Friday Hack Chat: Hacking Voice Assistants

The future of consumer electronics is electronic voice assistants, at least that’s what the manufacturers are telling us. Everything from Alexas to Google Homes to Siris are invading our lives, and if predictions hold, your next new car might just have a voice assistant in it. It’s just a good thing we have enough samples of Majel Barrett’s voice for a quality virtual assistant.

For this week’s Hack Chat, we’re going to be talking all about voice interfaces. There are hundreds of Alexa and Google Home hacks around, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. What else can we do with these neat pieces of computer hardware, and how do we get it to do that?

Our guest for this week’s Hack Chat will be Nadine Lessio, a designer and technologist out of Toronto with a background in visual design and DIY peripherals. Nadine holds an MDes from OCADU where she spent her time investigating the Internet of Things through personal assistants. Currently, she’s working at OCADUs Adaptive Context Environments Lab where she’s researching how humans and devices work together.

During this Hack Chat, Nadine will be talking about voice assistants and answering questions like:

  • What languages can be used to program voice assistants
  • How do you use voice and hardware together?
  • What goes into the UX of a voice assistant?
  • How do these assistants interface with microcontrollers, Pis, and other electronics platforms?

You are, of course, encouraged to add your own questions to the discussion. You can do that by leaving a comment on the Hack Chat Event Page and we’ll put that in the queue for the Hack Chat discussion.join-hack-chat

Our Hack Chats are live community events on the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This week is just like any other, and we’ll be gathering ’round our video terminals at noon, Pacific, on Friday, July 13th.  Need a countdown timer? Yes you do.

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on Hackaday.io.

You don’t have to wait until Friday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.

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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Google Home Meets ESP8266

[Luc Volders] is building his own smart house with the help of Google Home and an ESP-8266. Inspired by the house computers from the TV show, Eureka [Luc] created an IoT ecosystem using a mix of off the shelf devices and open source software.

There are about a thousand ways to create a DIY smart home these days. All of them involve setting up a command receiver (like Amazon’s Echo or Google Home), some sort of cloud connection, and an end device controller. This can get complex for the beginner. [Luc’s] article is great because he walks is through each step tutorial style. He even keeps things simple by programming the ESP8266 using BASIC with ESP-BASIC.

[Luc] uses If This Then That (IFTT) as his cloud service. IFTT is the glue between Google’s cloud service and the ESP8266 connected to his home WiFi network. Speaking of which, [Luc] shows how to set up port forwarding on the router so all accesses to port 8085 go to the ESP8266. Not exactly strong security – but it’s better than opening the entire home network.

You don’t need a real Google home device for this hack. You can build your own with a Raspberry Pi. Once that is set up you can do everything from turning on lights to watering your lawn.

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How Has Amazon Managed To Make Hackers Love Alexa?

Our hackspace has acquired an Amazon Dot, courtesy of a member. It mostly seems to be used as a source of background music, but it has also spawned a seemingly never-ending new entertainment in which the hackspace denizens ceaselessly bait their new electronic companion with ever more complex and esoteric requests. From endless rephrasing and careful enunciation of obscure early reggae artists to try to settle a musical argument to hilarious mis-hearing on the part of our silicon friend, the fun never stops. “Alexa, **** off!” it seems results in “I’m sorry, I can’t find a device of that name on this network”.

amazon-dot-always-listeningThat is just the experience of one hackspace, but it evidently does not end there. Every other day it seems that new projects using Alexa pass through the Hackaday timeline, so it looks as though Amazon’s online personal assistant has been something of a hit within our community.

Fair enough, you might say, we’re always early adopters of any new technology. But it’s a development over which I wonder; am I alone in finding it surprising? It’s worth taking a moment to look at the subject.

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Voice Activated Fireplace Is As Cool As It Gets

A fireplace can add a cozy, relaxed atmosphere  — and a touch of style — to any home. Redditor [hovee] saw the opportunity to add some flair to his gas fireplace by making it voice activated. Check out the video of it in action below.

Google Home and Google Assistant provides the voice recognition component. A Raspberry Pi 3 with Home Assistant does the legwork. An iTach TCP/IP-to-Contact-Closure relay toggles the fireplace, and an IFTTT account connected to Google Assistant brings it all together.

[hovee] then ran some thick 16/2 wire from the relay network port to the fireplace’s remote receiver circuit to actually turn it on. Some custom code and configuration of the Home Assistant files was necessary, but [hovee] has shown his work, with some tips besides, if you want to throw together a similar setup. It’s a help if your fireplace has a ‘remote’ setting, and a double bonus if there is documentation for the fireplace to be found that will help with the build process.

Once done, all you need to do is kick back with your favorite beverage in the lap of home automated luxury. Just be sure you have a backup to turn off your fireplace just in case your setup goes the way of Skynet. While you’re at it, you can set up your fireplace to save energy as well.

[via /r/homeautomation]

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