Cruising through the children’s hands-on activity zone at Maker Faire Bay Area, we see kids building a cardboard enclosure for the Chatterbox smart speaker kit. It would be tempting to dismiss the little smiling box as “just for kids” but doing so would overlook something more interesting: an alternative to data-mining corporations who dominate the smart speaker market. People are rightly concerned about Amazon Echo and Google Home, always-listening devices for online retail sending data back to their corporate data centers. In order to be appropriate for children, Chatterbox is none of those things. It only listens when a button is pressed, and its online model is designed to support the mission of CCFC (Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.)
Getting started with a Chatterbox is much like other products designed to encourage young makers. The hardware — Raspberry Pi, custom HAT, speaker and button inside a cardboard enclosure — is conceptually similar to a Google AIY Voice kit but paired with an entirely different software experience. Instead of signing in to a Google developer account, children create their own voice interaction behavior with a block-based programming environment resembling MIT Scratch. Moving online, Chatterbox interactions draw upon resources of similarly privacy-minded entities like DuckDuckGo web search. Voice interaction foundation is built upon a fork of Mycroft with changes focused on education and child-friendliness. If a Chatterbox is unsure whether a query was for “Moana” or “Marijuana”, it will decide in favor of the Disney movie.
Many of these privacy-conscious pieces are open source or freely available, but Chatterbox pulls them all together into a single package that’s an appealing alternative to the big brand options. Based on conversations during Hackaday’s Maker Faire meetup, there’s a market beyond parents of young children. From technically aware adults who lack web API coding skills, to senior citizens unaware of dark corners of the web. Chatterbox Kickstarter campaign has a few more weeks to run but has already reached funding goals. We look forward to having a privacy-minded option in voice assistants.
We typically feature projects from people sharing what they’ve learned while building something for themselves. But our community has a healthy contingent who deploy their skills for the benefit of future generations, developing a child’s natural curiosity for play into interest in understanding the technical world they will grow up in. This field is where MIT’s release of Scratch 3.0 can open up interesting possibilities.
Scratch is a block-based programming language designed for elementary school children, letting them learn fundamental concepts while experimenting in an environment filled with visual and audible feedback. In an effort to make Scratch more widely available, version 2.0 in 2013 moved to the web. But it was built using interactive web technology of the time: Adobe Flash. As Flash has fallen out of favor and scheduled to be phased out in 2020, Scratch 3.0 used React to make the shift to HTML5.
The most immediate benefit is that Scratch can now be used on tablets, which all have modern browsers but very few of which have Flash. Another common educational hardware platform is the Raspberry Pi, which supported Scratch 2 via a convoluted software stack that was far from ideal. Now any hardware with a modern browser can run Scratch, no Flash binaries or custom wrappers are required. The Raspberry Pi foundation certainly seemed excited about this change.
But a more exciting and longer term benefit is Scratch extensions, a mechanism for Scratch programs to communicate with external hardware and online resources. This has evolved in parallel with Scratch 2.0 under the experimental ScratchX umbrella and version 3.0 brings it into core. The launch featured a few official extensions (for connecting to micro:bit, LEGO Mindstroms EV3, etc.) with the promise that custom third-party extensions will soon be possible. This will significantly streamline building a Scratch interface for kid-friendly programmable hardware. Something we’ve seen done for a drone, for exploring SDR, and even for a dollhouse. We’ll be keeping an eye out for the official release of Scratch 3.0 custom extension API, but anyone not afraid of working with fluid pre-release code are certainly welcome to dive in right now.
[David Ferguson] has put together a nice little tool called Pi Bakery. Half MIT Scratch, half configuration utility, it puts a nice visual face on all the various start-up scripts, and kludges that the Raspberry Pi community uses to configure the popular single board computer.
Raspberry Pi’s are a little weird. They mostly get crammed into the slots microcontrollers used to live in. The nice part about microcontrollers is that they just turn on and start going. There’s no OS to boot. No file system to mount. Of course the downside to microcontrollers is often that there’s no OS to boot and file system to mount. Regardless, mostly you’ve got to spend a bit configuring a Raspbian install before a Raspberry Pi really starts to encroach on the microcontroller’s territory.
Pi Bakery abstracts all this. You can drag blocks, representing scripts, in the order you’d like them run. If you want to your Pi to boot up, connect to WiFi, and then start a VNC server it’s as easy a dragging the blocks in the right order and filling in the blanks. You can see an example of it in operation in the video after the break.
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