Hey Google, Is My Heart Still Beating?

University of Washington researchers studying the potential medical use of smart speakers such as Amazon’s Echo and Google’s Nest have recently released a paper detailing their experiments with non-contact acoustic heartbeat detection. Thanks to their sensitive microphone arrays, normally used to help localize voice commands from the user, the team proposes these affordable and increasingly popular smart home gadgets could lead a double life as unobtrusive life sign monitors. The paper goes so far as to say that even with multiple people in the room, their technique can be used to monitor the heart and respiratory rate of a specific target individual.

Those are some bold claims, but they aren’t without precedent. Previous studies performed at UW in 2019 demonstrated how smart speaker technology could be used to detect cardiac arrest and monitor infant breathing. This latest paper could be seen as the culmination of those earlier experiments: a single piece of software that could not just monitor the vitals of nearby patients, but actually detect a medical emergency. The lifesaving potential of such a program, especially for the very young and elderly, would be incredible.

So when will you be able to install a heart monitor skill on the cheap Echo Dot you picked up on Prime Day? Well, as is often the case with this kind of research, putting the technique to work in the real-world isn’t nearly as easy as in the laboratory. While the concept is promising and is more than worthy of further research, it may be some time before our lowly smart speakers are capable of Star Trek style life-sign detection.

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Amazon Echo Gets Open Source Brain Transplant

There’s little debate that Amazon’s Alexa ecosystem makes it easy to add voice control to your smart home, but not everyone is thrilled with how it works. The fact that all of your commands are bounced off of Amazon’s servers instead of staying internal to the network is an absolute no-go for the more privacy minded among us, and honestly, it’s hard to blame them. The whole thing is pretty creepy when you think about it.

Which is precisely why [André Hentschel] decided to look into replacing the firmware on his Amazon Echo with an open source alternative. The Linux-powered first generation Echo had been rooted years before thanks to the diagnostic port on the bottom of the device, and there were even a few firmware images floating around out there that he could poke around in. In theory, all he had to do was remove anything that called back to the Amazon servers and replace the proprietary bits with comparable free software libraries and tools.

Taping into the Echo’s debug port.

Of course, it ended up being a little trickier than that. The original Echo is running on a 2.6.x series Linux kernel, which even for a device released in 2014, is painfully outdated. With its similarly archaic version of glibc, newer Linux software would refuse to run. [André] found that building an up-to-date filesystem image for the Echo wasn’t a problem, but getting the niche device’s hardware working on a more modern kernel was another story.

He eventually got the microphone array working, but not the onboard digital signal processor (DSP). Without the DSP, the age of the Echo’s hardware really started to show, and it was clear the seven year old smart speaker would need some help to get the job done.

The solution [André] came up with is not unlike how the device worked originally: the Echo performs wake word detection locally, but then offloads the actual speech processing to a more powerful computer. Except in this case, the other computer is on the same network and not hidden away in Amazon’s cloud. The Porcupine project provides the wake word detection, speech samples are broken down into actionable intents with voice2json, and the responses are delivered by the venerable eSpeak speech synthesizer.

As you can see in the video below the overall experience is pretty similar to stock, complete with fancy LED ring action. In fact, since Porcupine allows for multiple wake words, you could even argue that the usability has been improved. While [André] says adding support for Mycroft would be a logical expansion, his immediate goal is to get everything documented and available on the project’s GitLab repository so others can start experimenting for themselves.

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Seeed Studio’s ReSpeaker Speaks All The Voice Recognition Languages

Seeed Studio recently launched its third Kickstarter campaign: ReSpeaker, an open hardware voice interface. After their previous Kickstarted IoT hardware, such as the RePhone, mostly focused on connectivity, the electronics manufacturer from Shenzhen now tackles another highly contested area of IoT: Voice recognition.

The ReSpeaker Core is a capable development board based on Mediatek’s MT7688 WiFi module and runs OpenWrt. Onboard is a WM8960 stereo audio codec with integrated 1W speaker/headphone driver, a microphone, an ATMega32U4 coprocessor, 12 addressable RGB LEDs and 8 touch sensors. There are also two expansion headers with GPIOs, I2S, I2C, analog audio and USB 2.0 and an onboard microSD card slot.

The latter is especially useful to feed the ReSpeaker’s integrated speech recognition engine PocketSphinx with a vocabulary and audio file library, enabling it to respond to keywords and commands even when it’s not hooked up to the internet. Once it’s online, ReSpeaker also supports most of the available cloud based cognitive speech recognition services, such as Microsoft Cognitive Service, Amazon Alexa Voice Service, Google Speech API, Wit.ai and Houndify. It also comes with an SDK and Python API, supports JavaScript, Lua and C/C++, and it looks like the coprocessor features an Arduino-compatible bootloader.

The expansion header accepts shield-like hardware add-ons. Some of them are also available through the campaign. The most important one is the circular, far-field microphone array. Based on 7 XVSM-2000 respeaker_meow2digital microphones, the extension board enhances the device’s hearing with sound localization, beam forming, reverb and noise suppression. A Grove extension board connects the ReSpeaker to the Seeed’s current lineup on ready-to-use sensors, actuators and other peripherals.

Seeed also cooperates with the Meow King Audio Electronic Company to develop a nice tower-shaped enclosure with built-in speaker, 5W amplifier and battery. As a portable speaker, the Meow King Drive Unit (shown on the right) certainly doesn’t knock your socks off, but it practically turns the ReSpeaker into an open source version of the Amazon Echo — including the ability to run offline instead of piping everything you say to Big Brother.

According to Seeed, the freshly baked hardware will ship to backers in November 2016, and they do have a track-record of on-schedule shipped Kickstarter rewards. At the time of writing, some of the Crazy Early Birds are still available for $39. Enjoy the campaign video below and let us know what you think of think hardware in the comments!