LAS VEGAS — For those who thought last year’s CES was full of voice-assisted devices, this year it was even more ubiquitous. Not only did Alexa and Google Assistant have massive exhibits (along with some Black Mirror worth audio ads from Google on the monorail), but nearly every appliance and gadget company is showing a voice-controlled version of its devices. Usually they’re connected to either the Alexa or Google framework, and cost somewhat more than the otherwise identical, traditionally controlled version.
A lot of those devices are probably just fine without voice operation, but there are certainly plenty of viable use cases. Some of the simplest are also some of the most useful. For example, I really like being able to set named kitchen timers on a Google Home without using my hands. (It is even more fun now that I’ve learned I can say “Hey, Goo-Goo” instead of “OK, Google.” But each added device is more data flowing to the data miners at Google or Amazon. Going all Apple with Siri is certainly a solid alternative for some — and something Apple has been happy to tout with a major billboard at the show — but isn’t an option if you want access to the much broader world of devices.
Mycroft Mark II: the Open Answer to Amazon and Google?
Given all this, I read with great interest the announcement of Mycroft Mark II. Mycroft itself is a voice-controlled speaker with a small display, and provides a window into the larger Mycroft ecosystem. Mycroft is built on a framework of open source efforts, and funded through a Kickstarter campaign. It is a follow-on to the initial version.
I got a chance to use one of the very first working prototype units at CES this week. It has a lot of rough edges, so I expect it will be a while before it ships, but it did pretty well even in the hostile CES Eureka Park showcase (which is really noisy and has terrible Wi-Fi). The Kickstarter campaign touts a December, 2018 delivery date, but based on what we saw, I’d guess no sooner than March. Team members we spoke with highlighted that they wanted it to work well when they shipped it, as you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.
Mycroft does need to use the cloud to do its magic, but in this case it is either Mycroft’s cloud (and they have a user-friendly set of privacy policies), or the cloud of whatever company embeds the system (in which case you’d of course have to check with them). Technically, you could even host the Mycroft system on your own server, and Mycroft has plans to make that somewhat easier in future.
Is Mycroft the Right Voice Speaker for You?
In terms of price (under $200 depending on configuration) and hardware functionality (multiple microphones, easy-to-read display, overall form factor) Mycroft II is certainly reasonable. If you want to develop your own skills for it, then it is a great way to do that without being beholden to one of the tech giants. That said, it has a smaller set of community-authored skills than the vast library Amazon and Google have started to accumulate.