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Say or press one...

May 1, 2011

By Chuck Newcombe

It seems that more and more, these days, you find yourself responding to a computer voice on the phone with instructions to either push a button or to say a command to navigate a menu. The technology of synthetic speech has improved by leaps and bounds from humble beginnings only three decades ago.

Interest in speech synthesis and voice recognition research took off when Intel and others introduced microcontrollers in the late 1970s. I recall watching a TV episode of Battlestar Galactica in 1978 where Adama, played by Lorne Greene, dictated his captain’s log to the computer which reproduced his words on the screen before him.

It wasn’t long before a Fluke engineer was experimenting with adding voice to a Fluke digital multimeter (dmm).

A talking multimeter

I remember the day when Tom came over to my desk and asked me to come see a demo on his workbench. As I approached the bench I heard a rather mechanical and stilted voice saying, “zero point zero volts” over and over. Tom picked up the modified dmm’s test leads and applied them to a voltage source. The voice now said, “two point five volts, two point six volts…” in a continuing repetitive manner.

Tom asked me what I thought. I looked at the crowd that had gathered around his bench before answering. Then I told him, “Well, it’s an impressive accomplishment, but I have a concern. Look at the group that has gathered around your bench, and imagine that you’re a technician working on a copy machine in a busy office. How would you feel with a crowd of curious office workers watching you work?” I asked him if there was a way to make the meter speak only when it had something significantly new to say - that is, when the voltage changed and then settled at a new stable value.

Tom solved that problem, and although Fluke never produced a talking meter because of power and cost considerations, we did add the Touch Hold feature (now called Auto Hold) to the model 77 dmm, introduced in 1983. That feature used the basic detection algorithms that Tom developed to control his prototype’s voice but sounded a beeper when a new stable voltage was detected, so the technician could remove the test leads from the test points and look at the meter to observe the captured reading.

Shortly thereafter, when I was on a technology panel answering questions at an IEEE chapter meeting in New Jersey, I was asked about the idea of adding speech to one of our testers. I told the group that although it was certainly possible, I hadn’t been able to find a significant demand or need for a talking meter. At the time, voice recognition was behind speech synthesis in development, so I added, “What would really excite me would be a tester that would listen, and respond to my commands.”

Guess what - today’s hands-free cell phone does just that with its voice dialer, and its response to other commands. And, you can get it to vocalize your received emails and messages.

Voice recognition software has come a long way. You might be surprised to learn that I dictated much of this column to my computer, much like Captain Adama on his Battlestar in 1978. And, I watched my words appear only slightly delayed on my laptop screen. I was able to dictate the column in a much shorter time than it would take to type it, and there were only a few errors and punctuation edits required.

Future hands-free communication

With concerns for safety, and the need to operate in high-noise industrial environments, hands-free communication with my test instruments is still an expensive proposition, but I think there are cases where it is certainly feasible, if not yet cost effective.

While there is not yet a voice-operated Fluke meter, Fluke has introduced some late-breaking technology to make its testers more convenient to use. For example, the recently introduced Model 233 dmm and 381 clamp meter offer detachable displays that communicate with the tester using the latest in low-power rf technology. These, and various non-contact methods for detecting voltage and reading temperature, are the latest examples of using emerging technology in Fluke’s ongoing effort to make your job easier and safer.

A product planner’s challenge is to keep current with technological advancements, and then recognize those that can add utility and value to a product in a timely manner and at a reasonable cost.

So, today I have a new dream.

How about the ability to control and communicate with my test instruments directly with my thoughts?

It’s not as far off as you might think. Check out the following research:
60 Minutes - Brain Power »

For more on Battlestar Galactica, go here:
Battlestar Galactica »