If you happen to be a regular reader here at Home Toys then you are also potentially one of those people who perhaps has longingly dreamed of being able to call out “Computer!” and have a system respond to your request just like Jean-Luc Picard of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Come on…think about it, how cool would it be to call out “Home! Turn on the kitchen lights” and have your Connected Home respond to your request?

Well, a small company from Boise, Idaho may very well be making the first real in-roads to creating any “Trekkies” dream of voice activation a reality at home instead of just on the Starship Enterprise. The company, Amulet Devices, has an extensive history with, and has been a long time advocate of speech recognition “as a way to simplify the way people interact with technology”.

Early prototype Amulet systems revolved around providing voice enabled interaction with one’s automobile, giving the driver access to their library of media without ever having to take their eyes off the road. As the success of these products showed off the true potential of speech recognition when integrated with a control system, Amulet Devices moved from the car to the living room, creating more prototypes of voice enabled systems before designing to their recently released Amulet Voice Remote. Judging from my conversations with Eddy Carroll, CTO of Amulet Devices, this is only the beginning. Amulet’s website describes their vision well:

“We believe that voice is the panacea for control of many types of end user devices. Our research and development team are engaged with potential customers to define additional requirements of the product line to be used in vertical markets such as home automation and assisted living.”

I was lucky enough to get my hands on one of the Amulet Voice Remotes and have been playing with it for a few weeks now. So without further ado, I give you…

The Amulet Voice Remote
I think a lot of people would initially groan with the thought of having yet another remote control added to their collection. That is certainly understandable, and there are a plethora of Universal Remotes that do a great job of combining things for you. However, you’re going to want to make an exception for the Amulet Voice Remote and keep it close at hand by the couch.

The remote itself is a key component of the voice control and you’ll be speaking into it as the microphone is activated only when you tilt the remote at an angle. The microphone within the remote behaves just like any mutable USB audio microphone and works well with other apps like Skype and Window’s desktop voice recognition software. Even with a nice fit in the hand and good button placement, the truth is that once you get the commands down you will find yourself no longer looking for buttons as often as you used to, instead opting to using your best Captain Picard voice. (Actually, it would actually behoove you to use your normal voice as the system learns it and not confuse it with cheap Star Trek impressions. Not that I do that or anything.) Anyways! Most people apparently seem to find a blend between using the buttons and voice commands. By simply bringing the remote up tilted so the light goes on indicating the microphone has engaged, the word “interaction” takes on a whole new meaning as you engage Windows Media Center with your voice.

The Interface
I say “interact” because the process doesn’t end with you just speaking to your Amulet Voice Remote, but with the Amulet software actually responding audibly to your queries via your HTPC; you can even choose between male and female voices. Trust me, this is about to get cool!

In its current version, the Amulet Voice Remote software has been created to support use within Windows Media Center. However there are 3rd party software packages like VoxCommando by James Richards that support the Amulet Voice Remote and adds voice control to several other media-related software packages including XBMC, MediaMonkey, iTunes, Media Portal, and EventGhost. It recognizes when the Amulet microphone is turned on, and automatically lowers the volume of currently playing media to act as an audio cue that it is awaiting speech input. It can also generate internal events from microphone on/off transitions which can in turn be used to trigger pretty much any external operation. This can include just about anything from lighting to shades to HVAC with the right system. Check out the links at the end of the article to see the Amulet Voice Remote being used in a Smart Home demonstration. As you can see, the applications for this technology have the potential to branch deeply into the Connected Home of the future!

Coming back to Windows Media Center functionality, we can see where this system really shines when integrated with a Home Theater PC (HTPC). It is important to point out that while Amulet comes with a very nice interface that acts as kind of an “overlay” of Windows Media Center when doing searches for media, Amulet works from anywhere within Media Center and you will maintain the same functionality you had before. What this means is that you do not need to go into the Amulet menu within Media Center to use the voice functionality of the remote; it works from anywhere within Windows Media Center, no matter what you’re doing.

Where the interface, and the voice capabilities of Amulet truly excel is in finding an item from a large number of possibilities: a TV program from everything you’ve recorded, a movie from all movies in your collection, a music artist from your entire music library, a position from anywhere within a one-hour program timeline, or an entry from anywhere within the two-week program guide. These are all things that typically take many button presses or mouse clicks to achieve, yet can be accomplished with a single voice command! Like I was saying…cool stuff!

The commands are as simple as they are diverse. There truly is an entire command structure built into this software and by simply saying “Play Artist U2” or “Play Album The Joshua Tree” or “Play Song Bullet the Blue Sky”, your request is acted upon with great accuracy. Want something besides U2? Say “Play Someone Else” and the system will randomly pick another Artist, even if nothing was playing in the first place. Not sure what song is on? Ask Amulet! “What song is this” will get you the answer you wanted. Yeah, I know, pretty cool! And you know, I’ve only barely scratched the surface of just playing Music. This system can search out TV shows to record, be told to record them, and play them back whenever you want…all by verbal command.

Honestly I could go on and on about all of the different alternatives in commands and functionality It is truly a powerful system and it would be best to explore it for yourself.

What the Future Holds…
In the short time that I had the Amulet, two beta software releases came out, which to me is a great indicator of a company who is serious about maximizing and improving their product. As an example, Amulet’s most recent beta, a new feature many users will welcome is better integration with MyMovies, the popular third-party movie library manager. This version will allow voice access to all video content indexed by MyMovies, including ISO files and Blu-Ray / HD-DVD titles.

And while Amulet will keep improving their products designed for Windows Media Center, the uncertain vibes we’re feeling about Windows Media Center due to Microsoft’s seemingly misguided focus on the Xbox 360 as the media hub of the Connected Home causes everyone to look beyond Windows Media Center at the same time.

According to Eddy Carroll, Amulet Devices CTO:

“Amulet is focusing on several areas at the moment, to include

Moving our voice technology into other areas, such as cable & satellite set-top boxes.
Supporting the emerging new field of HTPC boxes based on Windows 7 Embedded Media Center
Continuing to support and enhance our existing Media Center product”
He goes on to say…

“At Amulet Devices, we’re exploring ways to bring our voice capability to a wider audience than just Media Center. Expect to see some direct support for DLNA very soon. We’ve also been working with several home automation vendors to add voice to their existing offerings. And we’re doing some exciting work with Voice-in-the-cloud which allows us to take our existing technology and add it to much lower cost devices such as Cable and Satellite set-to boxes without needing the expense of a full HTPC system.”

Personally, I believe that Amulet is moving in a great direction as I feel that the best way to introduce the general population to the “Connected Home” is through Home Entertainment first, then followed up by the usefulness, convenience, and energy savings that a complete Home System Integration solution brings to the picture. With companies such as Amulet Devices forging ahead and creating innovation within the speech recognition industry, the products and technologies that will entice the “Average Joe” out there into learning about all the cool things that can be accomplished in today’s Connected Home are bound to be introduced at an ever increasing pace.

The Amulet Voice Remote is another example of the increasing trend of interacting with your TV, Home Theater, and even Home, not just by giving commands…but by receiving answers in return as well. Amulet is creating the sense of absolute control…by using our voices.

Check out Amulet Devices website for more information and to check out further applications of the Amulet Voice Remote. Find the “Smart Home” Amulet Voice Remote demo here.

Just in from Amulet – Retail Price has been reduced to $149.

Tom Abell is a System Integrator and Owner of Home System Integration LLC, in Sunnyvale, CA. He brings to the table a combination of 15 years in IT Systems Engineering and Home System Integration experience, shifting back into the Home market after returning from Iraq in April of 2009. Judging from his passionate writings on the Articles page of his website (www.homesystemintegration.com), it is easy to see that he feels he’s in the right place at the right time and that his “mission” is to raise awareness about Home Technology Integration to the masses!