Prototyping Hardware Powered by Alexa

Alasdair Allan
3 min readMay 11, 2017

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The $100 million Alexa Fund was set up Amazon a couple of years ago to support companies working with the Alexa Voice Service and the Alexa Skills Kit. It has driven adoption of Amazon voice technology by third-party manufacturers, although it’s not always been plain sailing for partners.

However most homebrew versions of the Amazon Echo suffer from problems around the microphones. They just don’t perform as well as Amazon’s own Echo, which makes use of a custom far-field microphone array. Though recently Amazon has opened this technology to third-party manufacturers.

The Conexant 4-Mic Development Kit being plugged into a Raspberry Pi. (📷: Conexant)

Looking every so slightly like a severed and skinned top half of an Amazon Echo—that ring of LEDs is stylistically rather similar after all—the newly released Conexant 4-mic development kit is intended for prototyping far-field devices with Amazon Alexa.

While really intended for manufacturers to prototype voice recognition and natural-language support functionality into a product before moving to full assembly line production, the kit has extensive documentation about how to get it up an working with the Raspberry Pi.

The sample application that accompanies the kit is a full hands-free ‘Echo-like’ implementation, including wake-word support. From unboxing the development kit, to getting the sample application up and running on the Raspberry Pi, can probably be done in under half an hour if you’re familiar with other bits of the Amazon Web Services platform.

Unfortunately while the kit itself is fully featured, the downside is the cost — the Conexant 4-mic kit costs $349. That’s a lot of sticker shock to experiment with Alexa, unless you really have an application in mind that requires far-field microphones.

The Seeed Studio ReSpeaker. (📷: SeeedStudio)

There are also some solid alternatives to the kit. One of these is the Seeed Studio ReSpeaker which, along with the optional ReSpeaker Mic Array which provides far-field microphone support, will cost you just $148 combined. Which is less than half the cost of the Conexant kit.

The ReSpeaker is also possibly a bit more maker friendly, and Seeed’s getting started guide also has instructions to get their board up and running with Alexa on the Raspberry Pi.

However despite the price tag, if you have use case that really requires the far-field microphones the Conexant kit offers—especially if you’re thinking of building a product out of your project—it could well be a good place for you to start.

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Alasdair Allan

Scientist, Author, Hacker, Maker, and Journalist.