June 25, 2024

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Willow’s $50 Hardware Piece Could Be the DIY Voice Assistant Puzzle – Ars Technica

Willow’s $50 Hardware Piece Could Be the DIY Voice Assistant Puzzle – Ars Technica

Zoom in / Google’s smart home ambitions are exactly the kind of things Willow and Home Assistant are trying to help people avoid.

Patrick T Fallon / Getty Images

Big Tech voice assistants are struggling. Alexa is Amazon’s biggest money loser, Apple’s Siri is mired in organizational dysfunction and caution, and Google leans heavily on every kind of AI except its own assistant. With perfect timing, the open-source, privacy-conscious Home Assistant aims to enter the void with only a native voice assistant.

The ESP-32-BOX from Espressif.
Zoom in / The ESP-32-BOX from Espressif.


There’s one big problem: Home Assistant doesn’t yet offer a device you can buy and put on your kitchen counter. This is the gap in an intriguing new project, willow, aims to fill. It’s a project to use a specific set of devices: ESP-32-BOX Hardware, which provides a basic hardware enclosure ESP32 SoCs. Once Willow is flashed, they can act as locally controlled voice assistants and, eventually, great and easy access points for Home Assistant.

They won’t win design awards, but they look a lot nicer on your kitchen counter or desktop than a bare Raspberry Pi. MICROPHONE ON HATor repurposed gaming or teleconferencing devices.

in Topic “Show hacker news”Willow creator Christian Kilhofner writes that he wants to launch Home Assistant’s audio ambitions by providing ready-to-use hardware. He sets out his offer to help develop its first (“very early”) release: it’s cheap ($50 or less), flashes easily, is self-hosted or entirely on the device, open source, and expandable by software or GPIO pins. Voice detection is accurate and reliable, Kiehlhofner Put up a test video.

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A demo of Willow on the ESP32-S3-BOX competing against an Alexa-powered Dot device to answer commands.

Most of all, Kilhofner writes, it’s “kitchen counter ready.” ESP-32 boxes can be had for about $50 with bracket or $35 in easy-to-build “lite” configurations from Amazon, Adafruit, Ali Express, Mouser, Pi Hut, and other sellers.

Kilhofner received Quick and constructive feedback In his project from Home Assistant founder Paulus Schoutsen. Besides advising on using newer APIs, and suggesting offloading speech/text conversion to the Home Assistant itself, Schoutsen, like others, considered Willow’s “First Steps” section He wondered how many people would be willing to clone, containerize, install, configure, build, connect, flash and then monitor a serial port for their own voice assistant. “You would notice a much higher adoption rate if users could purchase ESP BOX and install the software on it without installing/bundling things.”

Willow’s founder responded, noting his decade-long appreciation for Home Assistant, and noting that the installation process is much easier and other improvements are to come. He also tried to make his Willow ambitions clear.

“[O]Your goal is to be the best hardware voice interface in the world (open source or otherwise) that works really well with Home Assistant,” writes Kielhofner. Our goal is not to be a home voice assistant. I hope that distinction makes at least some sense.” He notes that Offering privacy-conscious voice assistance, as it does in medical settings, is a potential source of revenue for Willow outside of its home use.

It’s hard to compete with the huge install base that three of the world’s largest companies have with their own voice assistants. But an affordable, DIY piece of hardware that has gotten better and more affordable over the generations can make an impact and find its audience. Just ask that British Fruit Company.

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Menu image from Espressif