AlexaPi and a Warning

Amazon DOTIt’s been a busy week already – I’ve been saving up a load of “Can we write articles for your blog?” emails and this morning I decided to take a look. The sample articles were ATTROCIOUS and now I know why so many articles are bad out there – they are written to order by people who just write stuff. Well, no thanks. I’ve asked the lot of them to remove me from their databases.

In the course of the post coming in I noted a Github notice of a new version of ALEXAPI – now for those of you who don’t live in the USA or America, Amazon Alexa is a box that you can talk to and control your home, play music (theirs, not yours) and generally buy Amazon products without needing to be able to read and write. It’s a wonderful thing. ALEXAPI claims to do the same on a Raspberry Pi or similar.

I have two of the Amazon DOT devices (which are very reasonably priced at £49 as against the full on unit which IMHO is, like the Google unit and others, way OVER priced). Very happy with them. Well, I’d be happier if they had an RJ45 connection instead of just WIFI – but that’s ok.

So what do we do with these? Well, we have shopping lists, we listen to music (on Maureen’s account as she has Prime, I don’t) and we control house heating, lighting etc. All in all they’re part of the family – and the BIRDSONG skill drives our cats NUTS which is a lot of fun.

And so it was that I found this link interesting in the email this morning. With this software, a usb mic and speaker of some kind, not only can you emulate an Alexa on a Raspberry Pi but on all manner of other devices.

Now, I long ago gave up on using a Pi, £32 for the Pi, plus powered speaker, plus decent mic plus case plus power supply comes to WAY over the cost of a ready-built Echo complete with REALLY pretty lights and a microphone array.

But this morning for a moment I was distracted – one could use an Orange Pi Zero which is only a few quid!!!  And off I went and followed the instructions. So – before I start, if you want to play with this – you CAN install this on an Orange Pi Zero (Armbian is good), it DOES work and you CAN completely uninstall if. Been there, done that.

I stuck in my USB audio adaptor, powered speaker, 3.5mm stereo microphone and installed the software. I filled in the details on Amazon which gave me the necessary keys to update the config on the AlexaPi.  I rebooted the Orange Pi Zero and…

Nothing.  As usual, audio settings. I talked to some VERY helpful people on their forums who guided me through changing the settings to the USB audio device. I tested it – audio output – perfect. Audio input – perfect. I thanked them,  rebooted and…

“Hello”…

Well, I nearly fell off my seat. “Alexa, what time is it?” – after quite some delay (this is NOTHING like a DOT which responds almost instantly) the unit came back with the time.  I tried a radio station and LO, it played the radio station. By now I was getting excited… I could put up with the delay.

Sadly, and this is no reflection on the obviously hard work done by the designers, things went downhill from there.

“change accounts” I said, wanting to switch to my wife’s account as she has Amazon music. No other people in the account setup. That could have been just a technicality so I ignored that. remember I know exactly how to use these things as I have two DOTS.

“Set a timer” – turns out the unit does not do lists – most likely API-related.

“Find my devices” – this was the killer. It took some hunting down but it was actually in the UNINSTALL instructions that I found … “AVS API doesn't have a way to connect the devices to Amazon.”

That last one was the killer. That and the mic – the problem is – Amazon put a lot of work into the mics – and they handle speech over background music reasonably well. I can blast my music and shout over the couch “ALEXA – SHUT UP” – and it promptly obeys. Not so the AlexaPi – while playing the radio could I HELL get it to take any notice of me until I turned the music down – and I was only sitting 2ft away.

I uninstalled the lot – and my Orange Pi Zero seems to be as good as new. So if you want something new to play with – or if you have a very limited set of needs – have a play. For me – I’d rather fork out £49 at this point.

It was suggested that one thing this software could to that the real thing can’t – is respond asynchronously – i.e. use it to output speech without a command – that is an annoying omission on the Amazon system – though if you write a special skill you can have it say what you want in reply – but then you have to call the skill and have a secure connection etc. 

But then it occurred to me – I have a Raspberry Pi running the house and HABRIDGE – and it has Node-Red and I already have IVONA speech on it – all I need is a speaker and when the DOT talks to HABRIDGE to fire an MQTT control message to my lighting and heating – it can also send off some speech itself. Don’t know why I didn’t think of that before.

So there it is.

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23 thoughts on “AlexaPi and a Warning

      1. Yes but for a tenner it's now running Jessie lite and Node red, Big timer ...etc and allowing monitor/control over my hot water heating, not bad for £10 and some bits and bobs from my parts bin.
        I think the controller I was using was about £30 5 years ago.

    1. Just done some workd on the Pi Zero W.... my script needs altering to work on it and we will get that working but for comparison - the script takes maybe an hour on the Pi2 on hardware ethernet. From our tests (until part of the install failed) I'm guessing it is going to take all day on the Pi Zero W. Time will tell, more when we get a fix on the script to handle the ARM6.

      1. Yes, it's slower than it's big brother, it took about 25 min's to run the node red update script to install the latest node red and node.js etc. but using node red it's very usable it doesn't seem to be much slower than the Pi3 but then again I'm not doing a lot with it.

        I'm also running the relay and DS18B20 direct from the Zero rather than my original plan to control a Wemos D1 remotely.

          1. You're dead right .... I didn't find the WiFi on the Pi3 very reliable at all but I must say that the last two days the Zero W seems to be rock steady, it Might be because it's got the latest Jessie install, I'll have to get around to updating the Pi3 and trying WiFi again I'm using a LAN cable for the Pi3 at the moment.

            I'm trying to get my head around your Big timers at the moment, I'll have to re-read the blog article.

    1. Scott: Thanks for that - I looked at this some time ago with interest - sadly, the claim that they'd reduce the image size from 32 Meg was there AGES ago and still is - which leads my simple logic to conclude that this is a somewhat dead project. It also says "the app could run on any computer" - which is at odds with the supply of an image which presumably will only run on a Raspberry Pi. You certainly can't put an RPI image for a Pi and dump it onto an Orange Pi Zero - which is where I think this needs to sit on cost grounds. The Pi and accessories come to the same price as a superior, finshed "DOT". For me, to be worth doing the hardware has to be maybe half the cost fo a DOT otherwise why bother. I note there are 4 modules - nice - but still falling short of things like shopping lists which are an excellent feature of the Amazon unit - especially when combined with IFTTT to send the shopping list as an email.

      Don't get me wrong - I REALLY don't want Amazon with it's America-centric world view to win this war, but we need some software to work on cheap hardware. I also like using the hardware for other stuff - which is why I was drawn to the AlexaPi idea - as I have a fully-kitted-out Orange Pi Zero which could have been used for all sorts of other jobs when not answering speech requests.

      I note that the project uses Ivona for speech - an excellent solution - other than the fact that they no longer accept signups on their website. Regular readers will of course know that you can sign up via an Amazon AWS account, but that still doesn't guarantee the future of Ivona.

      Still - I wonder if I can find a 32GB card lying around - nearly all of mine, bought for using with SBCs, are 8GB and 16GB... indeed I think I have everything BUT 32GB!

  1. There are rumours that "push notification" functionality will be added to Alexa.... I really hope so. I have 4 of the things around the house talking to node red at home so Alexa 'skills' are not so interesting for me.

    1. Tony: We wrote our own skill for Alexa some time ago enabling us to have Alexa talk back, but it is amazing how inconvenient it is to have to utter an extra two words. Instead of "Alexa, turn the lights on" - the skill-based version is "Alexa, ask XXXX to turn the lights on". Used several times a day you get an urge to use the shorter version (which has no feedback other than the utterly useless "OK"). Push notifications would be good. Personally I'd rather have an API in the unit which would simply return the words and let me do my own thing - but systems which do that are flawed. For example you can get a phone to do that with Google Now - but Tasker and the plug in only just work - with a search page briefly popping up before being killed. We're still a long way from ideal.

    2. Im waiting for the push notification feature too... As for now i have included all tasks like light on/off or shutter up/down via node-red and the reply message is according to the command - so not only an "OK", but its a bit static too.
      I have push notifications via ivona - but it stopped some day, maybe i should update the ivona node... But i hope i can remove the extra rpi with usb sound card and node-red for ivona speech and switch completely over to the echo / or one of the dots for all kind of speech feedback like door open, window open ....
      And i hope push notifications are available before ivone switchs completly over to AWS...

  2. Voice was also a bonus when I managed to pick up a bargain LINX Windows tablet to use as a new smart photo frame at Christmas.

    I can simply run node-red and listen to appropriate MQTT messages - e.g. the front door bell-push - and use PowerShell to ping out some text-to-voice using the native Windows features. "The doorbell has been pressed!".

  3. Hey, thank you for the honest review!

    It's too bad that we can't do some things in AlexaPi like with Echo, so if people have / can buy Echo, it is generally the better option for user experience. People who don't mind the limitations of AlexaPi can however appreciate that they don't have to pay anything for it and don't have to be in the US.

    Just to clarify / provide more info:
    > It took some hunting down but it was actually in the UNINSTALL instructions that I found … “AVS API doesn't have a way to connect the devices to Amazon.”

    It's actually "Q&A (FAQ)" page ( https://github.com/alexa-pi/AlexaPi/wiki/Q&A-(FAQ) ) and both things are separate questions.

    > after quite some delay (this is NOTHING like a DOT which responds almost instantly)

    We now have a pending PR ( https://github.com/alexa-pi/AlexaPi/pull/188 ) which speeds things up quite a lot. Your article actually made me have another look at it - thanks!

    > That last one was the killer. That and the mic – the problem is – Amazon put a lot of work into the mics – and they handle speech over background music reasonably well.

    This might get better with snowboy (pending PR - https://github.com/alexa-pi/AlexaPi/pull/177). But of course AlexaPi cannot compare to Echo anytime soon. Custom fine-tuned hardware with great software that also leverages the knowledge of the HW is something AlexaPi cannot do for all the various devices.

    We want to support Timers & Alarms, which we will with the new API, but that will take time.

    1. Hi Rene

      You are right about cost - except it is a delusion when you actually tot up even discounted costs for the bits - and you don't have to be in America- you can be in the UK, America and at least one European country I don't recall. But even with latest API I don't think you get control of home devices - so for me that's a waste of time.

  4. Alexa is available outside US/UK and Germany.
    I live in Denmark and have 3 atm.
    Setup is a problem, but done over a with a Raspberry Pi, it is no problem at all.
    Only downside is, that Alexa don't recognize the geographical area, so weather and traffic is not something she can help with.
    I have a Google Home as well - here neither setup or geography is a problem.
    Beside this, Alexa controls my lighting, pc, tv over net or via a few Sonoff´s with the Tasmota software.

  5. I wish I'd had read this a week ago!! I've been trying to install AlexaPi, OpenHAB2 and CGate for my home automation. I've had Openhab and Cgate running for a while with no issues and thought it would be a good idea to get Alexa running as Openhab have made a new skill that works well on my kids kindles. What they also don't tell you from the first install of AlexaPi is that it runs better on Rasbian lite (or I missed it) I finally got them all working on my pi and my devices discovered on the Alexa app but AlexaPi cannot see them nor can it see any Ifttt as a work around and I know that the previous Alexa Pi did. Wasted a week of my life trying to get this working for nothing!!....

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