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.
As hackers, we like to think of ourselves as a logical bunch. But the truth is, we are as subject to fads as the general public. There was a time when the cool projects swapped green LEDs out for blue ones or added WiFi connectivity where nobody else had it. Now all the rage is to connect your project to a personal assistant. The problem is, this requires software. Software that lives on a publicly accessible network somewhere, and who wants to deal with that when you’re just playing with custom Alexa skills for the first time?
If you have a computer that faces the Internet, that’s fine. If you don’t, you can borrow one of Amazon’s, but then you need to understand their infrastructure which is a job all by itself. However, there is a very simple way to jump start an Alexa skill. I got one up and running in virtually no time using a website called Glitch. Glitch is a little bit of everything. It is a web hosting service, a programming IDE for Node.js, a code repository, and a few other things. The site is from the company that brought us Trello and helped to start Stack Overflow.
Glitch isn’t about making Alexa skills. It is about creating web applications and services easily. However, that’s about 90% of the work involved in making an Alexa skill. You’ll need an account on Glitch and an Amazon developer’s account. Both are free, at least for what we want to accomplish. Glitch has some templates for Google Home, as well. I have both but decided to focus on Alexa, for no particular reason.
It takes a surprising amount of planning and work if you want something to look old. [vemeT5ak] wanted the Echo Dot sitting on his desk to fit a different aesthetic motivated by a 1940s Canadian radio. Armed with Solidworks, a Tormach CNC, and some woodworking tools at Sector67 hackerspace, he built a retro-futuristic case for the Amazon Alexa-enabled gadget. Future and past meet thanks to the design and material appearance of the metal grille and base molding wrapping the wood radio case. The finishing touch is of course the ring of blue light which still shines through from the Echo itself.
It took about 15 hours of modeling, scaling, and tweaking in Solidworks with an interesting design specification in mind: single-bit operation. This single-bit is not in the electrical sense, but refers to the CNC milling operation. All pieces are cut with a 1/4″ end mill, without any tool changes. Metal pieces were milled from 6061 aluminum and the hickory case (with burgundy stain) was mostly cut on a table saw, but the holes were CNC machined.
What looks like an otherwise perfect build has a single flaw that eats up [vemeT5ak]’s soul; the Echo Dot has a draft angle that wasn’t considered during modeling, and the hole is ever so slightly too wide, meaning it didn’t press fit perfectly flush. Fortunately it’s not noticeable behind the metal grill, and unless you knew (please help keep his dirty little secret), you would think everything turned out perfectly.
It turns out building a case for the Echo Dot is challenging for a few reasons; the rubbery material on the bottom doesn’t allow anything to stick to it, and the sides are smooth and featureless with a taper that makes it difficult to lock it in. Many cases resort to clipping over the top to hold it in place. Others install it into a fish or a furby.
The phrase “They don’t make them like they used to” is perhaps best exemplified by two types of products: cars and consumer electronics. Sure, the vehicles and gadgets we have now are so advanced that they may as well be classified as science-fiction when compared to their predecessors, but what about that style. Our modern hardware can rarely hold a candle to the kind of gear you used to be able to buy out of the “Sears, Roebuck and Company” catalog.
So when [Democracity] came into possession of a wickedly retro art deco speaker, it’s no surprise he saw it as a perfect opportunity to bring some of that old school style into the 21st century by rebuilding it with an Amazon Echo Dot at its core. The fact that the original device was a speaker and not a full radio made the conversion much easier, and will have everyone trolling yard sales for months trying to find a donor speaker to build their own.
To start the process, [Democracity] popped the panels off and ripped out what was left of the speaker’s paper cone and coil. In a stroke of luck, the opening where the driver used to go was nearly the perfect size to nestle in the Echo Dot. With a 3D printed cradle he found on Thingiverse and a liberal application of epoxy, the Dot could get snapped into the speaker like it was always meant to be there.
[Democracity] then picked up some absolutely gorgeous speaker cloth on eBay and hot glued it to the inside of the panels. What was presumably the volume knob was pulled out of the bottom and turned out to be a perfect place to run the Dot’s USB cable out of.
A lesser man would have called this project completed, but [Democracity] knows that no hack is truly complete without the addition of multicolored blinking LEDs. With the RGB LED strips installed inside, the light is diffused through the cloth panels and creates a pleasing subtle effect. You can almost imagine a couple of vacuum tubes glowing away inside there. Judging by the final product, it’s no surprise [Democracity] has a fair bit of experience dragging audio equipment kicking and screaming into the modern era.
The work hinges on a previous discovery and reverse engineering (PDF) of Amazon’s debug connector on the base of the Echo, which exposes both an SD card interface and a serial terminal. Following that work, they were able to gain root access to the device, analyze the structure of the audio buffers and how the different Echo processes use them, and run Amazon’s own “shmbuf_tool” application to pipe raw audio data to a network stream. Astoundingly this could be done without compromising the normal operation of the device.
It should be stressed, that this is an exploit that requires physical access to the device and a bit of knowledge to perform. But it’s not inconceivable that it could be made into a near-automated process requiring only a device with a set of pogo pins to be mated with an Echo that has had its cover quickly removed.
That said, inevitably there will be enough unused Echos floating around before too long that their rootability will make them useful to people in our community. We look forward to what interesting projects people come up with using rooted Echos.
Back in May, Amazon announced the Echo Show, its new version of Alexa with a 7 inch touchscreen. The Echo Show is an interesting device, but will the great unwashed masses pony up $229 to buy the show? That’s $50 more than the original Echo, or $180 more than the Echo Dot. With 5.2 million units sold in 2016, Echo has been a resounding success. This has been in part due to Amazon’s open approach to the API. Anyone can build an Alexa compatible device using a Raspberry Pi. Google has (finally) followed suit with their Home device.
It’s not just the hardware that is accessible. Skills Kit, the programmer interface for extending Echo’s functionality, is also open. At CES this year, Alexa was the belle of the ball. Third party devices are being introduced from all corners, all of them connecting to Amazon’s cloud and responding to the “Alexa” keyword.
The Echo Show takes the family in a new direction. Adding a touch screen gives the user a window on the the world not available with voice interactions. Echo Show also includes a camera, which opens up a whole new set of privacy and security questions. Amazon touts it as a device for viewing security cameras, watching YouTube videos, and making video calls. This puts Echo Show dangerously close to the internet appliance category, essentially a barren wasteland littered with the corpses of previous devices. Does anyone remember when Palm tried this with the 3Com Ergo Audrey? How about the i-Opener? Will Alexa persevere and succeed where others have failed? A lot of it will depend on the third party developers, and how Amazon treats them.
Nothing makes us feel more like we’re on Star Trek then saying “Computer, turn on desk light,” and watching the light turn on. Of course, normal people would have left the wake up word as “Alexa,” but we like “Computer” even if it does make it hard to watch Star Trek episodes without the home automation going crazy.
There’s a lot of hype right now about how voice recognition and artificial intelligence (AI) are transforming everything. We’ve even seen a few high-profile types warning that AI is going to come alive and put us in the matrix or something. That gets a lot of press, but we’re not sure we are even close to that, yet. Alexa and Google’s similar offerings are cool, there’s no doubt about it. The speech recognition is pretty good, although far from perfect. But the AI is really far off still.
Today’s devices utilize two rather rudimentary parts to provide an interaction with users. The first is how the devices pattern match language; it isn’t all that sophisticated. The other is the trivial nature of many of the apps, or — as Alexa calls them — skills. There are some good ones to be sure, but for every one useful application of the technology, there’s a dozen that are just text-to-speech of an RSS feed. Looking through the skills available we were amused at how many different offerings convert resistor color codes back and forth to values.
There was a time when building electronics meant learning the resistor color code. With today’s emphasis on surface mount components, though, it is less useful than it used to be. Still, like flossing, you really ought to do it. However, if you have an Amazon Alexa, it can learn the color code for you thanks to [Dennis Mantz].
Don’t have an Alexa? You can still try it in your browser, as we will show you shortly. There are at least eight similar skills out there like this one from [Steve Jernigan] or [Andrew Bergstrom’s] Resistor Reader.