Manner of speech helps disabled

February 17, 1995

Disabled people could soon be able to control their household appliances by voice thanks to a collaboration between cyberneticists at Reading University and a local firm.

The work by Nicholas Lee, a graduate of the university's cybernetics department, has been backed by the Teaching Company Scheme. Mr Lee's supervisor David Keating says that the system being developed will allow household tasks that can be automated, such as opening doors, answering the phone or drawing curtains, to be operated by a device that looks like a small personal stereo and which has a small microphone built into its headset.

The microphone picks up the user's voice which triggers a belt-clip mounted neural computer to send out remote control commands to appliances such as the television, video or hi-fi. The device is able to learn the specific signals needed for the appliances from conventional remote controls.

The neural computer can be worn on the body or attached to the wheelchair. Dr Keating explains that neural computers attempt to mimic the workings of the human brain and this allows them to excel at tasks which conventional computers find difficult, such as recognising voices and faces or reading handwriting and car number plates from blurred images. Thanks to this technology, the device being developed can learn to understand the speech of an individual.

The collaborating firm, Possum, a specialist in switches and controllers, is developing the product. Dr Keating says that the idle but able-bodied might also find it useful. "The only problem is we would end up being even more prone to leading a couch potato existence."

Mr Lee has played a key role in helping Possum to further its existing range of "smart-house" control technology. This includes the Companion which can remotely control up to 232 infra-red channels programmed to suit the user appliances. Companion can be used to switch appliances on or regulate heating, lighting or ventilation.

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