” as well as direct commands, such as “Set pin 10 to 250”.

The demo video does a great job of demonstrating the system. While the system is not suited to professional development tasks, its has value as an educational tool for beginners. The system is able to guide users through both hardware setup on a breadboard, as well as guide them through tests when things don’t work. Once their experience level builds, code can be exported to the Arduino IDE for direct editing.

It’s a great tool that has plenty of promise to bring many more users into the hardware hacking fold. It’s out of the workshop of [MAKInteract], whose work we’ve seen before. Video after the break.

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Hackaday Links: December 8, 2019

Now that November of 2019 has passed, it’s a shame that some of the predictions made in Blade Runner for this future haven’t yet come true. Oh sure, 109 million people living in Los Angeles would be fun and all, but until we get our flying cars, we’ll just have to console ourselves with the ability to “Enhance!” photographs. While the new service, AI Image Enlarger, can’t tease out three-dimensional information, the app is intended to sharpen enlargements of low-resolution images, improving the focus and bringing up details in the darker parts of the image. The marketing material claims that the app uses machine learning, and is looking for volunteers to upload high-resolution images to improve its training set.

We’ve been on a bit of a nano-satellite bender around here lately, with last week’s Hack Chat discussing simulators for CubeSats, and next week’s focusing on open-source thrusters for PocketQube satellites. So we appreciated the timing of a video announcing the launch of the first public LoRa relay satellite. The PocketCube-format satellite, dubbed FossaSat-1, went for a ride to space along with six other small payloads on a Rocket Lab Electron rocket launched from New Zealand. Andreas Spiess has a short video preview of the FossaSat-1 mission, which was designed to test the capabilities of a space-based IoT link that almost anyone can access with cheap and readily available parts; a ground station should only cost a couple of bucks, but you will need an amateur radio license to uplink.

We know GitHub has become the de facto standard for source control and has morphed into a collaboration and project management platform used by everybody who’s anybody in the hacking community. But have you ever wished for a collaboration platform that was a little more in tune with the needs of hardware designers? Then InventHub might be of interest to you. Currently in a limited beta – we tried to sign up for the early access program but seem to have been put on a waiting list – it seems like this will be a platform that brings versioning directly to the ECAD package of your choice. Through plugins to KiCad, Eagle, and all the major ECAD players you’ll be able to collaborate with other designers and see their changes marked up on the schematic — sort of a visual diff. It seems interesting, and we’ll be keeping an eye on developments.

Amazon is now offering a stripped-down version of their Echo smart speaker called Input, which teams up with speakers that you already own to satisfy all your privacy invasion needs on the super cheap — only $10. At that price, it’s hard to resist buying one just to pop it open, which is what Brian Dorey did with his. The teardown is pretty standard, and the innards are pretty much what you’d expect from a modern piece of surveillance apparatus, but the neat trick here involved the flash memory chip on the main board. Brian accidentally overheated it while trying to free up the metal shield over it, and the BGA chip came loose. So naturally, he looked up the pinout and soldered it to a micro-SD card adapter with fine magnet wire. He was able to slip it into a USB SD card reader and see the whole file system for the Input. It was a nice hack, and a good teardown.