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.

 
AAPL
$108.00
Apple Inc.
+1.02
MSFT
$46.95
Microsoft Corpora
+0.90
GOOG
$559.08
Google Inc.
+8.77

MacTech Search:
Community Search:

Software Updates via MacUpdate

Vitamin-R 2.20b1 - Personal productivity...
Vitamin-R creates the optimal conditions for your brain to work at its best by structuring your work into short bursts of distraction-free, highly focused activity alternating with opportunities for... Read more
Dropbox 2.10.44 - Cloud synchronization...
Dropbox is an application that creates a special Finder folder that automatically syncs online and between your computers. It allows you to both backup files and keep them up-to-date between systems... Read more
Sandvox 2.9.2 - Easily build eye-catchin...
Sandvox is for Mac users who want to create a professional looking website quickly and easily. With Sandvox, you don't need to be a Web genius to build a stylish, feature-rich, standards-compliant... Read more
Cocktail 8.0.1 - General maintenance and...
Cocktail is a general purpose utility for OS X that lets you clean, repair and optimize your Mac. It is a powerful digital toolset that helps hundreds of thousands of Mac users around the world get... Read more
LibreOffice 4.3.3.2 - Free Open Source o...
LibreOffice is an office suite (word processor, spreadsheet, presentations, drawing tool) compatible with other major office suites. The Document Foundation is coordinating development and... Read more
VMware Fusion 7.0.1 - Run Windows apps a...
VMware Fusion allows you to create a Virtual Machine on your Mac and run Windows (including Windows 8.1) and Windows software on your Mac. Run your favorite Windows applications alongside Mac... Read more
OneNote 15.3.2 - Free digital notebook f...
OneNote is your very own digital notebook. With OneNote, you can capture that flash of genius, that moment of inspiration, or that list of errands that's too important to forget. Whether you're at... Read more
Audio Hijack Pro 2.11.4 - Record and enh...
Audio Hijack Pro drastically changes the way you use audio on your computer, giving you the freedom to listen to audio when you want and how you want. Record and enhance any audio with Audio Hijack... Read more
Iridient Developer 3.0.0 beta 3 - Powerf...
Iridient Developer (was RAW Developer) is a powerful image conversion application designed specifically for OS X. Iridient Developer gives advanced photographers total control over every aspect of... Read more
TextWrangler 4.5.11 - Free general purpo...
TextWrangler is the powerful general purpose text editor, and Unix and server administrator's tool. Oh, and also, like the best things in life, it's free. TextWrangler is the "little brother" to... Read more

Latest Forum Discussions

See All

Monster Flash Review
Monster Flash Review By Jordan Minor on October 31st, 2014 Our Rating: :: ALONE IN THE DARKUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad Solid shooting and a surprising amount of spooky tension make Monster Flash a great portable... | Read more »
Retry Review
Retry Review By Rob Thomas on October 31st, 2014 Our Rating: :: SOARING HIGHUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad Flappy who? Let Retry wash all those bad bird-related memories away on a cool retro-flavored flight… right... | Read more »
Dementia: Book of the Dead Review
Dementia: Book of the Dead Review By Lee Hamlet on October 31st, 2014 Our Rating: :: A TOUGH READUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad A witch hunter is sent after a demonic book in the spooky but short-lived Dementia: Book... | Read more »
Card Dungeon, the Semi-Board Game Roguel...
Card Dungeon, the Semi-Board Game Roguelike, Has Been Renovated Posted by Jessica Fisher on October 31st, 2014 [ permalink ] | Read more »
Logitech Protection + Power iPhone5/5S C...
Made by: Logitech Price: $99.99 Hardware/iOS Integration Rating: 3 out of 5 stars Usability Rating: 0.5 out of 5 stars Reuse Value Rating: 0.75 out of 5 stars Build Quality Rating: 0.75 out of 5 stars Overall Rating: 1.25 out of 5 stars | Read more »
This Is Not a Test Goes Free, Permanentl...
This Is Not a Test Goes Free, Permanently Posted by Jessica Fisher on October 31st, 2014 [ permalink ] Universal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad | Read more »
Swap Heroes Review
Swap Heroes Review By Campbell Bird on October 31st, 2014 Our Rating: :: STRATEGIC SWAPPINGUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad Rotate a cast of heroes to fend of waves of monsters in this difficult, puzzle rpg.   | Read more »
Night Sky Pro™ (Reference)
Night Sky Pro™ 3.0.1 Device: iOS Universal Category: Reference Price: $2.99, Version: 3.0.1 (iTunes) Description: Night Sky Pro™Wonder No More™ Night Sky Pro™ is the ultimate stargazing experience. From the creators of the original... | Read more »
Audio Defence : Zombie Arena (Games)
Audio Defence : Zombie Arena 1.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $4.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: A zombie shooter audio game. Made from gut-wrenching 3D binaural sound, for a new kind of weird immersion. You... | Read more »
RPG Asdivine Hearts (Games)
RPG Asdivine Hearts 1.1.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $3.99, Version: 1.1.0 (iTunes) Description: SPECIAL PRICE50% OFF (USD 7.99 -> USD 3.99)!!! Travel alongside four companions and a cat in the adventure of a... | Read more »

Price Scanner via MacPrices.net

Apple now offering refurbished 2014 13-inch R...
The Apple Store is now offering Apple Certified Refurbished 2014 13″ Retina MacBook Pros for up to $270 off the cost of new models. An Apple one-year warranty is included with each model, and... Read more
Apple Regains Momentum As Windows Stutters An...
The latest smartphone sales data from Kantar Worldpanel ComTech, for the three months to March 2014, shows Apple performing strongly in the first quarter of the year, with sales bouncing back in... Read more
Worldwide Smartphone Shipments Increase 25.2%...
New smartphone releases and an increased emphasis on emerging markets drove global smartphone shipments above 300 million units for the second consecutive quarter, according to preliminary data from... Read more
Apple now offering refurbished 2014 15-inch M...
The Apple Store is now offering Apple Certified Refurbished 2014 15″ Retina MacBook Pros for up to $400 off the cost of new models. An Apple one-year warranty is included with each model, and... Read more
Apple drops prices on refurbished 2013 Retina...
The Apple Store has dropped prices on 2013 Apple Certified Refurbished 13″ and 15″ Retina MacBook Pros, with Retina models now available starting at $999. Apple’s one-year warranty is standard, and... Read more
New 2.8GHz Mac mini on sale for $949, save $5...
Abt Electronics has the new 2.8GHz Mac mini in stock and on sale for $949.05 including free shipping. Their price is $50 off MSRP, and it’s the lowest price available for this model from any reseller... Read more
Sale! 3.7GHz Quad Core Mac Pro available for...
 B&H Photo has the 3.7GHz Quad Core Mac Pro on sale for $2649 including free shipping plus NY sales tax only. Their price is $350 off MSRP, and it’s the lowest price for this model from any... Read more
Mujjo Steps Up The Game With Refined Touchscr...
Netherlands based Mujjo have just launched their Refined Touchscreen Gloves, stepping up their game. The gloves feature a updated elegant design that takes these knitted gloves to the next level. A... Read more
Sale! Preorder the new 27-inch 5K iMac for $2...
 Abt Electronics has the new 27″ 3.5GHz 5K iMac on sale and available for preorder for $2374.05 including free shipping. Their price is $125 off MSRP, and it’s the lowest price available for this... Read more
Simplex Solutions Inc. Brings Secure Web Surf...
New York based Simplex Solutions Inc. has announced the release and immediate availability of Private Browser 1.0, its revolutionary new secure web browser developed for iPhone, iPad and iPod touch... Read more

Jobs Board

Position Opening at *Apple* - Apple (United...
**Job Summary** Every day, business customers come to the Apple Store to discover what powerful, easy-to-use Apple products can do for them. As a Business Leader, Read more
Sr. Manager, *Apple* Deployment Programs fo...
**Job Summary** Apple is seeking candidates for a new position on the Education Content and Technology team. iPad and Mac is in the hands of millions of teachers and Read more
*Apple* Solutions Consultant (ASC) - Apple I...
…important role that the ASC serves is that of providing an excellent Apple Customer Experience. Responsibilities include: * Promoting Apple products and solutions Read more
*Apple* Solutions Consultant (ASC) - Apple I...
…important role that the ASC serves is that of providing an excellent Apple Customer Experience. Responsibilities include: * Promoting Apple products and solutions Read more
*Apple* Solutions Consultant (ASC) - Apple I...
…important role that the ASC serves is that of providing an excellent Apple Customer Experience. Responsibilities include: * Promoting Apple products and solutions Read more
All contents are Copyright 1984-2011 by Xplain Corporation. All rights reserved. Theme designed by Icreon.