A booth displaying white-painted home appliances that can be controlled by Google smart home.
To enlarge / Google’s smart home ambitions are what Willow and Home Assistant are trying to prevent people from doing.

Patrick T. Fallon/Getty Images

Big Tech voice assistants are struggling. Alexa is Amazon’s biggest money-loser, Apple’s Siri is mired in organizational dysfunction and prudence, and Google is bent on every kind of AI except its own assistant. The open-source, privacy-driven Home Assistant aims to step into the space with perfect timing, a native voice-only assistant.

ESP-32-BOX device from Espressif.
To enlarge / ESP-32-BOX device from Espressif.


There’s one big problem: Home Assistant doesn’t yet offer any hardware you can buy and put on your kitchen counter. This space is an exciting new project, Willow, aims to fill. This is a project to use a specific set of hardware: ESP-32-BOX devices that provide the basic hardware shell around ESP32 SoCs. Once lit with Willow, they can work as great and easy access points for locally controlled voice assistants and eventually Home Assistant.

They won’t win any design awards, but they look nicer than a bare Raspberry Pi on the kitchen counter or desk. microphone HAT is onor repurposed gaming or teleconferencing equipment.

In “Show hacker news” topic, Willow founder Christian Kielhofner writes that he wanted to enable Home Assistant’s voice ambitions by providing off-the-shelf hardware. It pitches itself to help develop its first (“and VERY early”) release: Inexpensive ($50 or less), easily flashable, self-hosted or completely on-device, open source, and software or Can be expanded with GPIO pins. Sound detection is accurate and reliable, and Kielhofner Put a demo video.

A demo of Willow on the ESP32-S3-BOX competing with an Alexa powered Dot device to respond to commands.

Most are “kitchen counter ready,” Kielhofner writes. ESP-32 boxes can be purchased from Amazon, Adafruit, Ali Express, Mouser, Pi Hut, and other vendors for about $50 with a stand or $35 in mountable “Lite” configurations.

Kielhofner accepted quick, constructive feedback Home Assistant creator Paulus Schoutsen about his project. In addition to recommending the use of newer APIs and suggesting that speech/text conversion be offloaded to Home Assistant, Schoutsen, like others, Willow’s “Getting Started” section and wondered how many people are willing to clone, containerize, install, configure, build, connect, flash, then trace the serial port to get their own voice assistant. “If users can just buy the ESP BOX and install the software without installing/compiling stuff, you’ll see a much higher adoption rate.”

The Willow founder responded, celebrating a decade of appreciation for Home Assistant and mentioning that an easier setup process and other improvements are coming. He also tried to clarify his ambitions for Willow.

“[O]Your goal is to be the best hardware voice interface in the world (open source or otherwise) that works very well with Home Assistant,” Kielhofner writes. “Our goal is not to be Home Assistant Voice Assistant. I hope the difference makes at least some sense.” He notes that offering privacy-based voice assistance, as in medical settings, is a potential revenue stream for Willow outside of home use.

It’s hard to compete with the huge install base that three of the world’s biggest companies have with their voice assistants. But an affordable, DIY-minded piece of hardware that’s been made better and more affordable over generations can make an impact and find its audience. Just ask for it British fruit company.

List image by Espressif

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *