Amazon Echo Has Promise for the Future

I got an invite to buy an Amazon Echo a while ago, but didn’t want to purchase one because it didn’t seem particularly useful. It’s only advantage to me was the SDK for speech that might be of use in the future.

After seeing the initial intro video and how scripted the commands had to be, I couldn’t justify the purchase.

If I wanted to get answers to questions I have, I would just pull out my phone and type it out rather than dealing with Speech-To-Text inadequacies when asking a long question. If I wanted to add something to a list, I would write it down on my notes or use my phone for the same reason.

I could play music using a voice command, but to be limited to my Amazon Music Library, Prime Music, or Pandora? No thanks, my audio receiver will do a better job with the audio quality in my home anyways.

On top of that, waiting for a delivery date a couple months later? No thanks.

The Turning Point

That was it, I forgot all about the product until recently. That was when I saw a couple Youtube videos showcasing hacks of the system to configure voice commands for other things! Now this is where it really gains some useful functionality.

Imagine using the mic array and speaker in the Echo to pick up your voice commands and give you audio feedback to commands you create yourself. As a developer, this would have unlimited possibilities in the home! My heart skipped a beat once I saw someone using it for these purposes despite the lack of an official SDK and I immediately started imagining the improvements I could make to my current projects in the home automation space and quickly came up with a couple scenarios that I “need” it for.

There are the typical scenarios like turning on or off appliances and lights in your home, but then there are bigger home automation scenarios where you would communicate with the Echo like you would a personal assistant.

Imagine waking up in the morning and talking to Echo and having it relay specific things you care about like the weather, news, calendar updates, family updates, etc. while also having it turn on the shower so it’s running at your preferred temperature by the time you jump in. Have it make your coffee so that when you get out of the shower, it’s ready. No need to preset things the day before, or stick to a generic schedule. It’s all voice activated.

Now imagine coming home from a day at work and asking it to turn on a specific “mood” for your home, like “summer breeze” that would open your blinds, open your windows, put on some light music, turn on just the right amount of lighting, etc. Have your home work for you!

It looks like Amazon is starting to see the value of this use case with the Echo too, because they recently announced an update that would allow their default voice commands to work with WeMo switches and Hue lights, but those are just basic scenarios.

After all my excitement about being able to create custom commands, I decided to purchase one (despite the couple months I’ll have to wait to finally receive it).

Still a Couple Faults

  • Works well for one room or an open-concept home, but you’ll need separate ones for each room if you want it to work everywhere. (Or maybe an extension of it in other rooms?)
  • From the demos online where people use it, it looks like their speech recognition system isn’t up to par with most of the other speech recognition system, yet.

Technology and Regulations

I recently watched a Verge Youtube video starring Deadmau5 and during the video heard a good point being brought up. Owning a drone and flying one is not currently regulated, but will it ever be?

People have always had fears when it comes to new things and naturally people will want to put limits and regulate some of the new technology. The fact of the matter is that almost anyone with the time and money can learn to create a robot or drone through a simple web search. Similar to the regulations with guns where they can be sold and may require a license to buy or use them, the government can try to regulate the availability on the market of parts and sales of full devices. But it is vastly different in that the parts being used to make a drone are not specific to just drones and the ones that are can be easily 3D printed or fabricated (frame/blades). There are many applications for the motors, controller boards, batteries, etc. and people can buy the parts to make one quite easily.

The only thing that the government might be able to regulate are the flight patterns of long-range and non-hobbyist type drones. As scary as it is, if someone wanted to make a drone for illegal purposes, they could quite easily. Recently there was a drone discovered that had been used in an attempt to smuggle drugs across the U.S. border.

Imagine the futuristic scenarios from movies where robots are “regulated” but there are dozens of black-market electronics shops and chop shops. Sure there are the brilliant and specialized hackers with the capabilities to mod creations or even create their own, but in our current society it’s easy to become that hacker. Especially with the evolution of the Maker movement where most knowledge is shared and open sourced. It’s a future that is becoming closer every day and it’s going to be almost impossible to “put the genie back in the bottle”.

Hackster Hardware Weekend (Hackathon)

I had the chance to participate this past weekend in a Hackster.io Hardware Weekend in Seattle and was blown away by the setup. Like most hackathons, they had big sponsors like Intel, Microsoft, Spark, AT&T, etc. However, unlike most of the software hackathons I have been to, they provided some hardware for people to use including Intel Edison boards with Seeed Studio Starter Kits and more. They also provided some cool and useful swag like a portable charger (which I used to power a Spark Core for my demo) and a small portable Leatherman pocket tool that is perfect for my recent maker lifestyle. The energy they provided was just spectacular and even though it was their first time hosting a hackathon, I think it went smoothly.

The food wasn’t just your normal pizza and salad hackathon meals. It also included a legitimate breakfast with bacon, eggs, bagels, cheese, etc. Lunches and dinners were comprised of delicious sandwiches (kind of like Banh Mi), mexican food, and one meal of pizza. On the side they have a whole bunch of candy, popcorn, and more snacks along with the steady supply of coffee, soda, juice, and water.

Unfortunately, like with most hackathons, the crowd of participants thinned out by day 2 with most of the remaining people being interested in learning more or deeply involved in the hacking process.

I came to the event without a clue as to what I was going to build and not really sure if I wanted to join a team, make one, or run it solo. After hearing about some of the prizes for using certain APIs (Weather Underground and WebRTC) I decided to focus my time on the Weather Underground APIs. Even after deciding what I wanted to use, I didn’t really have a clear understanding of what my final product would be and how it could change the world. I just decided to start hacking something together that I thought would be cool to own and ended up going down the path alone.

Stages of my Creation:

  1. Started with the idea to read the forecast for the day and display it to you through an small LCD screen so that I wouldn’t need to pull up an app to view the forecast. Decided to use the Intel Edison, Cylon.js, and the Weather Underground APIs to do this.
  2. Added functionality that would open your windows using a servo if your indoor temperature was past your comfortable zone and the outdoor temperature was colder. I also added functionality to change these settings through buttons and rotary angle sensors on the board.
  3. Added functionality to push the data to the cloud
  4. Realized that I could also connect to a Spark Core and communicate with it via WiFi and the Cloud from the Intel Edison, so I integrated a lighting scenario with a wireless connection.
  5. Created a prototype case for the now deemed “Hub” in Autodesk Fusion 360.
  6. Created a webpage using AngularJS on Azure that would showcase the data my back-end was receiving so that I could view information on the go.

The prototype Open Source Home Automation Hub was born.

Some things I’ve come to realize for my next hackathon:

  • Work in teams! I worked solo this weekend and although I did a lot of work to combine all the components, I definitely could have gone further with the idea and took it to the next level ending up with a professional product rather than a hacked together demo.
  • Set up a team before hand and know the expertise of everyone in the team and how best to leverage them. (This also might mean vet out the people who might have less to contribute if you are going hardcore)
  • Sometime’s it’s more about the presentation, the story, and the idea than the execution during the hackathon (although that might be due to the hardware nature of this hackathon). After all, you only have so much time both to hack and to present your creation.
  • Network! This is really just a great opportunity to meet other people in a related field and find out their skills and platforms of choice. Who knows? You might find a couple new tools that might be useful for your future endeavors.
  • Roll with it. A vision is great, but be able to adapt if things don’t work out quite like you expected.  Sometimes code breaks and it can be stressful but learn from it and debug better.
  • Have fun!

OpenSCAD (Required for the Maker)

Today after finishing the prints for the parts I need for my 3D printer model, I realized I had made a huge mistake. I hadn’t checked the measurements for the holes / rods and since I had gone with the US alternatives to the metric measurements, some parts just wouldn’t work. DOH!

This led to my next realization. The open source community provides the files in easily configurable SCAD files not Autodesk files or STL (STL would have been alot more difficult to edit although it can be taken and printed immediately).

In case you didn’t know, the beauty of SCAD files is that they are essentially programs. OpenSCAD is pretty much the open source standard for creating 3D objects before exporting them into STL format. It is a functional description Red and Yellow Cubes SCADlanguage that dictates the characteristics of the object that allows for reusable variables and one configuration file with the power to change your whole print library! Here’s an example that creates these two rectangular blocks:

If you have been reading my blog posts, I had started using Autodesk Fusion 360 and I thought it was one of the best programs for 3D modeling. Little did I know that the open source community didn’t hand out files consumable in Autodesk and the power behind SCAD files in the open source community is how easily the objects can be customized especially since altering a bunch of STL files would take serious time in Autodesk Fusion 360.