The Amazon Dash Button: A Retrospective

The Internet of Things will revolutionize everything! Manufacturing? Dog walking? Coffee bean refilling? Car driving? Food eating? Put a sensor in it! The marketing makes it pretty clear that there’s no part of our lives which isn’t enhanced with The Internet of Things. Why? Because with a simple sensor and a symphony of corporate hand waving about machine learning an iPhone-style revolution is just around the corner! Enter: Amazon Dash, circa 2014.

The first product in the Dash family was actually a barcode scanning wand which was freely given to Amazon Fresh customers and designed to hang in the kitchen or magnet to the fridge. When the Fresh customer ran out of milk they could scan the carton as it was being thrown away to add it to their cart for reorder. I suspect these devices were fairly expensive, and somewhat too complex to be as frequently used as Amazon wanted (thus the extremely limited launch). Amazon’s goal here was to allow potential customers to order with an absolute minimum of friction so they can buy as much as possible. Remember the “Buy now with 1-Click” button?

That original Dash Wand was eventually upgraded to include a push button activated Alexa (barcode scanner and fridge magnet intact) and is generally available. But Amazon had pinned its hopes on a new beau. Mid 2015 Amazon introduced the Dash Replenishment Service along with a product to be it’s exemplar – the Dash Button. The Dash Button was to be the 1-Click button of the physical world. The barcode-scanning Wands require the user to remember the Wand was nearby, find a barcode, scan it, then remember to go to their cart and order the product. Too many steps, too many places to get off Mr. Bezos’ Wild Ride of Commerce. The Dash Buttons were simple! Press the button, get the labeled product shipped to a preconfigured address. Each button was purchased (for $5, with a $5 coupon) with a particular brand affinity, then configured online to purchase a specific product when pressed. In the marketing materials, happy families put them on washing machines to buy Tide, or in a kitchen cabinet to buy paper towels. Pretty clever, it really is a Buy now with 1-Click button for the physical world.

There were two versions of the Dash button. Both have the same user interface and work in fundamentally the same way. They have a single button (the software can recognize a few click patterns), a single RGB LED (‘natch), and a microphone (no, it didn’t listen to you, but we’ll come back to this). They also had a WiFi radio. Version two (silently released in 2016) added Bluetooth and completely changed the electrical innards, though to no user facing effect.

In February 2019, Amazon stopped selling the Dash Buttons. Continue reading “The Amazon Dash Button: A Retrospective”

Building A Smart Speaker From Scratch

Smart speakers have proliferated since their initial launch earlier this decade. The devices combine voice recognition and assistant functionality with a foreboding sense that paying corporations for the privilege of having your conversations eavesdropped upon could come back to bite one day. For this reason, [Yihui] is attempting to build an open-source smart speaker from scratch.

The initial prototype uses a Raspberry Pi 3B and a ReSpeaker microphone array. In order to try and bring costs down, development plans include replacing these components with a custom microphone array PCB and a NanoPi board, then implementing basic touch controls to help interface with the device.

There’s already been great progress, with the build showing off some nifty features. Particularly impressive is the ability to send WiFi settings to the device using sound, along with the implementation of both online and offline speech recognition capabilities. This is useful if your internet goes down but you still want your digital pal to turn out the lights at bed time.

It’s not the first time we’ve seen a privacy-focused virtual assistant, and we hope it’s not the last. Video after the break.

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Chatterbox Voice Assistant Knows To Keep Quiet For Privacy

Cruising through the children’s hands-on activity zone at Maker Faire Bay Area, we see kids building a cardboard enclosure for the Chatterbox smart speaker kit. It would be tempting to dismiss the little smiling box as “just for kids” but doing so would overlook something more interesting: an alternative to data-mining corporations who dominate the smart speaker market. People are rightly concerned about Amazon Echo and Google Home, always-listening devices for online retail sending data back to their corporate data centers. In order to be appropriate for children, Chatterbox is none of those things. It only listens when a button is pressed, and its online model is designed to support the mission of CCFC (Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.)

Getting started with a Chatterbox is much like other products designed to encourage young makers. The hardware — Raspberry Pi, custom HAT, speaker and button inside a cardboard enclosure — is conceptually similar to a Google AIY Voice kit but paired with an entirely different software experience. Instead of signing in to a Google developer account, children create their own voice interaction behavior with a block-based programming environment resembling MIT Scratch. Moving online, Chatterbox interactions draw upon resources of similarly privacy-minded entities like DuckDuckGo web search. Voice interaction foundation is built upon a fork of Mycroft with changes focused on education and child-friendliness. If a Chatterbox is unsure whether a query was for “Moana” or “Marijuana”, it will decide in favor of the Disney movie.

Many of these privacy-conscious pieces are open source or freely available, but Chatterbox pulls them all together into a single package that’s an appealing alternative to the big brand options. Based on conversations during Hackaday’s Maker Faire meetup, there’s a market beyond parents of young children. From technically aware adults who lack web API coding skills, to senior citizens unaware of dark corners of the web. Chatterbox Kickstarter campaign has a few more weeks to run but has already reached funding goals. We look forward to having a privacy-minded option in voice assistants.

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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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.

Teardown Of Sonos And Amazon Smart Speakers Reveals Interesting Engineering Details

Taking things apart is always fun, and this What Cracking Open a Sonos One Tells Us About the Sonos IPO”>excellent writeup of a teardown of a Sonos and Amazon smart speaker by [Ben Einstein] shows what you can learn. [Ben] is a Venture Capitalist and engineer, so much of his write up focuses on what the devices say about how the company spends money. There are plenty of things to learn for hackers, though: he details how the Sonos One uses a PCI daughterboard for wireless communications, while the Amazon Echo has a programmable radio on the main board.

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Voice User Interface Design Practices

Websites used to be uglier than they are now. Sure, you can still find a few disasters, but back in the early days of the Web you’d have found blinking banners, spinning text, music backgrounds, and bizarre navigation themes. Practices evolve, and now there’s much less variation between professionally-designed sites.

In a mirror of the world of hypertext, the same thing is going to happen with voice user interfaces (or VUIs). As products like Google Home and Amazon Echo get more users, developing VUIs will become a big deal. We are also starting to see hacker projects that use VUIs either by leveraging the big guys, using local code on a Raspberry Pi, or even using dedicated speech hardware. So what are the best practices for a VUI? [Frederik Goossens] shares his thoughts on the subject in a recent post.

Truthfully, a lot of the design process [Frederik] suggests mimics conventional user interface design in defining the use case and mapping out the flow. However, there are some unique issues surrounding usable voice interactions.

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