Friday Hack Chat: Hacking Voice Assistants

The future of consumer electronics is electronic voice assistants, at least that’s what the manufacturers are telling us. Everything from Alexas to Google Homes to Siris are invading our lives, and if predictions hold, your next new car might just have a voice assistant in it. It’s just a good thing we have enough samples of Majel Barrett’s voice for a quality virtual assistant.

For this week’s Hack Chat, we’re going to be talking all about voice interfaces. There are hundreds of Alexa and Google Home hacks around, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. What else can we do with these neat pieces of computer hardware, and how do we get it to do that?

Our guest for this week’s Hack Chat will be Nadine Lessio, a designer and technologist out of Toronto with a background in visual design and DIY peripherals. Nadine holds an MDes from OCADU where she spent her time investigating the Internet of Things through personal assistants. Currently, she’s working at OCADUs Adaptive Context Environments Lab where she’s researching how humans and devices work together.

During this Hack Chat, Nadine will be talking about voice assistants and answering questions like:

  • What languages can be used to program voice assistants
  • How do you use voice and hardware together?
  • What goes into the UX of a voice assistant?
  • How do these assistants interface with microcontrollers, Pis, and other electronics platforms?

You are, of course, encouraged to add your own questions to the discussion. You can do that by leaving a comment on the Hack Chat Event Page and we’ll put that in the queue for the Hack Chat discussion.join-hack-chat

Our Hack Chats are live community events on the Hack Chat group messaging. This week is just like any other, and we’ll be gathering ’round our video terminals at noon, Pacific, on Friday, July 13th.  Need a countdown timer? Yes you do.

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on

You don’t have to wait until Friday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.

Alexa And Particle Modernize Coffee Machine By One Iota

When [Steve Parker]’s girlfriend got a tea kettle that takes voice commands, he suddenly saw his fancy bean-to-cup coffee machine as a technological dinosaur. It may make good coffee, but getting the DeLonghi going is inconvenient, because it runs a self-cleaning cycle each time it’s turned on or off.

Thus began [Steve]’s adventure in trying to turn the thing on with Alexa via Particle Photon. Because of the way the machine is designed, simply adding a relay wouldn’t do—the machine would just turn off and back on, only to start the self-clean again. Once inside, he found it’s controlled by a PIC18LF2520. Further research indicated that it is powered by an off-line switcher that combines a power MOSFET with a power supply controller. [Steve] figured out that the buttons are read via square wave and interpreted by a multiplexer.

The project went into the weeds a bit when [Steve] tried to read the signals with a knock-off Saleae. As soon as he plugged it in, the control board fried because the DeLonghi evidently has no reference to Earth ground. While waiting for a replacement board to arrive, he tried replacing the mux and shift register chips, which actually fixed the board. Then it was more or less a matter of using the DeLonghi’s status LEDs to determine the machine’s state, and then to interface with the Photon and Alexa. Cycle past the break for a ristretto-sized demonstration.

[Steve] didn’t do all this to actually make coffee, just turn the machine on with a voice command. The Photon is totally capable of making coffee, though, as we saw with this closed-loop espresso machine.

Continue reading “Alexa And Particle Modernize Coffee Machine By One Iota”

Alexa, Attack Intruders

If our doom at the hands of our robot overlords is coming, I for one welcome the chance to get a preview of how they might go about it. That’s the idea behind Project Icarus, an Alexa-enabled face-tracking Nerf turret. Designed by [Nick Engmann],  this impressive (or terrifying) project is built around a Nerf Vulcan, a foam dart firing machine gun mounted on a panning turret that is hidden behind a drop-down cabinet door. This is connected to a Pi Zero equipped with a Pi camera. The Zero is running OpenCV and Google Firebase, which connects it with Amazon’s Alexa service.

It works like this: you say “Alexa, open Project Icarus”. Through the Alexa skill that [Nick] created, this connects to the Pi and starts the system. If you then say “Alexa, activate alpha”, it triggers a relay to open the cabinet and the Nerf gun starts panning around, while the camera mounted on the top of it searches for faces. The command “Alexa, activate beta” triggers the Nerf to open fire.

Continue reading “Alexa, Attack Intruders”

Blueprints Make It Easy To Make (Some) Alexa Skills

If you can code, you can create an Alexa skill — the programs that allow an Amazon Echo or similar device interact with you. What if you can’t code or you are just too lazy to do all the setup? Amazon now has Blueprints that can help anyone make a skill. The only problem is the skills you can create are pretty limited. In addition, they are only available to your Alexa devices.

The idea is simple. You start with a template — OK, a blueprint. This is a model application that does something like giving you a compliment or a joke on demand. When you open the blueprint, you’ll see a list of things it can say. You can edit the list, including adding or deleting things. Then you name the new skill. In a few minutes, your skill will be live on your devices.

Continue reading “Blueprints Make It Easy To Make (Some) Alexa Skills”

Water Level Sensors, Alexa in a Fish, and Modular Synths During World Create Day

On Saturday we saw a flood of interesting hacks come to life as more than 100 community organized meetups were held for World Create Day. Thank you to all of the organizers who made these events possible, and for everyone who decided to get together and hack.

Students Learning Hardware Design in Islamabad, Pakistan

The students at LearnOBots took on a slew of great projects during World Create Day like a smart medicine dispenser, electronics that control mains appliances, parking sensors, and a waste bin that encourages you to feed it. The group did a wonderful job of showing off their event by publishing several updates with pictures, stories, and video presentations from all the students. Nice work!

Continue reading “Water Level Sensors, Alexa in a Fish, and Modular Synths During World Create Day”

Cloning the Echo Show With a Fabric Wrapped Pi

After seeing an Echo Show in the flesh plastic, [anonteapot] was inspired to create his own take on Amazon’s latest on-ramp to their ecosystem. He had the Raspberry Pi and a touch screen, but not much else. He doesn’t even have a dedicated work area at home, much less something as exotic as a 3D printer to run off a custom case. For this decidedly low-tech build, all that was required tool-wise was a razor blade knife and a screwdriver.

The majority of the device, which he refers to as the PiShow, is made of hand-cut pieces of MDF. In fact, the whole build relied on his ability to neatly cut pieces of MDF with hand tools on his bedroom floor. We wouldn’t suggest such a setup as a general rule, but respect for pushing ahead without so much as a table to work on.

To connect the pieces of MDF, he used angle brackets from the hardware store. These were originally 90 degrees, but he bent them by hand to achieve the angles seen in the final device. He notes that there was no specific angles he was aiming for when putting the box together; he simply wanted something that looked cool and was large enough internally to hold his electronics.

Covering the PiShow is some jersey material that [anonteapot] bought at a local fabric store. It has a little stretch to it so he was able to pull it tight over the MDF frame and keep the wrinkles out. As a general rule we don’t see many projects here at Hackaday that are wrapped in fabric, but we’ve got to admit, it makes for a nice final look.

The trickiest part of the build ended up being the side panels. While the rest of the frame was relatively simple, the sides needed to precisely conform to some fairly complex geometry. Luckily the side panels aren’t actually holding any weight, so he decided to just cut them out of cardboard. There’s a bit of a gap at the top, but he’s going to try and rectify that with a visit from his glue gun soon.

Internally things are sort of just hanging around inside the case, but since this device is never going to move off of the nightstand, it probably doesn’t need to be terribly secure. In truth, getting all the hardware mounted up cleanly with the construction methods available to [anonteapot] would have been a bit tricky anyway.

This is the first time we’ve seen somebody take a swing at replicating the Echo Show, usually we just see people trying to cram the Echo Dot into something else. If the software side is more your thing, be sure to check out this excellent guide on Alexa Skills development by our very own [Al Williams].

Alexa Controls This Projector Thanks to ESP8266

[jfessard] doesn’t have extra-sensory perception, but does have an ESP8266. The little board seems to pop up in every hack these days. Inspired by not wanting to get up from the bean-bag chair or leave the electronics-housing cabinet wide open to use an HDMI switcher, [jfessard] hacked together an Alexa-compatible projector control via the ESP8266!

The core functionality here is the ability to turn the projector on and off, and to switch the HDMI source. [jfessard] connected the Panasonic PT-AE3000U projector to a Monoprice HDX-401TA 4×1 HDMI switcher. Tucked away in the cabinet below the projector, it is controlled using a IR LED transmitter breakout board sitting at the end of a fairly long set of jumper wire. The projector control itself is through a RS232 interface.

To make this easy to use with Amazon’s Alexa, [jfessard] turned to some libraries for the ESP8266 D1 Mini. The fauxmoesp library makes it look like a WeMo device, and the IRemoteESP8266 library made remote control code cloning a snap. One really frustrating part of this hack was the MAX232-style breakout board; getting a board to work when it’s labelled backwards takes a bit of head-scratching to figure out.

If the the projector ever gets too noisy, we suggest this hack that shushes the machine. For the moment, we’d rather take another look at this laser projector that mimics a cool ‘laser sky’ effect.