TweetFollow Us on Twitter

Talking to Your Home Volume Number: 16 (2000)
Issue Number: 11
Column Tag: Home Automation

Talking to Your Home

By Bruce Lawton

Introduction

The futuristic world of talking to your home to operate everything in it is here now! Well, how many times have we heard claims like that? The truth is: for some it really is here now; for others, it is not quite ready yet. Speech recognition technology is delivering some amazing results already and it is just getting better as the computers get faster and the recognition software continues to improve.

To make it happen, we'll be talking about voice commands, microphone(s), a Power Macintosh, software, X-10 home automation hardware and your existing lamps, appliances and other gadgets. This discussion assumes you're already familiar with general X-10 home automation. If not, check out the June 2000 issue of MacTech.

Why You Might Want to Use Voice Commands

The most useful application for speech recognition is for persons wanting to overcome a physical handicap. With limited mobility or limited dexterity, speech recognition enables someone to operate lamps, appliances and home entertainment units that would otherwise be difficult or impossible to operate. In this way, the quality of life can be greatly improved, giving the person a bit more independence.

For those who are not physically limited, operating the home by voice can be a matter of convenience or just plain fun. How many times have you settled into bed and then realized (perhaps with a little helpful reminder from your dear significant other) that some lights were left on? The easiest thing to do is to say "Turn off all lights."

It is also impressive to show your PC friends what your Macintosh will do in response to your voice commands. There's nothing quite like seeing everyday hardware operated by voice.


Figure 1. From voice to lamp.

Setting up the Microphone(s)

To get started, you must first plan how you're going to get your voice to your Macintosh. There are at least three ways to do it. The most inexpensive microphone configuration is the standard PlainTalk, corded microphone connected directly to your Mac. The obvious drawback is that the cord restricts the distance you can go from your Mac while issuing voice commands. In some situations, this may be adequate.

The most cost-effective approach giving you more range is to use a wireless microphone that transmits your voice as your own personal FM radio station. Then you have a small FM radio connected to your Mac to feed the sound in. The range on the microphone should enable operation from anywhere in a normal-sized home. My own experience is that the Pro.2 microphone from Lotus Productions ( www.lotusproductions.com, (800) 211-3778 ) works well and costs around $45. A small $25 radio from Radio Shack will receive the FM signal and should be connected to either your A/V Mac's RCA input jacks or directly to the PlainTalk mic jack using a standard 3.5 mm stereo plug as shown below. The PlainTalk jack is really a stereo line-level input. The extra length of the plug allows the Mac to supply power to the tip which is then used by circuitry in the PlainTalk mic. The normal 3.5 mm stereo plug doesn't use that available power. The headphone jack of the radio provides an audio signal compatible with the PlainTalk mic input. Make sure you adjust the radio headset volume to get the clearest sound with no clipping.


Figure 2. FM microphone and radio.

The deluxe approach is to use in-wall microphones and a mixer. This costs the most, but can give you completely hands-free voice control from any room. There is a fair amount of experience in the comp.home.automation newsgroup from those who have set this up on Windows. It can work well, though I must admit I haven't done this myself — my own home has far too much "noise". Wired microphones can be great for a home with one or maybe two people living there, but may not work well with several people. The Mac's PlainTalk can get confused if it is listening to many voices at once. When using in-wall microphones, each mic has a cable that is run back to the mixer, which is presumably near the Mac. The audio output from the mixer is then connected to the Mac's sound input. Similar to the FM radio configuration, you can feed the line-level signal either into your A/V Mac's RCA input jacks or directly into the PlainTalk mic jack using a standard 3.5 mm stereo plug.

Shure (www.shure.com, (847) 866-2200) makes the SCM-410 and SCM-810 mixers with 4 and 8 inputs respectively. They dynamically cut out the microphones that are not being used, improving the audio quality for the microphone you're speaking to. They cost $800 and $1,200 at iAutomate ( www.iAutomate.com, (800) 741-6790 ). HomeVoice also makes a mixer, sold as part of their "Multiroom Processor Kit" at SmartHome (www.smarthome.com, (800) 762-7846) for $690. Good, compatible, in-wall microphones vary greatly in price, from $70 to $250 or more. One of the most recommended models is the Crown PZM-11, sold at iAutomate and SmartHome.


Figure 3. In-wall microphones with a mixer.

The Software

For our purposes, there are two categories of speech recognition software: dictation and discrete commands. IBM's ViaVoice is an excellent way to get your speech dictation into the Macintosh, but the resulting stream of words is not "understood" by the ViaVoice software. That is, it doesn't know what action you want taken in response to the words. Dictation software is intended as an alternate method of text input — it is not going to help you operate your X-10 system. This is where you want software that understands discrete commands. PlainTalk is at the heart of this type of speech recognition. As it has steadily improved over the years and CPU's have sped up, the reliability has become quite good. The Thinking Home application uses PlainTalk to make your X-10 devices available. First, install PlainTalk. This is done via a "Custom" installation from your MacOS CD or it can be downloaded from Apple's web site at <http://www.apple.com/macos/speech/>. Next, ensure you have checked the "Respond to Voice Commands" checkbox in the Preferences as seen in Figure 4.


Figure 4. Enabling speech commands.

You need to have a device named "Bedroom Lamp" like the example of Figure 5. Now you can say "Turn off the bedroom lamp." and Thinking Home will do the right thing.


Figure 5. Your device names are used by PlainTalk.

Syntax of What You Say to Make it Work

In order to operate a device using Thinking Home, you speak a normal sentence, with the action followed by the device name. For example, "Turn off the bedroom lamp." or "Set the thermostat to heat." The precise syntax is shown here in Backus-Naur Form notation:

<voice-command>   ::= <action> <device-name> |
        "What is the status of the> <device-name> |
      "Set the" <thermostat-name> "to" <mode>
<action>   ::= "Turn on" | "Turn off" | "Dim" | "Brighten"
<device-name>   ::= the device name used in the Thinking Home document
<thermostat-name>::= <device-name> | "thermostat"
<mode>   ::= "Heat" | "Cool" | "Off"

More examples:

  • Turn on the bedroom lamp.
  • Turn off the kitchen light.
  • Dim the theater lights. — will be dimmed by 35%
  • Brighten the bedroom lamp. — for a gentle start in the morning.
  • Set the thermostat to cool.
  • What is the status of the sidewalk lights?

Note that the thermostat can be referred to by the name you gave it, like any other device. Or you can refer to it simply as "thermostat" and Thinking Home will use the first thermostat it finds in any open document.

There are some caveats to asking for the status of a device. First of all, the Mac will speak the reply and you may not be at your Macintosh if you are using the wireless mic or mics installed in each room. The other issue is the accuracy of the status. This will depend on whether the X-10 module is able to report its status. Two-way device modules ($25+) will report their status, but the most common modules that sell for $4 to $12 do not. If you're using an ActiveHome CM-11A computer interface, it will keep track of X-10 commands observed on your home wiring and will report the status of the lamp. This assumes you have not operated it manually. The report from a two-way lamp module would reflect its actual state, including manual operation.

You can also control your X-10 thermostat by saying "Set the thermostat to cool." The choices for thermostat modes are cool, heat and off. Unfortunately, you cannot say "Set the thermostat to 72 degrees." This is one place where PlainTalk is not quite ready. Recognizing spoken numbers is much more difficult than most other speech.

Speakable Items (installed with PlainTalk) is another way to access some of Thinking Home's functionality via speech. For example, you may want to know the time of sunset on a regular basis. By making a Speakable Item like the example below, you can say to your Macintosh "When is sunset?" and the Speakable Items application will run the the AppleScript by that name. The AppleScript can, in turn, tell Thinking Home to speak the time of today's sunset as seen here in Figure 6.


Figure 6. Using Speakable Items to get the time of sunset.

This is also how you can get XTension v3.0 (from Sand Hill Engineering) to respond to your voice. Although XTension does not have built-in support for PlainTalk, it does have excellent support for AppleScript. You can use Speakable Items for speech recognition and make an AppleScript for each command you want recognized. Your scripts in the Speakable Items folder will tell XTension which X-10 device to operate. For example, to get the time of sunset, you'd write a script almost exactly as that for Thinking Home.


Figure 7. XTension Speakable Item for getting the time of sunset.

To use XTension to operate devices via speech, you create an AppleScript like that in Figure 8 and name it as you intend to speak it. Like before, you name this script "Turn off the bedroom lamp". You'll also need to make a similar one for "Turn on the bedroom lamp."


Figure 8. XTension Speakable Item for operation of a device.

To get device status using XTension, you write an AppleScript similar to that shown in Figure 9.


Figure 9. XTension Speakable Item for getting the status of a device.

Tips

Since faster CPU's seem to perform better than slower ones, you will probably want to avoid using a Power Macintosh running less than 100 MHz.

The Shure web site has a wealth of useful information and general advice regarding the various options, such as ceiling- vs. wall-mounted microphones. <http://www.shure.com/support/technotes/app-soundcard.html#Macintosh>

Before you demo your cool home to others, test it out in advance. In particular, check that it works reliably from all locations you plan to be when showing it. When using a wireless microphone, ensure the range is sufficient to operate consistently from all locations where you will be using it. Also, make sure the ambient sounds are the same. Putting on background music just as your guests arrive will change the "noise" level and your speech commands may very well get lost. Once you have it set up nicely, your friends will be amazed.

Conclusion

Integrating speech recognition into your Macintosh X-10 home automation can be useful, convenient and fun. This futuristic technology is ready and affordable today and still improving. Select an arrangement that fits your lifestyle and budget and try it out.

Links


Bruce Lawton is still an enthusiastic Macintosh developer who first got hooked over 15 years ago. He can be reached at bruce@alwaysthinking.com.

 

Community Search:
MacTech Search:

Software Updates via MacUpdate

GarageSale 7.0.7 - Create outstanding eB...
GarageSale is a slick, full-featured client application for the eBay online auction system. Create and manage your auctions with ease. With GarageSale, you can create, edit, track, and manage... Read more
SpamSieve 2.9.28 - Robust spam filter fo...
SpamSieve is a robust spam filter for major email clients that uses powerful Bayesian spam filtering. SpamSieve understands what your spam looks like in order to block it all, but also learns what... Read more
Thunderbird 45.7.1 - Email client from M...
As of July 2012, Thunderbird has transitioned to a new governance model, with new features being developed by the broader free software and open source community, and security fixes and improvements... Read more
Opera 43.0.2442.991 - High-performance W...
Opera is a fast and secure browser trusted by millions of users. With the intuitive interface, Speed Dial and visual bookmarks for organizing favorite sites, news feature with fresh, relevant content... Read more
OnyX 3.2.4 - Maintenance and optimizatio...
OnyX is a multifunction utility that you can use to verify the startup disk and the structure of its system files, to run miscellaneous maintenance and cleaning tasks, to configure parameters in the... Read more
VueScan 9.5.71 - Scanner software with a...
VueScan is a scanning program that works with most high-quality flatbed and film scanners to produce scans that have excellent color fidelity and color balance. VueScan is easy to use, and has... Read more
Slack 2.5.1 - Collaborative communicatio...
Slack is a collaborative communication app that simplifies real-time messaging, archiving, and search for modern working teams. Version 2.5.1: New The way we load teams you don't view often has been... Read more
HandBrake 1.0.3 - Versatile video encode...
HandBrake is a tool for converting video from nearly any format to a selection of modern, widely supported codecs. Features Supported Sources VIDEO_TS folder, DVD image or real DVD (unencrypted... Read more
Vivaldi 1.7.735.46 - An advanced browser...
Vivaldi is a browser for our friends. In 1994, two programmers started working on a web browser. Our idea was to make a really fast browser, capable of running on limited hardware, keeping in mind... Read more
Vivaldi 1.7.735.46 - An advanced browser...
Vivaldi is a browser for our friends. In 1994, two programmers started working on a web browser. Our idea was to make a really fast browser, capable of running on limited hardware, keeping in mind... Read more

Last week on Pocket Gamer
If you’re wondering what’s going on in the wider world of portable gaming, our sister site PocketGamer has you covered. Each week we like to check in on the PG team and see what they’ve been preoccupied with. From the latest on the Nintendo Switch... | Read more »
Mudd Masher arrives this week
Atooi Games, the minds behind Totes the Goat and Mutant Mudds, have a new game in the works -- Mudd Masher. The game, a hybrid of the independent studio's first two titles, is expected to launch this week on March 2. [Read more] | Read more »
The best sales on the App Store this wee...
The App Store has quite an exciting lineup of discount games this week that range across a variety of genres. It's a great opportunity to catch up on some of the premium games you may have been holding off on -- and some you can even grab for free... | Read more »
The best new games we played this week
Ah, here we are again at the close of another busy week. Don't rest too easy, though. We had a lot of great new releases in mobile games this week, and now you're going to have to spend all weekend playing them. That shouldn't be too much of a... | Read more »
Rollercoaster Tycoon Touch Guide: How to...
| Read more »
Rabbids Crazy Rush Guide: How to unlock...
The Rabbids are back in a new endless running adventure, Rabbids Crazy Rush. It's more ridiculous cartoon craziness as you help the little furballs gather enough fuel (soda) to get to the moon. Sure, it's a silly idea, but everyone has dreams --... | Read more »
Tavern Guardians (Games)
Tavern Guardians 1.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $2.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: Tavern Guardians is a Hack-and-Slash action game played in the style of a match-three. You can experience high pace action... | Read more »
Slay your way to glory in idle RPG Endle...
It’s a golden age for idle games on the mobile market, and those addictive little clickers have a new best friend. South Korean developer Ekkorr released Endless Frontier last year, and players have been idling away the hours in the company of its... | Read more »
Tiny Striker: World Football Guide - How...
| Read more »
Good news everyone! Futurama: Worlds of...
Futurama is finding a new home on mobile in TinyCo and Fox Interactive's new game, Futurama: Worlds of Tomorrow. They're really doing it up, bringing on board Futurama creator Matt Groening along with the original cast and writers. TinyCo wants... | Read more »

Price Scanner via MacPrices.net

13-inch 2.7GHz Retina MacBook Pro on sale for...
B&H Photo has the 2015 13″ 2.7GHz/128GB Retina Apple MacBook Pro on sale for $150 off MSRP. Shipping is free, and B&H charges NY tax only: - 13″ 2.7GHz/128GB Retina MacBook Pro (MF839LL/A): $... Read more
13-inch 1.6GHz/256GB MacBook Air on sale for...
Newegg has the 13″ 1.6GHz/256GB MacBook Air (MMGG2LL/A) on sale for $1029.99 including free shipping. Their price is $170 off MSRP, and it’s the lowest price available for this model. Choose Newegg... Read more
Apple refurbished Apple TVs available for up...
Apple has Certified Refurbished 32GB and 64GB Apple TVs available for up to $30 off the cost of new models. Apple’s standard one-year warranty is included with each model, and shipping is free: -... Read more
27-inch 3.3GHz 5K iMac on sale for $2099, sav...
B&H Photo has the 27″ 3.3GHz 5K Apple iMac on sale for $2099.99 including free shipping plus NY sales tax only. Their price is $200 off MSRP. Amazon also has the 27″ 3.3GHz 5K iMac on sale for $... Read more
21-inch iMacs on sale for up to $111 off MSRP
B&H Photo has select 21″ Apple iMacs on sale for up to $110 off MSRP, each including free shipping plus NY sales tax only: - 21″ 2.8GHz iMac: $1189 $110 off MSRP - 21″ 1.6GHz iMac: $999 $100 off... Read more
12-inch 1.2GHz Retina MacBooks on sale for $2...
Newegg has the 12″ 1.2GHz Space Gray Retina MacBook (sku MLH82LL/A) on sale for $1349.99 including free shipping. Their price is $250 off MSRP, and it’s the lowest price available for this model.... Read more
13-inch MacBook Airs on sale for $100 off MSR...
B&H Photo has 13″ MacBook Airs on sale for $100 off MSRP. Shipping is free, and B&H charges NY sales tax only: - 13″ 1.6GHz/128GB MacBook Air (MMGF2LL/A): $899 $100 off MSRP - 13″ 1.6GHz/... Read more
9-inch 32GB Silver iPad Pro on sale for $549,...
B&H Photo has the 9.7″ 32GB Silver Apple iPad Pro on sale for $549 for a limited time. Shipping is free, and B&H charges NY sales tax only. Their price is $50 off standard MSRP for this model... Read more
13-inch 2.0GHz Apple MacBook Pros on sale for...
B&H has the non-Touch Bar 13″ 2.0GHz MacBook Pros in stock today and on sale for $100 off MSRP. Shipping is free, and B&H charges NY sales tax only: - 13″ 2.0GHz MacBook Pro Space Gray (... Read more
15-inch Touch Bar MacBook Pros on sale for up...
B&H Photo has the new 2016 15″ Apple Touch Bar MacBook Pros in stock today and on sale for up to $150 off MSRP. Shipping is free, and B&H charges NY sales tax only: - 15″ 2.7GHz Touch Bar... Read more

Jobs Board

*Apple* Solutions Consultant - Apple (United...
# Apple Solutions Consultant Job Number: 55676865 Los Angeles, California, United States Posted: Feb. 22, 2017 Weekly Hours: 40.00 **Job Summary** As an Apple Read more
Programmer/Editor *Apple* Music Dance - App...
# Programmer/Editor Apple Music Dance Job Number: 55565967 Culver City, California, United States Posted: Feb. 23, 2017 Weekly Hours: **Job Summary** Apple Music Read more
Digital Marketing Specialist - *Apple* iClo...
# Digital Marketing Specialist - Apple iCloud Job Number: 54729233 Culver City, California, United States Posted: Feb. 22, 2017 Weekly Hours: 40.00 **Job Summary** Read more
Marketing Specialist, iTunes & *Apple*...
# Marketing Specialist, iTunes & Apple Music Job Number: 55704205 Culver City, California, United States Posted: Feb. 23, 2017 Weekly Hours: 40.00 **Job Summary** Read more
*Apple* Wireless Lead - T-ROC - The Retail O...
…of knowledge in wireless sales and activations to the Beautiful and NEW APPLE Experiencestore within MACYS. THIS role, APPLE Wireless Lead, isbrandnewas MACYS Read more
All contents are Copyright 1984-2011 by Xplain Corporation. All rights reserved. Theme designed by Icreon.