Blueprints Make It Easy To Make (Some) Alexa Skills

If you can code, you can create an Alexa skill — the programs that allow an Amazon Echo or similar device interact with you. What if you can’t code or you are just too lazy to do all the setup? Amazon now has Blueprints that can help anyone make a skill. The only problem is the skills you can create are pretty limited. In addition, they are only available to your Alexa devices.

The idea is simple. You start with a template — OK, a blueprint. This is a model application that does something like giving you a compliment or a joke on demand. When you open the blueprint, you’ll see a list of things it can say. You can edit the list, including adding or deleting things. Then you name the new skill. In a few minutes, your skill will be live on your devices.

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Fix Your Insecure Amazon Fire TV Stick

I recently spent a largely sleepless night at a hotel, and out of equal parts curiosity and boredom, decided to kill some time scanning the guest network to see what my fellow travelers might be up to. As you’d probably expect, I saw a veritable sea of Samsung and Apple devices. But buried among the seemingly endless number of smartphones charging next to their sleeping owners, I found something rather interesting. I was as picking up a number of Amazon-made devices, all of which had port 5555 open.

As a habitual Android tinkerer, this struck me as very odd. Port 5555 is used for Android Debug Bridge (ADB), a development tool used to control and perform various administrative tasks on an Android device over the network or (more commonly) locally over USB. The number of users who would have legitimately needed to enable network ADB on their devices is surely rather low, so to see a half dozen of them on the network at the same time seemed improbable to say the least.

Why would so many devices manufactured by Amazon all have network ADB enabled? I realized there must be a connection, and it didn’t take long to figure it out.

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Cloning the Echo Show With a Fabric Wrapped Pi

After seeing an Echo Show in the flesh plastic, [anonteapot] was inspired to create his own take on Amazon’s latest on-ramp to their ecosystem. He had the Raspberry Pi and a touch screen, but not much else. He doesn’t even have a dedicated work area at home, much less something as exotic as a 3D printer to run off a custom case. For this decidedly low-tech build, all that was required tool-wise was a razor blade knife and a screwdriver.

The majority of the device, which he refers to as the PiShow, is made of hand-cut pieces of MDF. In fact, the whole build relied on his ability to neatly cut pieces of MDF with hand tools on his bedroom floor. We wouldn’t suggest such a setup as a general rule, but respect for pushing ahead without so much as a table to work on.

To connect the pieces of MDF, he used angle brackets from the hardware store. These were originally 90 degrees, but he bent them by hand to achieve the angles seen in the final device. He notes that there was no specific angles he was aiming for when putting the box together; he simply wanted something that looked cool and was large enough internally to hold his electronics.

Covering the PiShow is some jersey material that [anonteapot] bought at a local fabric store. It has a little stretch to it so he was able to pull it tight over the MDF frame and keep the wrinkles out. As a general rule we don’t see many projects here at Hackaday that are wrapped in fabric, but we’ve got to admit, it makes for a nice final look.

The trickiest part of the build ended up being the side panels. While the rest of the frame was relatively simple, the sides needed to precisely conform to some fairly complex geometry. Luckily the side panels aren’t actually holding any weight, so he decided to just cut them out of cardboard. There’s a bit of a gap at the top, but he’s going to try and rectify that with a visit from his glue gun soon.

Internally things are sort of just hanging around inside the case, but since this device is never going to move off of the nightstand, it probably doesn’t need to be terribly secure. In truth, getting all the hardware mounted up cleanly with the construction methods available to [anonteapot] would have been a bit tricky anyway.

This is the first time we’ve seen somebody take a swing at replicating the Echo Show, usually we just see people trying to cram the Echo Dot into something else. If the software side is more your thing, be sure to check out this excellent guide on Alexa Skills development by our very own [Al Williams].

Alexa Controls This Projector Thanks to ESP8266

[jfessard] doesn’t have extra-sensory perception, but does have an ESP8266. The little board seems to pop up in every hack these days. Inspired by not wanting to get up from the bean-bag chair or leave the electronics-housing cabinet wide open to use an HDMI switcher, [jfessard] hacked together an Alexa-compatible projector control via the ESP8266!

The core functionality here is the ability to turn the projector on and off, and to switch the HDMI source. [jfessard] connected the Panasonic PT-AE3000U projector to a Monoprice HDX-401TA 4×1 HDMI switcher. Tucked away in the cabinet below the projector, it is controlled using a IR LED transmitter breakout board sitting at the end of a fairly long set of jumper wire. The projector control itself is through a RS232 interface.

To make this easy to use with Amazon’s Alexa, [jfessard] turned to some libraries for the ESP8266 D1 Mini. The fauxmoesp library makes it look like a WeMo device, and the IRemoteESP8266 library made remote control code cloning a snap. One really frustrating part of this hack was the MAX232-style breakout board; getting a board to work when it’s labelled backwards takes a bit of head-scratching to figure out.

If the the projector ever gets too noisy, we suggest this hack that shushes the machine. For the moment, we’d rather take another look at this laser projector that mimics a cool ‘laser sky’ effect.

Custom Alexa Skill in a Few Minutes Using Glitch

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.

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This Power Strip is a Fire Starter

A few weeks ago I needed a power strip in my home office. The outlet in question is located behind a filing cabinet so it would need a low profile plug. I jumped on Amazon to buy a surge suppressor strip. That’s when I noticed strips with rotating plugs. I’ve always had some apprehensions about plugs like that, though I could never quite put my finger on why. Looking at the reviews on this particular plug, I found some scary issues. Photos of melted plugs, melted outlets, and cries of “fire hazard”. So I did what any crazy hacker would do – bought two power strips. One with a fixed right angle plug to use in my office, and one with a rotating plug to tear down.

Failed plug – from Amazon reviews

Surge suppressors, power strips, outlet strips, they have many names. Underwriter’s Laboratories (UL) calls them “Relocatable power taps”. They all have several outlets, most have a circuit breaker of some sort inside, and some have circuits for surge suppression. These are some of the most common devices to find in the modern home. Many of our houses were designed and built before surround sound, cable boxes, computers, modems, cell phone chargers, tablet chargers, and all our other modern conveniences. There weren’t as many electrical loads, so the houses didn’t have many outlets. Power strips solve this problem.

After a couple of days, I had my strips in hand. I expected the plug to rotate once – maybe 270 degrees. That would indicate there were wires connecting the rotating head to rest of the plug. Not so – this plug would spin round and round all day long.

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6502 Retrocomputing Goes to the Cloud

In what may be the strangest retrocomputing project we’ve seen lately, you can now access a virtual 6502 via Amazon’s Lambda computing service. We don’t mean there’s a web page with a simulated CPU on it. That’s old hat. This is a web service that takes a block of memory, executes 6502 code that it finds in it, and then returns a block of memory after a BRK opcode or a time out.

You format your request as a JSON-formatted POST request, so anything that can do an HTTP post can probably access it. If you aren’t feeling like writing your own client, the main page has a form you can fill out with some sample values. Just be aware that the memory going in and out is base 64 encoded, so you aren’t going to see instantly gratifying results.

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