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.

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 Hackaday.io 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 Hackaday.io.

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.

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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.

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