Google AIY Voice Kit

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Google isn’t a name you read­ily as­so­ci­ate with the maker move­ment, but it’s aim­ing to change that per­cep­tion through a new ini­tia­tive it calls AIY (Ar­ti­fi­cial In­tel­li­gence Your­self); at its heart, this is an ef­fort to pro­mote the use of its Google Cloud and Google As­sis­tant plat­forms.

The kit is pro­vided only par­tially com­plete. To make the AIY Voice Kit, you need to pro­vide the brains in the form of a Rasp­berry Pi mi­cro­com­puter with a power sup­ply and mi­cro-SD card. Of­fi­cially, only the lat­est Rasp­berry Pi 3 is sup­ported; un­of­fi­cially, the kit works fine with ev­ery Pi vari­a­tion from the Model B+ with wired net­work­ing.

The meat of the kit, once the card­board chassis is moved out of the way, is a Googledesigned Voice HAT (hard­ware at­tached on top) board. Out of the box, this HAT pro­vides sim­ple keyed con­nec­tions for the rest of the hard­ware in the kit: a sur­pris­ingly beefy speaker, a daugh­ter­board with stereo MEMS mi­cro­phones and a light-up ar­cade-style push-but­ton for ac­ti­va­tion.

A quick look at the board re­veals more tricks up its sleeve though. Un­pop­u­lated head­ers are pro­vided for con­nec­tion to an im­pres­sive count of six ser­vos or other PWM-con­trolled mo­tors, while fur­ther head­ers pro­vide con­nec­tions to the Pi’s I²C and SPI buses, and there’s a fur­ther four ‘drivers’ for con­nec­tion to DC mo­tors.

In short: the AIY board is ridicu­lously ov­erengi­neered, and is de­signed as far more than a sim­ple do-it-your­self Google Home de­vice. Sadly, though, the soft­ware doesn’t quite match up to the prom­ise: the pro­vided ex­am­ple is sim­ply a Google Home reim­ple­men­ta­tion in Python, lis­ten­ing to your speech at the press of the but­ton, tran­scrib­ing it and send­ing the re­sult­ing query to the Google As­sis­tant API, re­sult­ing in a text-tospeech an­swer de­liv­ered through the speaker. Build­ing the kit is sim­ple enough. If you don’t need the ex­tra fea­tures, there’s no need for a sol­der­ing iron; the speaker’s wires at­tach to screw ter­mi­nals, while the mi­cro­phone and but­ton use keyed ca­bles. Only two ar­eas are likely to cause a prob­lem: in­stalling the but­ton’s LED, which comes down to the luck of the draw as to whether you get it the right way around or not; and fold­ing the card­board case to­gether while keep­ing the Pi po­si­tioned in­side.

The soft­ware side, though, is a lit­tle more awk­ward. Set­ting up a real Google Home is as sim­ple as plug­ging it in and run­ning the Google Home app on your smart­phone or tablet; set­ting up the AIY Kit for Google Home fea­tures re­quires you to get in­ti­mate with the Google Cloud dash­board, cre­at­ing API keys and down­load­ing JSON snip­pets con­tain­ing au­then­ti­ca­tion de­tails. Also, the cur­rently avail­able cus­tomised Rasp­bian im­age for use with the AIY kit comes with SSH de­ac­ti­vated, mean­ing you’ll ei­ther need to fid­dle around prior to first boot or at­tach a key­board and mon­i­tor to the de­vice.

The ser­vice isn’t free ei­ther. Buried in the doc­u­men­ta­tion for the kit is the ad­mis­sion that you’re limited to an hour of speech recog­ni­tion per month, tracked in 15-sec­ond in­cre­ments – equiv­a­lent to eight queries a

day ev­ery day. Any us­age above this amount is billed at $0.006 US (around £0.0046, VAT de­pen­dent) per 15-sec­ond in­cre­ment – and while that might not sound like much, it’s more than a real Google Home user needs to pay. It also clashes with the sug­ges­tion that the kit could be used to build a voice-driven robot: even a quick demon­stra­tion can burn through a hun­dred or more ‘left,’ ‘right,’ and ‘stop chas­ing the cat’ com­mands.

When you ac­ti­vate your Google Cloud ac­count, you’re of­fered a deal: $300 US in credit (around £232) for the first year. If you’re not bored with it by then, Google clearly be­lieves you’ll be happy to splash out for per-query billing.

Run­ning costs aside, there’s a lot to like about the AIY Voice Kit. The HAT is fully fea­tured and can serve at the heart of al­most any robot or home au­to­ma­tion sys­tem, even if you’re not in­ter­ested in us­ing the voice recog­ni­tion ca­pa­bil­i­ties. It’s also hard not to grin the first time you smack the but­ton and ask the Google As­sis­tant to tell you a joke or weather fore­cast, although some ad­vanced fea­tures of Google Home, such as mu­sic play­back, sim­ply don’t work.

There’s one key un­known that will spell suc­cess or fail­ure for Google’s ef­fort though: price. The AIY Voice Kit was re­leased as a cover-mounted give­away on The MagPi Mag­a­zine for £5.99 inc VAT, a bar­gain­base­ment price; the com­pany hasn’t, how­ever, in­di­cated how much the kit will cost when its ex­clu­siv­ity agree­ment has come to an end. If it costs less than £20 inc VAT, the kit will be a no-brainer; at £50 or more, it’s go­ing to be harder to rec­om­mend. More in­for­ma­tion about the AIY kit is avail­able at https://aiypro­jects.with­google.com

It might not look like much, but this box is ef­fec­tively Google Card­board Home

The AIY Kit HAT board is mas­sively ov­erengi­neered, with room for mo­tors and ser­vos ga­lore

While de­signed with the Rasp­berry Pi 3 in mind, the HAT works with any model from the B+ up­wards

Al­most all the gear you need is sup­plied, bar the Rasp­berry Pi it­self

Assem­bly is rel­a­tively straight­for­ward, but the last few folds re­quire four hands!

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