Innovation

by Leigh Beadon


Filed Under:
awesome stuff, mycroft, star trek



Awesome Stuff: A Voice-Operated Household Assistant

from the ok-computer dept

Ever since Star Trek: The Next Generation, who among us hasn't thought it would be cool to have an omnipresent voice interface with a starship or, failing that, our own house? Sure, PADDs iPhones have Siri now, but it's just not the same. Our focus for this week's Awesome Stuff isn't the first attempt to create a voice-operated computer assistant for the home, and it probably won't be the last, but the Mycroft is certainly worthy of note.

The Good

One of my first Kickstarter purchases was the Ubi, an earlier attempt at this idea by a startup that now appears to have given up on device manufacturing and focused entirely on operating a cloud service. Nevertheless, it was a nice little piece of hardware and fun to play with — but it's always fallen a little short of the smooth, perfect functioning that would be necessary to make it a seamless part of everyday life. Whether or not the Mycroft will hit a higher mark is impossible to know for sure without trying one out in person, but there are a couple aspects that make it notable.

First is the fact that it's built with a commitment to open software and hardware. It's built on a Raspberry Pi (with all the tweakability and extendibility that implies) and Linux, and is completely open source, with a special backer tier on Kickstarter that gets developers early access to the software which they can run on their own Pis before Mycroft is released. As for the AI processing that happens in the cloud, it's all done using various open, public APIs for things like voice recognition and natural language processing, rather than relying on a single proprietary service like most such devices. Second is the price: thanks to all that open software and hardware, the Mycroft on Kickstarter clocks in at only $150 for the fully extendable model and $130 for the more basic version (including global shipping, and with some additional early bird discounts still kicking around too). This is considerably lower than several voice systems with fewer features.

The Bad

Devices like this are very hard to evaluate without trying them out, or at least reading some hands-on reviews — so these pre-production Kickstarter sales are for those who have faith, spare cash, or a really insatiable desire to achieve that Star Trek dream. It's also important to keep in mind that the Mycroft isn't especially useful as a standalone unit: its capabilities come from integration with other smart-home devices and the internet of things — or at least other Mycroft units. For people whose homes are already equipped with smart thermometers, wireless door locks, networked sound systems and the like, a centralized voice control system is a powerful tool, but for everyone else it's just a fun toy/exceptionally fancy alarm clock. "Here I am, brain the size of a planet..."

The Okay-Free

This is an odd detail, but one that stands out if you've used multiple voice-activated devices before: you don't need to say "Okay, Mycroft" to wake the unit up — just its name by itself will do. This is nice, since a lot of devices use the "okay" phrase (I've got "okay Google" for Google Now searches on smartphones, "okay OnePlus" to wake my OnePlus One, and "okay Ubi" for the aforementioned similar device), and while this does make that Radiohead album seem prophetic, these "okays" have a tendency to cross-pollinate and wake up the wrong device. Mycroft, I suppose, is a unique enough sound that the device can listen for it without the need for an additional trigger — though it remains to be seen whether it will be accidentally awoken by episodes of the BBC's Sherlock.


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 29 Aug 2015 @ 9:19am

    I like the ideal of this type of home automation, but it is dependent on a connection to the internet.

    "It's an integrated computer network, and I will not have it aboard this ship." - William Adama

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 29 Aug 2015 @ 9:29am

    "I can't do that Dave".

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Sheogorath (profile), 29 Aug 2015 @ 10:51am

    Mycroft, I suppose, is a unique enough sound that the device can listen for it without the need for an additional trigger — though it remains to be seen whether it will be accidentally awoken by episodes of the BBC's Sherlock.
    Which would make the word 'Ubi' even more unique, so why the need to say okay first for it? Not that I'll ever find out for myself. I don't like the idea of all my conversations being captured (even if I'm assured they're not retained) on the chance I'll trigger a voice-activated command. What's wrong with the Clapper from Bruce Almighty as a trigger?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      MycroftMkIV, 30 Aug 2015 @ 6:19am

      Re:

      In this case, Mycroft is not a reference to the Sherlock Holmes books. Obviously, someone has read Robert Heinlein's "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress"

      Mike

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Sheogorath (profile), 5 Sep 2015 @ 1:02am

        Re: Re:

        In this case, Mycroft is not a reference to the Sherlock Holmes books.
        I never said it was, I was quoting the part of the article where its writer said Mycroft could be triggered by watching a series in which a character has the same name.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 29 Aug 2015 @ 11:52am

    These are the new wrt54g

    Who needs room 641A when people put networked microphones in their own homes because they are too fat and lazy to get off the couch? Welcomed to the new improved botnet, brought to you by (insert douche corporate slogan here)

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      tracyanne (profile), 29 Aug 2015 @ 12:44pm

      Re: These are the new wrt54g

      Indeed.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Roger Strong (profile), 29 Aug 2015 @ 2:31pm

      Re: These are the new wrt54g

      While Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories leave unclear what Mycroft's exact position is in the British government, he says that "Occasionally he is the British government."

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 31 Aug 2015 @ 10:23am

      Re: These are the new wrt54g

      Or, you know, they're quadriparetic and getting up isn't as effortless for everyone as it is for you.

      Just because you're fully abled doesn't mean that everyone who wants this technology is similarly fortunate. Accessible technology is a leading use cases for home automation.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Jeffrey Nonken (profile), 29 Aug 2015 @ 2:03pm

    Hmm. Star Trek. Mmm hmm.

    Until and unless Word of God says otherwise, I'm going to assume the name is a reference to a certain Robert A. Heinlein novel.

    Even if it isn't, I'm going to pretend it is.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Lawrence D’Oliveiro, 29 Aug 2015 @ 5:57pm

    Voice Commands Look Good In The Movies

    And that’s where they should stay.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    psiuuu, 29 Aug 2015 @ 6:44pm

    Echoooo

    We picked up an Echo in January. I had my first Star Trek moment sometime after that - taking care of the baby, IM'ing my mom on my phone, changing the temp on our smart thermostat with my phone, and asking out loud what the weather was like. All we really need are some whooshy door open/close sounds. It was just a moment where the inner dreamer of the late 80's or so peeked out and said "holy shit, it's happening!!!"

    Looks like Amazon opened up their API for the Echo now - I should look into building an ecobee linked command setup. Lighting will go in our home next year. Motion lights, plus some voice activated lights...mwahaha...sorry.

    Also, the Echo just uses the keyword as well. Judging from the rename of their app from Echo to Alexa, I'm guessing nobody chose "Amazon" as their keyword. :P

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      MondoGordo (profile), 31 Aug 2015 @ 1:06pm

      Re: Echoooo

      ...and they just announced full integration with SmartThings ... so voice control of all lights, switches and dimmers, and the garage door.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 29 Aug 2015 @ 11:19pm

    I have had the Star Trek fantasy for many years too.

    Maybe one day when tech like this doesn't instantly evaluate in my mind as "a microphone in every room of my house that the government has warrantless access too" I will get my wish.

    I can't tell you how much I resent the subversion of technology and the internet by governments.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 30 Aug 2015 @ 12:19am

      Re:

      And where in Star Trek is it explicitly stated that their conversations are not being shared with some government somewhere, that some equivalent of the NSA isn't sniffing their DNA packets when they get beamed up?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 31 Aug 2015 @ 10:30am

      Re:

      There's already a microphone in your house that the government has warrantless access to: it is in your pocket.

      This isn't to say your concern is baseless. It is legitimate. But if you think foregoing this or an Echo keeps you any more private from governments, you're wrong. Unless you're willing to give up your mobile phone, tablet, and laptop, and force everyone around you to give up theirs as well, **you already have this problem.**

      The only solutions are reform and encryption.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 30 Aug 2015 @ 8:07am

    Yes, just what we needed. Now Microsoft gets out the Windows Maid so that he can know all about your dirty laundry. In the literal sense, I mean. He knows already about the other one.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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