November 11, 2015      

Amazon Echo is a voice-activated, cloud-connected wireless speaker that can be your personal assistant. Think of Echo as Siri for your home.

Echo, which is designed around your voice, answers to “Alexa” and can tell you the scores to the game, read your book, play your music, or check your calendar. And if you have a smart home, Echo can turn off your lights and integrate with other smart technology.

Bob Paradiso, however, wondered if he “could push Echo’s utility a little further.” He certainly did. In the video above, you’ll see Paradiso turned an electric wheelchair into a voice-controlled wheelchair using Echo, a Raspberry Pi and Arduino Uno.

Echo thinks it’s turning lights on and off, but it’s really controlling the wheelchair. Paradiso says, “Alexa, turn on left 4” and the wheelchair spins. He then says, “Alexa, turn on forward 4” and the wheelchair moves forward. Paradiso wrote a detailed piece about his build, but here’s an interesting snippet:

For my Echo based implementation, I had the constraint of using Echo’s “Alexa, turn on X” and “Alexa, turn off X” commands. Having this relatively long phrase makes control more cumbersome than simple moment to moment LEFT’s and RIGHT’s or just naming a destination. That combined with Echo not responding instantly (voice is processed on Amazon’s servers) and sometimes not recognizing speech correctly makes a real-time micromanaged system not practical. However, also, I wanted to do something ‘relatively’ simple, so that for me ruled out destination specification and all the mapping, pathfinding, and obstacle avoiding work that involves. That pushed me towards something somewhere in between. I opted for the user specifying an action(direction) and a duration in seconds. This did mostly work as shown in the video, though it can get tedious, and a little frustrating if you over or undershoot what you really wanted to do.

So what led to the “Alexa, turn on X” constraint I was working under? Well, unless you use the official Amazon Echo SDK (Alexa Skills Kit, linked below), and host your server code for Amazon’s servers to talk to, you’re limited to types of interactions Echo already can do. Further it seemed to me that going down the Echo SDK road didn’t change the paradigm in any useful way. All voice commands would still have to follow the format of “Alexa, [action word] [target]” or very similar, so not really faster to say, and not any faster for Echo to process and respond.

We’ll have to keep an eye out on other cool hacks using Amazon Echo, which is $30 off today only.

Hack away!