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.

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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 is leaning 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 that a strange new project, Willow, aims to fill. It’s a project to use a specific set of hardware: the ESP-32-BOX hardware, which provides a basic hardware wrapper around 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 a kitchen counter or desktop than a bare Raspberry Pi with a HAT microphone, gaming or teleconferencing hardware.

In the “Show Hacker News” series, Willow creator Kristian Kielhofner writes that he wants to launch the audio ambitions of Home Assistant by providing off-the-shelf hardware. He sets out his offer to help develop its first (“very early”) release: it’s cheap ($50 or less), easily flashable, self-hosted or entirely on the device, open source, and expandable by software or GPIO pins. Voice detection is accurate and reliable, and Kielhofner has put together a demonstration video.

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

Kielhofner received quick and constructive feedback about his project from Home Assistant founder Paulus Schoutsen. Besides offering advice on using newer APIs, and suggesting offloading speech/text conversion to the Home Assistant itself, Schoutsen, like others, looked at Willow’s “Getting Started” section and wondered how many people were willing to clone, containerize, install, configure, build , connect, flash, and then monitor a serial port to get 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 ten-year 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,” Kielhofner writes. Our goal is not to be a home voice assistant. I hope this distinction at least makes sense. He notes that providing privacy-sensitive voice assistance, such as 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 the British Fruit Company.

Menu image from Espressif

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