Article - June 2003
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The Power of Voice Recognition

Jeff Barbieri

....why couldn't a building technician or maintenance person use their voice to commission new or repaired equipment, adjust temperature thresholds on an HVAC unit, or be notified of unusual readings on a pressure gauge?

With the convergence of the building controls industry with the information technology industry, and the advances in voice recognition, the opportunity to receive a system status, install a new or malfunctioning device, or adjust a building's environment hands free using a speech recognition interface is now a reality.

"Sorry to interrupt the festivities," said Hal, "but we have a problem." 
"What is it?" Bowman and Poole asked simultaneously. 
"I am having difficulty in maintaining contact with Earth. The trouble is in the AR-35 unit. My Fault Prediction Center reports that it may fail within seventy-two hours." 
"We'll take care of it, " Bowman replied.

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This was the conversation between the ship computer, Hal (for Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer), Frank Poole, and Dave Bowman from Arthur C. Clark's 2001, A Space Odyssey. In 1968, when this book was written, this was simply a science fiction fantasy. Over 30 years later, the ability to converse with a computer is here.

Speech recognition is being used today in several large-scale systems. According to the voice recognition software company Nuance, the Charles Schwab speech recognition system, which allows customers to obtain stock quotes for over 16,000 companies by simply saying the name of the company, manages 4 million transactions a month. Over 2 million times a month, UPS customers track their packages by reciting their alphanumeric tracking number to the system.

If a brokerage company customer can use their voice to obtain stock information and a delivery company customer can say their tracking number to locate their package, why couldn't a building technician or maintenance person use their voice to commission new or repaired equipment, adjust temperature thresholds on an HVAC unit, or be notified of unusual readings on a pressure gauge?

Why, indeed. They can!

By integrating Echelon's device networking technology, LonWorks™, and a speech recognition user interface, technicians can monitor, control, sense, and diagnose intelligent devices from virtually anywhere using their voice. Using a cell phone, a landline phone, or, within a building, strategically placed microphones connected to the system, technicians have the ability to speak with a building's network.

A voice interface offers several benefits.

First, a voice interface provides technicians and maintenance personnel an agile hands free means to communicate to the system. A technician performing repairs on a device or analyzing a problem could make adjustments, receive system values, such as temperature or pressure, or even turn a system on or off by simply speaking to the system using their hands free phone. Even in a precarious or tight position without much space to maneuver, the ability to communicate with the system would not be hampered.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]A speech interface reduces time and effort performing tasks, for instance, the installation of a new device. Assuming the system's LonWorks™ network is completed, a new device could be commissioned on the spot without walking away. An installer that has physically installed a device to the network could use their voice to request the device be commissioned. When the system acknowledges the request, the technician would push the service pin on the device. When the system has successfully received the device signal, the device would be commissioned. If there are any problems encountered during the process, the technician is right there to make the necessary fixes or adjustments.

This same benefit would be realized when testing equipment or diagnosing a problem. A maintenance person could be doing a visual inspection of equipment while at the same listening to diagnostic information that they requested from the network. A water utility maintenance person could be inspecting a pipe while requesting the water pressure on the line in a spot that is a mile away.

Vearch has begun laying the foundation for this type of voice interface. Vearch is focused on providing voice access to a LonWorks™ Network by means of a phone or microphone. At, the beta software, Voice Controller 1.0, demonstrates the ability to adjust or retrieve information about a device by simply speaking to the system. The simple, yet powerful demonstration illustrates that using a speech interface, any item in a LonWorks™ environment may be accessed, diagnosed, or adjusted.

Work on Voice Controller began almost a year ago. The very first application simply allowed a user to call the system and control a single lamp. The single lamp could either be turned off or on. Voice Controller 1.0 improved by allowing a user to communicate with multiple lamps (devices) and adjust them with variable values. The goal of Voice Controller is to be installed onto any LonWorks™ network and, with minimal configuration and customization, be able to provide voice access to the system.

Voice user interfaces for building automation is an infant technology. While there are some obvious benefits, there are probably many other new, exciting, and practical uses of this technology. At Vearch, we are excited about getting our technology out into the world and seeing these benefits being realized. So why not do it now?

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