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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Forcing Amazon Alexa Compatible Stuff to Speak to Google Assistant

It took a long time, but it’s 2019, and we’re starting to get used to the concept of talking to a computer to make it control things around the house. It’s not quite as cool as it seemed when we saw it in films way back when, but that’s just real life. The problem is, there’s a multitude of different systems and standards and they don’t all necessarily work together. In [Blake]’s case, the problem is that Woods brand hardware only works with Amazon Alexa, which simply won’t do.

[Blake] went through the hassle of getting an Amazon Alexa compatible WiFi outlet to work with Google Assistant. It’s a bit of a roundabout way of doing things, but it works. A TP-Link HS-105 WiFi plug is used, which can be controlled through Google Assistant voice commands. The part consists of two PCBs – a control board that speaks WiFi, and a switching board with relays. [Blake] used the control board and hooked it up to a Raspberry Pi. When switched on by a command from Google, the HS-105 sets a pin high, which is detected by the Raspberry Pi. The Raspberry Pi then runs a software implementation of the KAB protocol used by the Woods hardware, triggering it when it receives the signal from the TP-Link hardware.

If we understand correctly, [Blake] had to go to this trouble in order to make his special outdoor-rated outlets work with his Google Home setup. Hopefully interoperability improves in years to come, but we won’t hold our breath.

We’ve seen some pretty convoluted projects in this space before, often using IFTTT — like this ESP8266 voice controlled tank.

R3-14, The Personal Assistant Two Years In The Making

One of the great things about hacking together projects these days is how many powerful subsystems are readily available to reuse. [Sanjeet] took full advantage of a whole slate of reusable pieces when he built R3-14 — a personal assistant robot that you can see in action in the video below.

Many people started out in electronics building something simple like a crystal radio or an LED cube. But how far could you get if your projects had to begin at the most basic level, by drawing out copper wire, fabricating coils, capacitors, semiconductor devices, and batteries? Even if you know how to do all those things, it would take a lot of time, so there is no shame in using off-the-shelf components. By the same token, [Sanjeet] uses Google Assistant, 433 MHz RF transmitters, and a Raspberry Pi as components in this build. Along the way, he also contributed some reusable pieces himself, including an LED library for the PI and a library to allow Siri to control a Raspberry Pi.

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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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