Awesome Stuff: A Voice-Operated Household Assistant

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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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This post has already been read 266 times!