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issue: July 2006 APPLIANCE Magazine

Sensors and MCUs
Hands-Free Appliance Differentiation

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by David Simpson, Contributing Editor

Will voice control technology move from the toy industry into appliances?

Voice technology offers a different way to interact with appliances. With the VoiceMe, from Humanity-Oriented Technology Corporation (Taipei, Taiwan), a user can control up to three home electronic appliances with voice commands.

As appliance controls become more capable and precise, one of the challenges facing designers is how to keep controls from getting too complicated and unwieldy while giving choices to users. One approach, so far little used in the appliance industry, is voice technology. With this, a user could, for instance, program a washer to follow a customized program with just a few spoken words.
Speech-based controls have been used in PCs, major appliances, consumer electronics, and toys since the mid-1990s. Speech technologies in consumer electronics and toys have seen steady growth since then. Currently, the highest visibility use for speech technologies may be in toys.
“Because of our focus on toys, we’ve been able to get the technology’s costs low, while improving the user experience and accuracy,” observes Todd Moser, president, Sensory Inc. (Santa Clara, California, U.S.). His company makes eight-bit microcontrollers with speech I/O embedded on them. It also supplies voice recognition software that will work with other chips.
“We are now calling on appliance companies with a new generation of high-performance, low-cost chips. Not only are companies interested in how they can simplify the user interface, but in how voice controls can add a bit of differentiation and give a personality to an appliance. There are also advantages for the aged and handicapped populations because of the hands- and eyes-free approach.”
Daewoo Electronics America (Lyndhurst, New Jersey, U.S.) showed a microwave oven and front-loading washer with voice technology at this year’s International Home & Housewares Show in Chicago, Illinois, U.S. The microwave ovens are planned for release in the fourth quarter of 2006. Daewoo uses an IC solution from Sensory for the advanced speech recognition technology that was integrated into the appliances. The technology reportedly adds about U.S. $10 to the retail price.
The Daewoo products at the Housewares Show demonstrated that performing daily chores is easier using the voice-activated appliances. The process consists of stating simple commands to the appliance. The commands are repeated as confirmation, and then executed. The company’s vision is that all Daewoo products, ranging from HDTVs to household appliances, will one day be operated by the sound of the owner’s voice.
Another example of voice recognition in action is seen in the VoiceMe product. This dual power (adaptor/battery), stand-alone appliance uses voice-recognition technology to control appliances such as TVs, DVD players, stereos, or room air-conditioners that have infrared remote control capabilities. Humanity-Oriented Technology Corporation (HOTECH), Taipei, Taiwan, introduced the VoiceMe in 2001, in Germany. It is now mainly marketed in Europe, North America and Australia. The company will launch a new version later this year with more capabilities, higher recognition accuracy, faster response time, and higher noise immunity.
The models use the Sensory RSC chips. These are integrated with other chips to provide such capabilities as intelligent infrared learning and power management, to form a complete system solution. HOTECH reports it can seamlessly and quickly apply embedded voice control in a wide variety of products due to its experience with the RSC chips.
The chips are powered by Fluentchip firmware and offer a full range of speech technologies including speaker-independent and speaker-dependent discrete-word recognition, speech and music synthesis, voice record, DTMF generation, and speaker verification. The chips lower system cost by integrating multiple technologies and features. Microcontroller, RAM, ROM, automatic gain control (AGC), output amplifier, A/D and D/A converters, and timers and comparators are designed-in, reducing the need for external circuitry. The chips run at low power and offer special audio-wakeup features for battery-operated, hands-free devices.
With the single voice control, the VoiceMe user no longer needs to use three remote controls, one by one, and does not have to use the complex setup procedure found in most universal remote controls. For a simple command like “switch channel” the user just needs to say the channel name (for example, “ESPN”) and does not need to remember which number it is or browse channels.
“The most frequently mentioned feedback from end users is that the voice-controlled interface offers the most straightforward way of controlling home electronics,” says Maurice Chan, VoiceMe sales manager. “There is no more need to try a lot of setup codes as when using a traditional remote control. Intelligent infrared learning lets the general public easily cascade infrared signals from different remote controls into one voice command.
“For example, if you want to activate your home theater system, traditionally you would need to use three separate remote controls (TV, DVD player, amplifier) to execute some five or six steps (such as power on TV, switch video source to DVD by pressing button two times, pull out tray of DVD player, power on amplifier) before you can start to play a DVD. But with VoiceMe, once you have trained a command such as, ‘home theater’ and copied all infrared signals for the above-mentioned steps under this command, the next time you just need to say ‘home theater.’ The VoiceMe will do all the operations at the same time for you.”
Chan says the market for the controller has been growing since the product was launched. But, he adds, “Using voice to control home electronics is still new to the vast majority. We and our distributors/retailers have to continue to spend more effort to educate the market. After the end users begin to enjoy using the product, they rely more and more on it as it offers a very friendly user interface both in setup and operation. This brings a practical, intuitive and more intelligent way to control home electronics.”

Suppliers mentioned in this article:
Daewoo Electronics Corp.

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