LONDON–NXP Semiconductors has partnered with Amazon to make Alexa voice-recognition hardware and software available as a reference design for integration into other devices, part of a wave of chip makers looking to cash in on the success of digital assistants in hopes that OEMs will begin incorporating voice recognition and command capabilities in other products.
The NXP reference design uses the same 7-microphone array, far-field audio processing, and beam- forming technology as the Amazon Echo, combined with an NXP i.MX7 application processor and access to the Alexa Voice Service (AVS).
“Following the introduction of standalone voice devices such as the Amazon Echo and the new standalone Google Assistant, what we're seeing now is a rush by a wide range of device manufacturers to integrate voice into their end devices, from washing machines to smoke alarms to alarm clocks,” said Robert Thompson, i.MX ecosystem manager at NXP.
“But to do that, a lot of companies don’t have the in-house experience in audio or voice,” Thompson said. “This reference platform is designed to short cut a lot of these challenges and get the process moving a lot quicker without having to design a microphone array, without having to source a base board, and without having to piece all the software together … you can focus on usage models and what is relevant to the device you're looking to integrate Alexa into.”
Amazon recently released Lex, a version of its Alexa speech-recognition service to let developers enable apps for voice. NXP as well as other chip vendors such as Conexant and QuickLogic are hoping that multiple OEMs will start shipping Alexa-like devices this year with their chips.
The NXP reference design is “very much” based on the Echo, Thompson said, as it uses the same 7-microphone array and the same echo cancellation software. However, there are some key differences. NXP has taken care to select surrounding components that are easily available through major distribution channels. And while the Echo doesn’t use NXP silicon (the Amazon Tap is based on the i.MX6 SoloLite, though), the reference design uses an NXP i.MX7 application processor.
“We were looking to utilize [an application processor] that could scale across a whole range of usage models,” said Thompson. “The i.MX7 has dual ARM Cortex A7 and M4 cores, each running up to a Gigahertz —– powerful cores in terms of DMIPS and processing capabilities, but the i.MX7 was also designed with a low- power architecture in mind for portable and mobile devices.”
Products based on the reference design are not tied to the i.MX7, though.
“The reference design is a starting point,” Thompson said. “If a customer is looking to run a 5-inch display with 3D graphics, they will need hardware acceleration, and the i.MX7 is not the ideal part for that. We would then offer the i.MX6 or i.MX8, which will be in the market early next year … below the i.MX7, we have the i.MX6 UltraLight, which is a single- core Cortex A7 with an even lower power profile than the i.MX7.”
Regarding software, lower-level stacks and firmware are included in the reference design, so designers can focus on application-level software. Should the need arise to switch to another application processor in the i.MX family, all parts run the same Linux distribution so that any application- level software written will be transferable.
Interested device manufacturers must apply to Amazon to receive the reference design free of charge; it will not be available through NXP or other sales channels.
Originally published on Embedded's sister site, EE Times: “NXP reference design integrates alexa voice control into appliances.”