“Alexa, Make My ESP8266 Do Something”

The Amazon Echo and its diminutive Dot cousin have the handy feature of being able to control some home automation devices. If you own the right manufacturer’s hardware you can bend your home to your will using the power of your voice alone.

The trouble is, if your hardware isn’t on the list of supported devices or if you make your own, you’re out of luck.

[Xose Pérez] had been sidestepping this problem by using a server running a set of scripts emulating a Belkin WeMo device, which Echo supports. The server could issue commands to his microcontrollers, but he wanted more. Why not cut out the middle man to incorporate the WeMo emulation directly on the ESP8266 that did the work?

He took the Fauxmo Python WeMo emulator he had been using, and ported it to an ESP8266 library that can be incorporated in existing code to make it appear to the world as a WeMo device. With the code itself he has provided full instructions on its BitBucket page as well as on the page linked above.

He admits that he is not the first person to have achieved this aim, and points to this earlier project. However his requirement for a library to be incorporated in another piece of software were not satisfied by it, hence his work.

We like this project, but it’s probably worth reminding readers that Alexa does have an SDK in the form of the Alexa Skills Kit. You can use it to do all sorts of clever things with your Echo or Dot… or you can make it the brains of a Big Mouth Billy Bass novelty ornament.

Alexa Brings Back Singing Fish, This Time It’s A Good Thing

Remember Big Mouth Billy Bass? That’s the singing fish with which you could torture family members by having it endlessly perform a rendition of either “Take Me to the River” or “Don’t Worry Be Happy”.

Now [Brian Kane], a teacher at the Rhode Island School of Design, has connected Amazon’s Alexa to the fish. Speak the “wake word”, “Alexa”, and the fish’s head turns to face you. Then ask it any question you’d normally ask Alexa and Alexa’s voice answers while the fish opens and closes its mouth in time to the words. Want to know the weather? Ask the fish, which you can see [Brian] do in the video below.

[Brian] hasn’t given details on how he’s done it but he’s likely made use of the Alexa Skills Kit, an SDK from Amazon that let’s you use the Alexa voice recognition and speech service with your own hardware (wetware, aquaware?), just as Amazon does with their home assistant, Echo .

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A DIY, Visual Alexa

Talking to computers is all the rage right now. We are accustomed to using voice to communicate with each other, so that makes sense. However, there’s a distinct difference between talking to a human over a phone line and conversing face-to-face. You get a lot of visual cues in person compared to talking over a phone or radio.

Today, most voice-enabled systems are like taking to a computer over the phone. It gets the job done, but you don’t always get the most benefit. To that end, [Youness] decided to marry an OLED display to his Alexa to give visual feedback about the current state of Alexa. It is a work in progress, but you can see two incarnations of the idea in the videos below.

A Raspberry Pi provides the horsepower and the display. A Python program connects to the Alexa Voice Service (AVS) to understand what to do. AVS provides several interfaces for building voice-enabled applications:

  • Speech Recognition/Synthesis – Understand and generate speech.
  • Alerts – Deal with events such as timers or a user utterance.
  • AudioPlayer – Manages audio playback.
  • PlaybackController – Manages playback queue.
  • Speaker – Controls volume control.
  • System – Provides client information to AVS.

We’ve seen AVS used to create an Echo clone (in a retro case, though). We also recently looked at the Google speech API on the Raspberry Pi.

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Amazon Offers $2.5M To Make Alexa Your Friend

Amazon has unveiled the Alexa Prize, a $2.5 Million purse for the first team to turn Alexa, the voice service that powers the Amazon Echo, into a ‘socialbot’ capable of, “conversing coherently and engagingly with humans on popular topics for 20 minutes”.

The Alexa Prize is only open to teams from colleges or universities, with the winning team taking home $500,000 USD, with $1M awarded to the team’s college or university in the form of a research grant. Of course, the Alexa Prize grants Amazon a perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free license to make use of the winning socialbot.

It may be argued the Alexa Prize is a competition to have a chat bot pass a Turning Test. This is a false equivalency; the Turing Test, as originally formulated, requires a human evaluator to judge between two conversation partners, one of which is a human, one of which is a computer. Additionally, the method of communication is text-only, whereas the Alexa Prize will make use of Alexa’s Text to Speech functionality. The Alexa Prize is not a Turing Test, but only because of semantics. If you generalize the phrase, ‘Turing Test’ to mean a test of natural language conversation, the Alexa Prize is a Turing Test.

This is not the first prize offered for a computer program that is able to communicate with a human in real time using natural language. Since 1990, the Loebner Prize, cosponsored by AI god Marvin Minsky, has offered a cash prize of $100,000 (and a gold medal) to the first computer that is indistinguishable from a human in conversation. Since 1991, yearly prizes have been awarded to the computer that is most like a human as part of the competition.

For any team attempting the enormous task of developing a theory of mind and consciousness, here are a few tips: don’t use Twitter as a dataset. Microsoft tried that, and their chatbot predictably turned racist. A better idea would be to copy Hackaday and our article-generating algorithm. Just use Markov chains and raspberry pi your way to arduino this drone.

Seeed Studio’s ReSpeaker Speaks All the Voice Recognition Languages

Seeed Studio recently launched its third Kickstarter campaign: ReSpeaker, an open hardware voice interface. After their previous Kickstarted IoT hardware, such as the RePhone, mostly focused on connectivity, the electronics manufacturer from Shenzhen now tackles another highly contested area of IoT: Voice recognition.

The ReSpeaker Core is a capable development board based on Mediatek’s MT7688 WiFi module and runs OpenWrt. Onboard is a WM8960 stereo audio codec with integrated 1W speaker/headphone driver, a microphone, an ATMega32U4 coprocessor, 12 addressable RGB LEDs and 8 touch sensors. There are also two expansion headers with GPIOs, I2S, I2C, analog audio and USB 2.0 and an onboard microSD card slot.

The latter is especially useful to feed the ReSpeaker’s integrated speech recognition engine PocketSphinx with a vocabulary and audio file library, enabling it to respond to keywords and commands even when it’s not hooked up to the internet. Once it’s online, ReSpeaker also supports most of the available cloud based cognitive speech recognition services, such as Microsoft Cognitive Service, Amazon Alexa Voice Service, Google Speech API, Wit.ai and Houndify. It also comes with an SDK and Python API, supports JavaScript, Lua and C/C++, and it looks like the coprocessor features an Arduino-compatible bootloader.

The expansion header accepts shield-like hardware add-ons. Some of them are also available through the campaign. The most important one is the circular, far-field microphone array. Based on 7 XVSM-2000 respeaker_meow2digital microphones, the extension board enhances the device’s hearing with sound localization, beam forming, reverb and noise suppression. A Grove extension board connects the ReSpeaker to the Seeed’s current lineup on ready-to-use sensors, actuators and other peripherals.

Seeed also cooperates with the Meow King Audio Electronic Company to develop a nice tower-shaped enclosure with built-in speaker, 5W amplifier and battery. As a portable speaker, the Meow King Drive Unit (shown on the right) certainly doesn’t knock your socks off, but it practically turns the ReSpeaker into an open source version of the Amazon Echo — including the ability to run offline instead of piping everything you say to Big Brother.

According to Seeed, the freshly baked hardware will ship to backers in November 2016, and they do have a track-record of on-schedule shipped Kickstarter rewards. At the time of writing, some of the Crazy Early Birds are still available for $39. Enjoy the campaign video below and let us know what you think of think hardware in the comments!