Win Back Some Privacy With A Cone Of Silence For Your Smart Speaker

To quote the greatest philosopher of the 20th century: “The future ain’t what it used to be.” Take personal assistants such as Amazon Echo and Google Home. When first predicted by sci-fi writers, the idea of instant access to the sum total of human knowledge with a few utterances seemed like a no-brainer; who wouldn’t want that? But now that such things are a reality, having something listening to you all the time and potentially reporting everything it hears back to some faceless corporate monolith is unnerving, to say the least.

There’s a fix for that, though, with this cone of silence for your smart speaker. Dubbed “Project Alias” by [BjørnKarmann], the device consists of a Raspberry Pi with a couple of microphones and speakers inside a 3D-printed case. The Pi is programmed to emit white noise from its speakers directly into the microphones of the Echo or Home over which it sits, masking out the sounds in the room while simultaneously listening for a hot-word. It then mutes the white noise, plays a clip of either “Hey Google” or “Alexa” to wake the device up, and then business proceeds as usual. The bonus here is that the hot-word is customizable, so that in addition to winning back a measure of privacy, all the [Alexas] in your life can get their names back too. The video below shows people interacting with devices named [Doris], [Marvin], [Petey], and for some reason, [Milkshake].

We really like this idea, and the fact that no modifications are needed to the smart speaker is pretty slick, as is the fact that with a few simple changes to the code and the print files it can be used with any smart speaker. And some degree of privacy from the AI that we know is always listening through these things is no small comfort either.

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Forcing Amazon Alexa Compatible Stuff to Speak to Google Assistant

It took a long time, but it’s 2019, and we’re starting to get used to the concept of talking to a computer to make it control things around the house. It’s not quite as cool as it seemed when we saw it in films way back when, but that’s just real life. The problem is, there’s a multitude of different systems and standards and they don’t all necessarily work together. In [Blake]’s case, the problem is that Woods brand hardware only works with Amazon Alexa, which simply won’t do.

[Blake] went through the hassle of getting an Amazon Alexa compatible WiFi outlet to work with Google Assistant. It’s a bit of a roundabout way of doing things, but it works. A TP-Link HS-105 WiFi plug is used, which can be controlled through Google Assistant voice commands. The part consists of two PCBs – a control board that speaks WiFi, and a switching board with relays. [Blake] used the control board and hooked it up to a Raspberry Pi. When switched on by a command from Google, the HS-105 sets a pin high, which is detected by the Raspberry Pi. The Raspberry Pi then runs a software implementation of the KAB protocol used by the Woods hardware, triggering it when it receives the signal from the TP-Link hardware.

If we understand correctly, [Blake] had to go to this trouble in order to make his special outdoor-rated outlets work with his Google Home setup. Hopefully interoperability improves in years to come, but we won’t hold our breath.

We’ve seen some pretty convoluted projects in this space before, often using IFTTT — like this ESP8266 voice controlled tank.

Connect Your Electric Heater To The Internet (Easily and Cheaply)!

Winter has arrived, and by now most households should have moved on from incandescent bulbs, so we can’t heat ourselves that way. Avoiding the chill led [edent] to invest in an electric blanket. This isn’t any ordinary electric blanket — no, this is one connected to the Internet, powered by Alexa.

This is a project for [edent] and his wife, which complicates matters slightly due to the need for dual heating zones. Yes, dual-zone electric heating blankets exist (as do two electric blankets and sewing machines), but the real problem was finding a blanket that turned on when it was plugged in. Who would have thought a simple resistive heating element could be so complicated?

For the Internet-facing side of this project, [edent] is using a Meross smart plug and a Sonoff S20 smart plug. These are set up through to work with Alexa and configured as an ‘electric blanket’ group. Simply saying, “Alexa, switch on the electric blanket” turns on the bed.

There are a few problems in need of future improvement. Alexa doesn’t recognize voices, so saying ‘Turn on my side of the bed’ doesn’t work. The blanket also shuts off after an hour, but the plug sockets stay live. There’s also the possibility that hackers could break into this Alexa and burn down the house, but this is a device on the Internet; that sort of stuff virtually never happens.

You can check out the demo of the electric bed below.

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Hackaday Links: November 18, 2018

The greatest bit of consumer electronics is shipping and the reviews are out: Amazon’s Alexa-enabled microwave is a capable microwave, but befuddling to the voice-controlled-everything neophyte. Voice controlled everything is the last hope we have for technological innovation; it’s the last gasp of the consumer electronics industry. This is Amazon’s first thing with a built-in voice assistant, and while this is a marginally capable microwave at only 700 Watts — fine for a college dorm, but it’s generally worth shelling out a bit more cash for a 1000 Watt unit — the controls are befuddling. The first iteration is always hard, and we’re looking forward to the Amazon Alexa-enabled toaster, toothbrush, vacuum cleaner, and Bezos shrine.

Need a laser cutter, like crowdfunding campaigns, and know literally nothing about laser cutters? Have we got something for you. The Etcher Laser crowdfunding campaign has been pinging my email non-stop, and they’ve got something remarkable: a diode laser cutter engraver for $500. It comes in a neat-looking enclosure, so it’s sure to raise a lot of money.

A while back [Paulusjacobus] released an Arduino-based CNC controller for K40 laser cutters. There were a few suggestions to upgrade this to the STM32, so now this CNC controller is running on a Blue Pill. Yes, it’s great and there’s more floating points and such and such, so now this project is a Kickstarter project. Need a CNC controller based on the STM32? Boom, you’re done. It’s also named the ‘Super Gerbil’, which is an awesome name for something that is effectively a GRBL controller. Naming things is the hardest problem in computer science, after all.

The Gigatron computer is a ‘home computer’ without a microprocessor or microcontroller. How does it do this? A metric butt-load of ROM and look-up tables. This is cool and all, but now the Gigatron logo is huge. we’re talking 18 μm by 24 μm. This was done by etching a silicon test wafer with electron beam lithography.

Add Nest Functionality to your Thermostat for $5

The Nest Thermostat revolutionized the way that people control the climate in their homes. It has features more features than even the best programmable thermostats. But, all of the premium features also come at a premium price. On the other hand, for only $5, a little coding, and the realization that thermostats are glorified switches, you can easily have your own thermostat that can do everything a Nest can do.

[Mat’s] solution uses a Sonoff WiFi switch that he ties directly into the thermostat’s control wiring. That’s really the easy part, since most thermostats have a ground or common wire, a signal wire, and a power wire. The real interesting work for this build is in setting up the WiFi interface and doing the backend programming. [Mat’s] thermostat is controlled by software written in Node-RED. It can even interface with Alexa. Thanks to the open source software, it’s easy to add any features you might want.

[Mat] goes through a lot of detail on the project site on how his implementation works, as far as interfacing all of the devices and the timing and some of the coding problems he solved. If you’ve been thinking about a Nest but are turned off by the price, this is a great way to get something similar — provided you’re willing to put in a little extra work. This might also be the perfect point to fall down the home automation rabbit hole, so be careful!

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Hackaday Links: October 14, 2018

Here’s something of interest of 3D printing enthusiasts. How do you print lightweight 3D objects? [Tom Stanton] does a lot of stuff with 3D printing and RC airplanes, so yeah, he’s probably the guy you want to talk to. His solution is Simplify3D, printing two layers for whatever nozzle diameter you have, some skills with Fusion360, and some interesting design features that include integrated ribs.

Moog released their first polyphonic analog synth in 35 years. It’s massive, and it costs eight thousand dollars.

There’s a RISC-V contest, sponsored by Google, Antmicro, and Microchip. The goal is to encourage designers to create innovative FPGA and soft CPU implementations with the RISC-V ISA. There are four categories, the smallest implementation for SpartFusion2 or IGLOO2 boards, and the smallest implementation that fits on an iCE40 UltraPlus board. The two additional categories are the highest performance implementation for these boards. The prize is $6k.

” I heard about polarization filters and now I’m getting a hundred thousand dollars” — some moron. IRL Glasses are glasses that block screens. When you wear them, you can’t watch TV. This is great, as now all advertising is on TVs for some inexplicable reason, and gives these people an excuse to use frames from John Carpenter’s masterpiece They Live in their Kickstarter campaign. Question time: why don’t all polarized sunglasses do this. Because there’s a difference between linear and circular polarized lenses. Question: there have been linear polarized sunglasses sitting in the trash since the release of James Cameron’s Avatar. Why now? No idea.

Alexa is on the ESP32. Espressif released their Alexa SDK that supports conversations, music and audio serivces (Alexa, play Despacito), and alarms. The supported hardware is physically quite large, but it can be extended to other ESP32-based platforms that have SPI RAM.

New Part Day: Put An Alexa In Everything

The last great hope for electronics manufactures is smart home assistants. The Alexas and Siris and OK Googles are taking over homes across the country. At its best, it’s HAL 9000, only slightly less homicidal. It will entertain your children, and you can order cat litter just by saying you want cat litter. This is the future, whether we like it or not.

In an attempt to capture the market, Amazon has released the Alexa Connect Kit. This is an Amazon-Echo-On-a-Chip — a piece of hardware that adds Alexa to microwaves, blenders, and whatever other bit of home electronics you can imagine.

The Alexa Connect Kit is the hardware behind Amazon’s efforts to allow developers easy integration with Alexa. The options for adding Alexa to a product up until now have been using Zigbee to connect an Echo Show or Echo Plus, or simply giving a device the ability to connect to an Echo through Bluetooth. The Alexa Connect Kit, however, is a pure hardware solution that puts Alexa in anything.

Unfortunately you can’t get one yet. Right now, the Alexa Connect Kit is just a preview, and if you want to get your hands on one — or get any specs on this bit of hardware — you’ll need to apply to the developer program. We’ve signed up and will share and juicy details that come our way as part of the program.

According to the Wall Street Journal (try Google referral link if you hit the pay wall), several companies are already working on integrating the Alexa Connect Kit into their existing product lines. Hamilton Beach and Procter & Gamble are both working on something, although the press doesn’t say what kind of device will now be loaded up with a voice assistant. Amazon, however, has a microwave using the technology that the owner can, “command the microwave to do things like defrost a half-pound of chicken, or set it up to automatically reorder a favorite type of popcorn on Amazon”.

Despite the sparse details, this is relatively game-changing when it comes to the world of homebrew electronics. We’ve seen dozens of projects using hacked Raspberry Pis and other microcontrollers to at Alexa to hacked coffee machines, to shoot Nerf darts, and to control a projector. If you can actually get one of these Alexas-on-a-chip, all those projects could be done with one simple piece of hardware.