San Diego Union
Tribune - Business: Personal Technology - Section E
Date: 08, April 2002
Speaking of Technology
capability being extended to household devices
By Neil McManus
careful what you say around the house. Your appliances may be
control, long the stuff of science fiction and computer lab experiments,
is popping up in more and more mundane household devices like clock
radios, MP3 players, television remotes, telephones and light switches.
longer have to push buttons or twist dials to listen to music or brew
coffee: you simply tell your appliances what you want, and through
built-in microphones and microprocessors they understand and obey your
low-end voice controls are not designed for space travel but rather to
make everyday devices easier to use.
voice-activated television remote, for example can spare you from having
to remember hundreds of channel numbers. And even relatively simple
voice-controlled devices like light switches can be a boon to people with
physical disabilities or with poorly placed wall switches in their
yeah, voice control is also kind of fun.
"Sometimes voice control doesn't really start from a need -- it starts as
a feature," said William Meisel, the publisher of Speech Recognition
Update, a monthly newsletter. "Manufacturers say, 'This is a feature that
will make us look high-tech and distinguish us from the other guys without
costing us too much.'"
It is a
feature that could find its way into many more living rooms and kitchens.
Tod Mozer, chief executive of Sensory, a company based in Santa Clara,
Calif., that makes specialized speech recognition chips for appliances,
said that more than 15 million such devices had been sold worldwide. If
you include cellphones with voice-dialing, the estimate rises to 100
sampled some recently released voice-activated devices.
Systems offers a voice-operated dimmer switch for lamps for $35 and a
voice-activated module for appliances for $30 that can be used with any AC
KashNGold's InVoca line includes a voice-activated clock radio for $100
and a television remote control for $100.
there is the Gigaset 4215 voice-controlled wireless phone from Siemens
($180) and a $239 voice-controlled MP3 player, the MXP 100 Sport from
the VOS appliance module first. After glancing at the manual, I plugged a
lamp into the device and the module into a wall outlet.
came into the room just as I said, "Lights." The lamp turned on! Buoyed
by that success, I hooked up the television remote and the lamp dimmer
switch in the living room and the clock radio in the bedroom. The
appliance module was dispatched to a boombox in the kitchen.
turns out, these devices have to be taught to respond to commands, and the
procedure is slightly different for each appliance. That typically
involves saying a keyword three or four times until the device is
satisfied that it can pick it out in a noisy room.
example, training the television remote required punching in the each
channel number, then repeating the keyword I chose for that channel.
programmed macros, or a single commands that trigger a sequence of
responses. For example, the phrase "Play tape" turned on the television,
tuned in Channel 3, turned on the VCR and pressed the Play button.
training process can be pretty humbling. First of all you are talking to
a household appliance.
you are saying the same words over and over, hoping to get your point
across. It's embarrassing when you say something important and somebody
doesn't understand. It's even more embarrassing when that somebody is
not the first person to be taken aback by the training required for some
where a lot of people get into trouble," said John Lockyer, a senior
technical adviser at Smarthome, a home-automation and smart-appliance
retailer based in Irvine.
expect it to be like "Star Trek,' where voice recognition recognizes all
voices, all languages, and it knows what you want it to do. But there can
be a great deal of setup time. In the case of the remote control, you
have to teach it that CNN is on Channel 35."
worse, some of the devices talk back. A synthesized female voice in the
television remote kept criticizing my delivery. I would utter a command
like "TV power," and she would reply, "Too soft."
completing the training with all of the devices, which took about three
hours, we had a peaceable kingdom.
say, "Radio on,' and the clock radio would turn on. When I said "Sports,"
it would tune in a sports talk station I had programmed. "TV power" turned
on the television, and when I said "Discovery" the cable box clicked over
to the Discovery Channel.
the poltergeist struck. It started with the living room lamp, which would
turn on and off seemingly at will. The clock radio soon started doing the
same thing: we would come home to an empty house and find that the radio
had turned itself on and turned into an oldies station.
the sassy television remote started making programming decisions.
Something about the voice of Bernie Mac, star of the Fox sitcom of the
same name, kept making the remote switch channels.
movie commercial set off the remote to turn up the volume. That triggered
the remote again. The set grew even louder. I managed to jump on the
remote and turn it off before the speakers exploded.
around that time, my wife went to visit her sister 3,000 miles away.
out how to control my appliances a little better, I called Mr. Mozer at
solution turned out to be voice spotting, a feature that Sensory includes
on its chips that involves using a keyword to get a particular device's
attention before uttering a command.
one customer who did a voice-activated fireplace," he said. "You don't
want your fireplace to accidentally go on, so there we used a gateway
word. You had to say 'Superfireplace' or something like that first and
then 'Turn on'."
was restored in our house after I retrained the appliances by using voice
of saying "Sports" to my radio, I would first say, "Radio." Pause. An
L.E.D on the radio turned from orange to green, showing that it was ready
to accept my command "Get sports." The radio might mistakenly hear its
keyword, but it would rarely follow that up by also mistakenly hearing a
that problem was fixed, I started to appreciate the convenience of using
lot easier to say "TV ... HBO" than to remember and punch in a two- or
three-digit channel number for every channel. It's also nice to be able
to control the television while eating.