This Cardboard Box Can Tell You What It Sees

It wasn’t that long ago that talking to computers was the preserve of movies and science fiction. Slowly, voice recognition improved, and these days it’s getting to be pretty usable. The technology has moved beyond basic keywords, and can now parse sentences in natural language. [Liz Meyers] has been working with the technology, creating WhatIsThat – an AI that can tell you what it’s looking at.

Adding a camera to Google’s AIY Voice Kit makes for a versatile object identification system.

The device is built around Google’s AIY Voice Kit, which consists of a Raspberry Pi with some additional hardware and software to enable it to process voice queries. [Liz] combined this with a Raspberry Pi camera and the Google Cloud Vision API. This allows WhatIsThat to respond to users asking questions by taking a photo, and then identifying what it sees in the frame.

It may seem like a frivolous project to those with working vision, but there is serious potential for this technology in the accessibility space. The device can not only describe things like animals or other objects, it can also read text aloud and even identify logos. The ability of the software to go beyond is impressive – a video demonstration shows the AI correctly identifying a Boston Terrier, and attributing a quote to Albert Einstein.

Artificial intelligence has made a huge difference to the viability of voice recognition – because it’s one thing to understand the words, and another to understand what they mean when strung together. Video after the break.

[Thanks to Baldpower for the tip!]

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Manhole Covers Hide Antennas

5G is gearing up to be the most extensive implementation of mesh networking ever, and that could mean antennas will not need to broadcast for miles, just far enough to reach some devices. That unsightly cell infrastructure stuck on water towers and church steeples could soon be hidden under low-profile hunks of metal we are already used to seeing; manhole covers. This makes sense because 5G’s millimeter radio waves are more or less line-of-sight, and cell users probably wouldn’t want to lose connectivity every time they walk behind a building.

At the moment, Vodafone in the UK is testing similar 4G antennas and reaching 195 megabits/sec download speeds. Each antenna covers a 200-meter radius and uses a fiber network because, courtesy of existing underground infrastructure. There is some signal loss from transmitting and receiving beneath a slab of metal, but that will be taken into account when designing the network. The inevitable shift to 5G will then be a relatively straightforward matter of lifting the old antennas out and laying the new hardware inside, requiring only a worker and a van instead of a construction crew.

We want to help you find all the hidden cell phone antennas and pick your own cell module.

Via IEEE Spectrum.

Add Nest Functionality to your Thermostat for $5

The Nest Thermostat revolutionized the way that people control the climate in their homes. It has features more features than even the best programmable thermostats. But, all of the premium features also come at a premium price. On the other hand, for only $5, a little coding, and the realization that thermostats are glorified switches, you can easily have your own thermostat that can do everything a Nest can do.

[Mat’s] solution uses a Sonoff WiFi switch that he ties directly into the thermostat’s control wiring. That’s really the easy part, since most thermostats have a ground or common wire, a signal wire, and a power wire. The real interesting work for this build is in setting up the WiFi interface and doing the backend programming. [Mat’s] thermostat is controlled by software written in Node-RED. It can even interface with Alexa. Thanks to the open source software, it’s easy to add any features you might want.

[Mat] goes through a lot of detail on the project site on how his implementation works, as far as interfacing all of the devices and the timing and some of the coding problems he solved. If you’ve been thinking about a Nest but are turned off by the price, this is a great way to get something similar — provided you’re willing to put in a little extra work. This might also be the perfect point to fall down the home automation rabbit hole, so be careful!

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Alexa, Attack Intruders

If our doom at the hands of our robot overlords is coming, I for one welcome the chance to get a preview of how they might go about it. That’s the idea behind Project Icarus, an Alexa-enabled face-tracking Nerf turret. Designed by [Nick Engmann],  this impressive (or terrifying) project is built around a Nerf Vulcan, a foam dart firing machine gun mounted on a panning turret that is hidden behind a drop-down cabinet door. This is connected to a Pi Zero equipped with a Pi camera. The Zero is running OpenCV and Google Firebase, which connects it with Amazon’s Alexa service.

It works like this: you say “Alexa, open Project Icarus”. Through the Alexa skill that [Nick] created, this connects to the Pi and starts the system. If you then say “Alexa, activate alpha”, it triggers a relay to open the cabinet and the Nerf gun starts panning around, while the camera mounted on the top of it searches for faces. The command “Alexa, activate beta” triggers the Nerf to open fire.

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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.

What Is It, R2? Have Something To Share?

Sometimes great projects keep evolving. [Bithead942] built himself an R2-D2 to accompany him when he goes a-trooping — but something didn’t feel quite right. Turns out, R2 was missing its signature beeping banter, so he made it more contextually responsive by implementing a few voice commands.

[Bithead942]’s main costume is that of an X-Wing pilot, and the replica helmet works perfectly; it already has a fake microphone — easily replaced with a working model — and the perfect niche to stash the electronics in the ‘mohawk.’

Even though the helmet has the perfect hiding spot for a circuit, space is still at a premium. Services like Alexa tend to be pretty accurate, but require WiFi access — not a guarantee on the convention floor. Instead, [bithead942] found that the EasyVR Shield 3.0 voice recognition board provided a suitable stand-in. It needs a bit of training to work properly(cue the montage!), but in the end it compares fresh audio commands to the ‘training’ files it has stored, and if there’s a match, triggers a corresponding serial port. It’s not perfect, but it most certainly works!

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Say Hello to This Cortana Hologram

Halo’s Cortana enters the real world with this internet appliance. [Jarem Archer] has built an amazing “holographic” home for Cortana of Halo and Windows fame. The display isn’t really a hologram, it uses the age-old Pepper’s ghost illusion. A monitor reflects onto 3 angled half mirrored panels. This creates a convincing 3D effect. Cortana herself is a 3D model. [Jarem’s] wife provided gave Cortana her moves by walking in front of dual Kinect depth-sensing cameras. This motion capture performance drives the 3D Cortana model on the screen.

The brain behind this hack is the standard Windows 10 Cortana voice assistant. Saying “Hey Cortana” wakes the device up. To make the whole experience more interactive, [Jarem] added a face detection camera to the front of the device. When a face is detected, the Cortana model turns toward the user. Even if several people are watching the device, it would seem as if Cortana was “talking to” one person in the audience.

The cherry on top of this hack is the enclosure. [Jarem] 3D printed a black plastic stage. An Arduino drives RGB LEDs whenever Cortana is activated. The LEDs project a blue glue that works well with the Pepper’s ghost illusion. The result is a project that looks like something Microsoft might have cooked up in one of their research labs.

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