The Future Looks Bleak For Alexa Skill Development

While the average Hackaday reader is arguably less likely than most to install a megacorp’s listening device in their home, we know there’s at least some of you out there that have an Amazon hockey puck or two sitting on a shelf. The fact is, they offer some compelling possibilities for DIY automation, even if you do have to jump through a few uncomfortable hoops to bend them to your will.

That being said, we’re willing to bet very few readers have bothered installing more than a few Alexa Skills. But that’s not a judgment based on any kind of nerd stereotype — it’s just that¬†nobody seems to care about them. A fact that’s evidenced by the recent revelation that even Amazon looks to be losing interest in the program. In a post on LinkedIn, Skill developer [Mark Tucker] shared an email he received from the mothership explaining they were ending the AWS Promotional Credits for Alexa (APCA) program on June 30th.

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Amazon’s ‘Just Walk Out’ Shopping Is Out, Moves To Dash Carts At Its Grocery Stores

After a few years of Amazon promoting a grocery shopping experience without checkout lines and frustrating self-checkout experiences, it is now ditching its Just Walk Out technology. Conceptualized as a store where you can walk in, grab the items you need and walk out with said items automatically charged to your registered payment method, it never really caught much traction. More recently it was revealed that the technology wasn’t even as automated as portrayed, with human workers handling much of the tedium behind the scenes. This despite claims made by Amazon that it was all powered by deep machine learning and generative AI.

An Amazon Dash Cart's user interface, with scanner and display. (Credit: Amazon)
An Amazon Dash Cart’s user interface, with scanner and display. (Credit: Amazon)

Instead of plastering the ceilings of stores full with cameras, it seems that Amazon instead wishes to focus on smart shopping carts that can keep track of what has been put inside them. These so-called Dash Carts are equipped with cameras and other sensors to scan barcodes on items, as well as weigh unlabeled items (like fruit), making them into somewhat of a merging of scales at the vegetable and fruit section of stores today, and the scanning tools offered at some grocery stores to help with self-checkout.

As the main problem with the Just Walk Out technology was that it required constant (700 out of 1,000 sales in 2022) human interaction, it will be interesting to see whether the return to a more traditional self-service and self-checkout model (albeit with special Dash Lanes) may speed things along. Even so, as Gizmodo notes, Amazon will still keep the Just Walk Out technology running across locations in the UK and elsewhere. Either this means the tech isn’t fully dead yet, or we will see a revival at some point in time.

Building A Robot Bartender For Amazon

[Audax] built an unassuming side table with a party trick. It could retract a glass inside and fill it up with bourbon. The nifty device gained plenty of positive attention online, leading to a commission from Amazon to build a new version. Thus, [Audax] set about a redesign to create an even more impressive drink delivery system. (Video, embedded below.)

The story is very much one of refinement and optimization, focusing on the challenges of building a customer-facing device. With just six weeks to create the new rig, [Audax] had to figure out how to make the machine sleeker and more compact for its debut at a special event. To achieve this, he eschewed the original frame design made of aluminium extrusion, going for a 3D-printed design instead. The wire nest of the original version was then subsequently eliminated by an outsourced PCB design. Other new features included a mobile app for control and an easier way to adjust pour size, for bigger or smaller drinks as desired. For ease of use, activation is via an Amazon Alexa Skill.

As is so often the way, a last minute hurdle came up, prompting [Audax] to fly to Seattle to troubleshoot the rig on site. Nevertheless, the automatic drink server came good in the end, and delivered on its promise. Video after the break.

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How Warehouse Robots Actually Work, As Explained By Amazon

Amazon has been using robots to manage and automate their warehouses for years. Here’s a short feature on their current robot, Hercules. This is absolutely Amazon tooting their own horn, but if you have been curious about what exactly such robots do, and how exactly they help a busy warehouse work better, it’s a good summary with some technical details.

Amazon claims to have over 750,000 robots across their network.

The main idea is that goods are stored on four-sided shelves called pods. Hercules can scoot underneath to lift and move these pods a little like a robotic forklift, except much smaller and more nimble. Interestingly, the robots avoid rotating shelves as much as possible and are designed to facilitate this. To change direction, Hercules sets the pod down, turns, then picks the pod back up.

The overall system is centralized, but Hercules itself navigates autonomously thanks to a depth-sensing camera and a grid of navigation markers present on the floor throughout the facility.  Hercules also can wirelessly sense and communicate with nearby human-worn vests and other robots outside its line of sight.

Essentially, instead of human workers walking up and down aisles of shelves to pick products, the product shelves come to the humans. This means the organization and layout of the shelves themselves can be dynamic, higher density, and optimized for efficient robotic access. Shelves do not need to be in fixed rows or aisles, conform to a human-readable categorical layout, nor do they necessarily need walking space between them.

Sometimes robots really are the right tool for the job, and our favorite product-retrieval robot remains [Cliff Stoll]’s crawlspace warehouse bot, a diminutive device made to access boxes of product — in [Cliff]’s case, Klein bottles — stored in an otherwise quite claustrophobic crawlspace.

2600 Breaks Free From DRM With PDF/EPUB Subscription

Hackaday has been online in some form or another since 2004, which for the Internet, makes us pretty damn old. But while that makes us one of the oldest surviving web resources for hacker types, we’ve got nothing on 2600 — they’ve been publishing their quarterly zine since 1984.

Summer 2023 Issue of 2600

While the physical magazine can still be found on store shelves, the iconic publication expanded into digital distribution some time ago, thanks largely to the Kindle’s Newsstand service. Unfortunately, that meant Amazon’s recent decision to shutter Newsstand threatened to deprive 2600 of a sizable chunk of their income. So what would any group of hackers do? They took matters into their own hands and spun-up their own digital distribution system.

As of today you’re able to subscribe to the digital version of 2600 in DRM-free PDF or EPUB formats, directly from the magazine’s official website. Which one you pick largely depends on how you want to read it: those looking for the highest fidelity experience should go with PDF, as it features an identical layout to the physical magazine, while those who are more concerned with how the content looks on their reader of choice would perhaps be better served by the flexibility of EPUB. After signing up you can download the current Summer issue immediately, with future issues hitting your inbox automatically. Load it onto your home-built Open Book, and you can really stick it to the establishment.

While the ending of this story seems to be a happy one, we can’t help but see it as a cautionary tale. How many other magazines would have the means and experience to offer up their own digital subscriptions? Or for that matter, how many could boast readers savvy enough to utilize it? The reality is many publications will be injured by Amazon’s decision, some mortally so. That’s a lot of power to be put into the hands of just one company, no matter how quick the shipping is.

A More Conspicuous Computer Assistant

Back in the last century, especially in the ’40s to the ’60s, one of the major home decor trends was to install various home appliances, like the television or stereo, into its own piece of furniture. These were usually bulky, awkward, and incredibly heavy. And, since real life inspires art, most of the futuristic sci-fi technology we saw in movies and TV of the time was similarly conspicuous and physical. Not so with modern technology, though, where the trend now is to hide it out of the way and forget it exists. But [dermbrian] wanted some of his modern technology to have some of the mid-century visibility aesthetic so he made some modifications to his Amazon Echo.

The Echo itself remains largely unmodified, other than placing it inside a much larger cookie tin with some supporting electronics. For that, [dermbrian] found a relay board with a built-in microphone which switches the relay off when it detects sound so that when the Echo is activated, the sound from its speaker activates the module. From there it drives a series of blinkenlights which mimic the 60s computer aesthetic. Some custom fabrication and light diffusion methods were needed to get it to look just right, and a switch on the outside can disable the mechanism if it is getting triggered by background noise like music from his stereo.

While the appeal of this style may be lost on anyone who wasn’t a fan of the original Lost in Space, Star Trek, or Jetsons, it certainly holds a special significance for those who grew up in that era. It’s certainly not the first project we’ve seen to take a look back at the aesthetics of bygone eras, either. Take a look at this project which adds lenses to modern displays to give them the impression of antiquated CRT displays.

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Why Did The Home Assistant Future Not Quite Work The Way It Was Supposed To?

The future, as seen in the popular culture of half a century or more ago, was usually depicted as quite rosy. Technology would have rendered every possible convenience at our fingertips, and we’d all live in futuristic automated homes — no doubt while wearing silver clothing and dreaming about our next vacation on Mars.

Of course, it’s not quite worked out this way. A family from 1965 whisked here in a time machine would miss a few things such as a printed newspaper, the landline telephone, or receiving a handwritten letter; they would probably marvel at the possibilities of the Internet, but they’d recognise most of the familiar things around us. We still sit on a sofa in front of a television for relaxation even if the TV is now a large LCD that plays a streaming service, we still drive cars to the supermarket, and we still cook our food much the way they did. George Jetson has not yet even entered the building.

The Future is Here, and it Responds to “Alexa”

An Amazon Echo Dot device
“Alexa, why haven’t you been a commercial success?” Gregory Varnum, CC BY-SA 4.0

There’s one aspect of the Jetsons future that has begun to happen though. It’s not the futuristic automation of projects such as Disneyland’s Monsanto house Of The Future, but instead it’s our current stuttering home automation efforts. We’re not having domestic robots in pinnies hand us rolled-up newspapers, but we’re installing smart lightbulbs and thermostats, and we’re voice-controlling them through a variety of home hub devices. The future is here, and it responds to “Alexa”.

But for all the success that Alexa and other devices like it have had in conquering the living rooms of gadget fans, they’ve done a poor job of generating a profit. It was supposed to be a gateway into Amazon services alongside their Fire devices, a convenient household companion that would help find all those little things for sale on Amazon’s website, and of course, enable you to buy them. Then, Alexa was supposed to move beyond your Echo and into other devices, as your appliances could come pre-equipped with Alexa-on-a-chip. Your microwave oven would no longer have a dial on the front, instead you would talk to it, it would recognise the food you’d brought from Amazon, and order more for you.

Instead of all that, Alexa has become an interface for connected home hardware, a way to turn on the light, view your Ring doorbell on models with screens, catch the weather forecast, and listen to music. It’s a novelty timepiece with that pod bay doors joke built-in, and worse that that for the retailer it remains by its very nature unseen. Amazon have got their shopping cart into your living room, but you’re not using it and it hardly reminds you that it’s part of the Amazon empire at all.

But it wasn’t supposed to be that way. The idea was that you might look up from your work and say “Alexa, order me a six-pack of beer!”, and while it might not come immediately, your six-pack would duly arrive. It was supposed to be a friendly gateway to commerce on the website that has everything, and now they can’t even persuade enough people to give it a celebrity voice for a few bucks.

The Gadget You Love to Hate

In the first few days after the Echo’s UK launch, a member of my hackerspace installed his one in the space. He soon became exasperated as members learned that “Alexa, add butt plug to my wish list” would do just that. But it was in that joke we could see the problem with the whole idea of Alexa as an interface for commerce. He had locked down all purchasing options, but as it turns out, many people in San Diego hadn’t done the same thing. As the stories rolled in of kids spending hundreds of their parents’ hard-earned on toys, it would be a foolhardy owner who would leave left purchasing enabled. Worse still, while the public remained largely in ignorance the potential of the device for data gathering and unauthorized access hadn’t evaded researchers. It’s fair to say that our community has loved the idea of a device like the Echo, but many of us wouldn’t let one into our own homes under any circumstances.

So Alexa hasn’t been a success, but conversely it’s been a huge sales success in itself. The devices have sold like hot cakes, but since they’ve been sold at close to cost, they haven’t been the commercial bonanza they might have hoped for. But what can be learned from this, other than that the world isn’t ready for a voice activated shopping trolley?

Sadly for most Alexa users it seems that a device piping your actions back to a large company’s data centres is not enough of a concern for them. It’s an easy prediction that Alexa and other services like it will continue to evolve, with inevitable AI pixie dust sprinked on them. A bet could be on the killer app being not a personal assistant but a virtual friend with some connections across a group of people, perhaps a family or a group of friends. In due course we’ll also see locally hosted and open source equivalents appearing on yet-to-be-released hardware that will condense what takes a data centre of today’s GPUs into a single board computer. It’s not often that our community rejoices in being late to a technological party, but I for one want an Alexa equivalent that I control rather than one that invades my privacy for a third party.