Google AIY Voice Kit
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!