Look! No Hands!

(Part of The Future: A Retrospective)


Voice-Activated Typewriter

Voice-Activated Typewriter
Odds 90%
Year 1995
Cost $5000/1989 ($8200/2007)

Raymond Kurzweil of Kurzweil Applied Intelligence is "selling a working system, that, in a limited way, operates like a voice-activated typewriter." But soon, voice-activated typewriters will get more and more advanced through shorter and shorter development cycles, until we reach a singularity beyond which our world will be changed forever. I don't want to spread panic or be seen to encourage the rough justice of the mob, but it's possible that, in this unknowable future, typewriters will voice-activate us.

Uh, it was just fun to see Ray Kurzweil show up in this book. The Kurzweil VoiceReport was an early voice recognition system. "The operator speaks into a microphone, inserting brief pauses--at least one-tenth of a second--between words." Where does the typewriter come in? Well, the speech recognizer is hooked up to a word processor.

The machine "has a vocabulary of 5,000 words, so its applications are limited." So it's not very useful as a typewriter unless you're Dr. Seuss. It is useful for situations where you're using a limited vocabulary or just need voice-activated commands.

This weblog entry has the sordid details of Kurzweil's many attempts to create technology that helps the hard-of-hearing and how these attempts inevitably get sold and not used for anything.

Once again I need to tell you about the current state of this technology even though you probably know. After about 15 years of being pretty lame, today's speech recognition software is fairly accurate. You can buy the software for about $80/2007, but most people prefer to type. I guess I'm doing this as a convenient time capsule for a future check-up on the same technologies. I hope you appreciate this, future!


Butler-In-A-Box

Butler-In-A-Box
Odds 100%
Year 1990
Cost $1575/1989 ($2600)

Another of those whimsical entries like the model train in a suitcase, but not whimsical enough to hold my attention after nearly 200 of these suckers. The magazine writing doesn't help either. "It's a magic lantern of sorts, but there's no rubbing and there's no genie." It's also a tuna sandwich of sorts, but there's no bread and no tuna.

Butler-In-A-Box is a voice-activated controller that can be used to turn your home into an ad hoc smart home, since the people doing the all-in-one House Of The Future are never going to finish. It can control your heat, lights, and phone, and be controlled via voice, timer, and keypad.

It's an eccentric piece of technology; inventor Gus Searcy is "a professional magician and computer buff" and clearly has a good grasp of showmanship. Bonding with your BIAB begins immediately as you must name your unit before using it. Future Stuff names theirs "Godfrey" and it put me in mind of the brain implant from Old Man's War. "Godfrey can be programmed to be charming or cantankerous, as you wish, and can respond in a foreign accent or a foreign language." Oh, you know what else this reminds me of is the weird software-agent butler from Hyperland. (That's a short film, not a book, in case you need to find it.)

This is one of the Future Stuff entries with a pretty wide online paper trail, including but not limited to a voice recognition patent. I'm not heavy enough into this research to spend $9/2007 on a tape of a 1991 interview with Searcy, but it's there. You can also get interviews about the Ashtar Galactic Command, which has a pretty fascist name for a New Age-y extraterrestrial organization. Plus info about Royal Raymond Rife, whose "suppressed work includes a 50,000 power optical natural light microscope and virus-killing 'ray'." Maybe the virus-killing 'ray' shows up in More Future Stuff.

"If a burglar enters your abode, Godfrey will ask, 'Hello, may I help you?'" I guess that's better than the talking dog. BIAB is still being sold and has hopefully been improved since 1989. MSRP $2995/2007.


Voicekey

Voicekey
Odds 100%
Year 1990
Cost $1200/1989 ($2000/2007)

You could write this one yourself, but then you'd have to have had the mad insight to take this project on in the first place, and you didn't! None of you. One person I know has actually had a copy of Future Stuff sitting on his bookshelf for years, and even he never had this idea.

But, you've probably had the idea for Voicekey. "Whether you're from the North, South, East, or West; whether you stutter, lisp, drawl, twang, or carefully modulate your words--it matters not to VoiceKey." Because VoiceKey is a new kind of pina colada mix.

Uh, it's actually "a device that uses the... human voice as its combination for unlocking doors." It works in conjunction with a PIN. "[W]hile the voice reader allows for natural changes in the human voice--groggy, hung-over, a cold--it will not respond to recordings." Of course, as any episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation will tell you, this is no protection against evil aliens or androids who can simply reproduce your voice.

"Voicekey" is now the brand name of a piece of hardware that connects a phone to Skype. There are lots of voice-activated locks in toys ($30/2006 example). Closest I can find in a non-toy application is this 1996 patent for a voice-activated weapon lock. That leads me to think that this doesn't work very well, and since you can combine it with a PIN I suspect the reason is false negatives.


Smart Shades

Smart Shades
Odds 100%
Year 1990
Cost N/A

"When it's hot outside, the window shades come down. And when it cools off, the shades go up." That's it. The rest of this Future Stuff entry is verbal gymnastics trying to make this seem exciting. "The system operates very much like a thermostat on an air-conditioning system," says John Schnebly. That's probably because it is a thermostat.

"When computer-controlled 'smart houses' come on the market, says Schnebly, his company will provide Smart Shades that are compatible, and in twenty colors, too!" 'Nuff said.

Here's a 2001 profile of Schnebly and his partner Marusak (sounds like a buddy cop movie) and their years of inventing new kinds of window shades and new ways of manufacturing and selling them.

Comfortex is still in business, and they still sell motorized shades, but they're controlled by timers, radio, or "light intensity", not temperature. Guess they're still waiting for the Smart Home. It looks like John Schnebly recently moved to the board of creepy surveillance company VitalPoint after Comfortex was "acquired by the largest player in its industry". That would be Comfortex's hated rival Hunter Douglas, in 1999.


Weed Kicker

Weed Kicker
Odds 90%
Year 1992
Cost $20/1989 ($32/2007) per set

John Terhune took his wife Toshiko's suggestion for "a line of back-saving 'foot' tools" and invented the WEED KICKER. It's "a little V-tip foot tool that attaches to a metal frame strapped to the toe of your shoe." But wait! There's more! Specifically, "A semicircular tool attachment... [that] will till the soil, dig trenches for drainage, and edge the lawn." Clearly they were thinking of marketing through infomercials, but it never happened. The greatly inferior Garden Weasel ate its lunch.

This means you can do your weeding while mowing the lawn or "us[ing] the hose or rake." Want to see what it looks like? "Terhune now has a patent." Plus I found another patent of his, for a wheelbarrow.

There's a John Terhune pretty heavily into multi-level marketing, but it's not the garden tool inventor. Look at that picture. Does that look like a guy who was "a retired electronic engineer" in 1989? Looks more like a Florida lawyer who "saw the Network Marketing opportunity in the late 80's [sic]".

PS: in 1893 a third John Terhune got a patent on Design For A Flag. I didn't even know you could patent flag designs! And, this 1893 patent was actually cited by a 2000 patent, Flag with flashing illuminated sign!

Man, patented flag designs. What will they think of next? Apparently this is what they'll think of next.


Touchless Faucet

Touchless Faucet
Odds 100%
Year 1990
Cost $120-$170/1989 ($200-$280/2007)

The titillatingly-boringly-named Mile High Precision Instrument Company is distributing a product with the 1800s-esque name of Lampson's Automatic Mixing Faucet. LAMF "runs on infrared technology" and can save "more than 6,000 gallons [of water] per family" per year. Touchless soap dispensers are predicted.

There are pretty popular in institutional bathrooms, such as the Burger King bathroom in which I once got busy. Touchless faucets are now so common that this entry seems boring and commonplace. Not so common in homes though. You can buy an adapter kit for $50/2007 or a low-end infrared faucet for $80/2007.

I can't find any reference to MHPIC or LAMF on the web, though there is a Weiser Engineering/Mile High Precision in Colorado. Probably not the same company.

Real-life advance not mentioned in Future Stuff: hand dryers so powerful they can actually dry your hands.


Robot Lawn Mower

Robot Lawn Mower
Odds 95%
Year 1991
Cost $900/1989 ($1500/2007)

Even the authors are getting tired of their magazine writing; this entry starts off with "Hi ho, etc." I combusted many a brain cell trying to figure out what that meant until my wife pointed out that this product is called the Lawn Ranger. Nowadays that's a common name for landscaping businesses. This particular Ranger "behaves as though it has eyes and a brain," thanks to systems that fulfil the same cybernetic function as eyes and a brain.

The Future Stuff illustration of the lawnmower is a sleek, featureless blob with a couple grooves running down the length. It's like the robot equivalent of the baby from Eraserhead. The illustration gives no sense of scale, but according to Future Stuff the mower "stands about 2 feet off the ground, and is rectangular in shape (about 3 feet by 2 feet)." You prepare it for your lawn by guiding it "around the perimeter of your yard by using a joystick on the hand-held control panel."

Instead of this we got the Roomba, I suppose because robots can't be trusted with sharp blades. You can get a robotic mower from Futurama-named Friendly Robotics, though. They cost $1500-$2000/2007 and look like little cars, and you train them by placing a wire around the perimiter of your yard, in a time-consuming move reminiscent of "'Umpire' Tennis Balls".

It's possible that Lawn Ranger manufacturer and Generic Name 500 member Technical Solutions, Incorporated is now this big military contractor, though they would have had to move from Sterling, Virginia to Walnut Creek.


This document (source) is part of Crummy, the webspace of Leonard Richardson (contact information). It was last modified on Monday, March 31 2008, 00:26:30 Nowhere Standard Time and last built on Friday, August 22 2014, 11:00:04 Nowhere Standard Time.

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