Building Your Own Voice Assistant Is Getting Simpler and More Affordable

Alasdair Allan
4 min readJul 17, 2017

Over the last couple of months we’ve seen a number of third party developer kits for Amazon’s Alexa Voice Service. Ranging from rather expensive options to somewhat less expensive ones, along with others kits aimed directly at pro makers and manufacturers wanting to evaluate new chips before building their product around them and Amazon’s Alexa.

The Google AIY Project’s Kit, free with issue 57 of the Mag Pi magazine. (📷: Raspberry Pi)

Not to be left out, if you picked up a copy of issue 57 of the Mag Pi—the official magazine of the Raspberry Pi—you’d have also picked up a free project kit from Google enabling you to add voice interaction to your own Raspberry Pi projects using Google’s Voice Assistant.

Google has also collaborated on some rather ambitious projects to promote their voice service. Accompanied by beautiful photography, the hardware, and software for their build is meticulously detailed in the GitHub repo allowing you to go out and recreate a bartending robot.

Even Apple has taken tentative steps towards opening things up with recent announcements around their HomeKit standard, which might—perhaps—eventually lead them to give more access to Siri.

There is in fact—at this point—rather a lot of hardware, software, and documentation about how to build your own Voice Assistant. In the course of a just year or two its gone from impossibly hard, to simple—and now it’s getting affordable.

The Orange Pi Zero. (📷: Orange Pi)

You can now pick up an Orange Pi Zero board for just $6.99 from AliExpress. That, along with a $1.99 expansion board to add a microphone and audio jack, should be enough to run your voice assistant. As we’ve seen before the price of capable computing is falling, and computing that is “good enough” is now almost cheap enough to throw away.

Alternatively, if you want to spend a bit more money, then the folks over at pi-top—the ones that brought you one of the first Raspberry Pi-powered laptops—have brought out the pi-topPULSE designed to be a plug-and-play solution to get you going with Amazon’s Alexa.

The pi-topPULSE. (📷: Pi-Top)

Priced at $49.99 the PULSE—while a lot more expensive that rolling your own using an Orange Pi Zero—is still a lot cheaper than some of the other options we’ve seen for third party hardware with Alexa integration, and it also comes with some interesting extras, including a 7x7 grid of RGB pixels, a 2W amplifier, and a microphone with automatic gain control.

The pi-topPULSE on the accessory rail of their laptop. (📷: Pi-Top)

Designed to fit on the rails of Pi-Top’s own laptop—or their desktop computer the Pi-Top CEED—the PULSE is also is none the less HAT compatible. Although it is only compatible with the Raspberry Pi 3 due to a UART issue.

That means that you don’t need any of their other hardware to use the board and it can be attached directly to a normal Raspberry Pi, and while their libraries come pre-installed on their own OS you can also install them on a default Raspbian installation.

Of course it’s only worth rolling your own hardware if you want to do something unusual with the service, or get it talking to hardware that the official hardware from Amazon or Google doesn’t—if you’re interested in building your own Voice Assistant to try and pull together the growing crowd of smart devices scattered around your home for instance, then it’s now cheaper and easier than ever to do that—because no matter what route you choose to build your own, it’s going to be hard to $49.99 with free shipping from Amazon for an Echo Dot that works as soon as you plug it in. That is, if you just want to play music.