How a 1950s voice assistant could mute the radio

How a 1950s voice assistant could mute the radio

LONG BEFORE SIRI, there was Audrey. But even before Audrey, there was the plan for the Voice-troll whose name was in question.

In June 1950, Popular Science contributing writer Karl Greif, an electronics technician from upstate New York, offered DIY instructions for building a voice-activated switch that eventually became known as the Voice-trol. At the time, voice activation was such a novelty that DIY was pretty much the only option available to enthusiasts. “There is power in your voice,” Greif wrote. “It can be used to make many types of gadgets pay attention to your wishes.” Voice command alternatives abound today, but for most “gadgets,” it takes at least a bit of DIY skill, like the ability to install a hub and integrate it with devices, to realize the power of his voice.

Greif’s 1950 instructions included electrical schematics and a parts list including resistors, capacitors, switches, a transformer, and a microphone. Since his designs required users to dissect the electronic innards of the voice-activated device, his DIY voice activation was not for hobbyists. Familiarity with soldering irons and voltmeters was a prerequisite. Still, his device responded to simple voice commands—or, more accurately, sounds—to control a toy train, mute a radio during commercials, or open a garage door. For example, a one-syllable word like stop it would activate an electrical relay and stop the train (any one-syllable word would do, or just clap your hands). A word of two syllables, such as forward, it would activate the relay twice and make the train move. Greif even gave instructions for a baby monitor with a buzzer. The voice command unit could be placed next to a crib and connected to an alarm bell, installed in a different room. Every time the baby cried, the alarm bell rang. Four years later, in the magazine popular electronicsGreif described a voice-activated prototype he had developed and dubbed Voice-trol, which was designed to connect to popular toy train models at the time with less effort and assembly.

In 1952 Bell Labs introduced a much more sophisticated voice command machine. Audrey, or Automatic Digit Recognizer, was a room-sized computer capable of recognizing the spoken words of the numbers zero through nine; it could even automatically dial numbers.

Voice control technology has come a long way since Voice-trol and Audrey. Yet even after more than half a century marked by major milestones in voice technology, voice-activated home appliances have not caught on the way Greif envisioned them (with the exception of connected or “smart” TVs). ). While we’re comfortable talking to our devices, powered by today’s popular voice assistants like Amazon Alexa, Apple Siri, Google Assistant, and Microsoft Cortana, they’re mostly used to control communications like text messages, text and phone calls, or to operate virtual services such as Internet search, browsing, online shopping and music. Unlike their 1950s ancestor, who could only detect sound, they are quite capable of parsing basic voice commands like “Call Mom” ​​or “Play Dire Straits”. But when it comes to controlling physical objects like appliances, voice activation requires a bit more effort. Not only do you have to take steps to set up such smart devices, but each device also seems to have its own app and specific commands that take a bit of getting used to, and the device may even require voice training if you’re not connected to it. an established voice assistant like Alexa. Even then, some controllers like the Google Nest require more direct training. Also, for Amazon and Google, at least, voice assistants have failed to turn a profit, ever.

Still, if you’re the 2020 version of the 1950s vocal enthusiast, the good news is that you won’t need a soldering iron. While it is still possible to use Greif’s instructions to build his voice control device, it would fall well short of what is possible today. Also, you might run into snags hacking into the guts of today’s compact electronics like a remote control train or clock radio. But a DIYer could build a basic voice recognition command module from scratch (more or less), using a Raspberry Pi (ReSpeaker 2-Mics Pi HAT, for example, running AIY Google Voice Kit) to develop the voice assistant. voice. Then add a custom keyword detection function with Arduino Nano (like 33 BLE Sense) running TinyML trained to parse basic keywords (like hello science pop). Or just go to the AIY Google Voice Kit for a tutorial on the project.

Fortunately, most major appliance manufacturers offer smart devices that interact with apps and voice assistants. Popular Science explains how to activate voice in your home using voice assistant home hubs like Apple’s Homekit, Google Assistant, and Amazon’s Alexa. However, some seventy years after Voice-trol, it still takes some DIY knowledge (in navigating wireless connectivity, custom apps, and device idiosyncrasies) to control physical objects with your voice.

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