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Voice-operated remote control: Help! HELP!

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

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Voice-operated remote control: Help! HELP!

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1992 The Syracuse Newspapers

Ever wish you could just tell your TV to switch to another channel?

I've been doing that for a few weeks, and it's been fun.

But I'm not sure the new device I've been trying out is ready for prime time.

It's called the VCR Voice remote control. It's made by Voice Powered Technology, a new company with a great idea. You talk into the remote and tell it what channel you want, and the TV then switches to that channel.

It works with VCRs, too. You tell the remote what time you want to record various programs, and then set it down near your VCR. As long as the remote is able to aim its infrared beam at the VCR, it will turn the video recorder on and off at the times you've chosen. It's a wonderful idea, even if it has a few problems in the way it actually works.

Before it can talk to your TV or VCR, the VCR Voice has to learn what your voice sounds like. It does this during its setup by listening as you recite a dozen or so words that it shows on a screen built into the top of the remote.

This took a little practice. You can't get it to memorize your voice in a noisy room, for example. But once I got used to speaking slowly and clearly into the little microphone on the remote control, it ran through the list and beeped to tell me it understood everything I had said.

My wife also had trouble at first. The VCR Voice can store up to four separate voice memories, so I saved my voice commands under "Al" and she saved hers under "Nancy." She got through the list after two or three tries.

Another difficulty comes up when you use the remote to change channels. I figure I talk just as clearly as anybody else does, but the VCR Voice kept insisting that my "five" was a "nine" half the time. I didn't try the old telephone-operator technique of saying "fi-uv" and "ni-yun," but that probably would have worked.

And still another problem was the noise in our living room. The VCR Voice hears everything. If you've not careful, the TV itself can change its own channels - when somebody on a game show yells out "THREE!," for example, or when the Dow-Jones Average is read on the evening news. The remote has a TV "mute" button placed where you can't miss it, and you tend to use it a lot in those circumstances.

Finally, the sleek design is nice, but the sexy-looking battery compartment had a lid that refused to open after the four AA cells died after two weeks of use. I was not able to test new power cells, so I don't know whether the short battery life was a fluke.

But the most impressive thing about the VCR Voice is not how well it works but that it works at all. To change to Channel 9, you press a button and say "nine." When you release the button, the remote sends out the infrared signal that switches the TV to that channel. And when you want the VCR to record a show at 11 p.m. Wednesday on Channel 4, you hold the button down and tell it to do that, in just those words.

The VCR remote can learn any language. Whatever you speak into it when it is learning your voice is what it remembers. You can speak Latin if you want, or you can even train it to switch the TV to the right channel when you say "Oprah."

When I first heard about the VCR Voice, I thought it would be ideal for those unable to use their hands. But the way the remote operates - requiring you to press a button while it listens to your command - limits its usefulness as a tool for the handicapped. I'd like to see Voice Powered Technology develop another version of the VCR Voice that uses a voice command instead of a button to trigger the remote - something like "channel change," which would be followed by the number.

If you love gadgets, this is one you'll impress the neighbors with. But I'd think twice before tossing out your old remote controls.

You can write to Al Fasoldt by e-mail at or by standard mail in care of Stars, P.O. Box 4915, Syracuse 13221.
You can also visit Al Fasoldt's personal Web site, where you'll find columns, advice, observations, tips and help.

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