Without a doubt, I’ve never had as much fun with software as I have doing this review and as you know by now (just by the name of my company), I feel that Home Automation should be fun. HAL2000 is a voice control program that goes beyond the standard concept of Home Automation by adding many communication features that turn your PC into a voice activated information server. While I feel that voice technology is not yet perfect, I must give full credit to the designers of this software for pioneering some awesome features and philosophies into this program.
HAL2000 comes in a glossy box and includes the software on a CD as well as an X-10 CM11A Powerline Interface and a lamp module (X10Pro). Instructions are limited to a few short hardware and software installation notes however the program help files are good and come in .pdf and .doc versions in case you want to print them out. In order to run HAL, the help file says you need:
Â· Windows 95
Â· Pentium processor 120 MHz or greater
Â· 32 MB memory
Â· 60 MB disk storage
Â· HAL-compatible modem
Â· HAL-compatible sound card
Â· Available serial port
Â· Phone line
Â· Internet service provider (optional)
Fairly heavy computing power is required for any voice system and HAL is no exception. Of course, to use HAL for home control you must leave the PC on all the time. Again, this is not a shortcoming if you realize that the PC becomes an active communication device in your home rather than just a beige box that sits in the corner.
To use the telephone as an interface you need a compatible voice modem in the PC. If you already have a voice/data modem installed, you may check to determine if it is HAL compatible by using the HAL Voice Modem Test Drive (VMTD) utility. The voice/data modem that currently works most effectively with HAL2000 is listed in the help file as the Creative Technologies/Digicom ModemBlaster. Zoltrix, Aztech and PhoneBlaster
modems apparently also work very well, but it is the ModemBlaster, due to it’s ability to be internally connected with the sound board, that HAL recommends. Low and behold, my modem won’t work with HAL so I’ll have to limit this review to using HAL with a microphone. This has been a sore point with many users of this system and while I think it’s a shortcoming, I don’t feel that it will be a major issue in the future. I’m told that the next version will have TAPI support which will also eliminate the need for that internal connection of the voice modem and the sound board.
In order to deliver voice commands to your computer via the telephone from anywhere in your home, the PC must be the first component in-line with your outside phone service. The help file gives a diagram of the telephone wiring setup necessary (this could prove to be difficult in some residences and it may require wiring modifications).
Installing the CM11A unit (comes c/w serial cable) is straight forward and with any luck you’ll be talking to your lights in no time. If you already have a compatible home controller (HomeVision, Stargate, LynxPort etc.), HAL will communicate with it instead of the CM11A. There is a very long list of compatible controllers in the help file and on the HAL website.
Software installation is straight forward and presented no problems. Just follow the instructions and provide a few bits of information to get going. HAL needs to know your communication port, X-10 control device, IR control device etc. There’s not much HAL can’t control or interface with so be prepared to tell it what your control devices are and where HAL can communicate with them. Once you’re done the program starts and the next voice you hear is from your PC saying “Welcome to HAL2000 by Home Automated Living.” An Ear icon will appear in your system tray (lower right-hand corner of your Windows 95 screen) along with a Telephone icon. HAL2000 is now running and will sit in the background while you use other PC programs. Go ahead … ask HAL what time it is. This is when the fun begins. Without any training whatsoever, the darn thing will tell you the time and date if you ask. Scared the %$%^&^ out of me the first time and made my kids proceed to roll on the floor in uncontrollable fits. After a little fiddling with the voice dynamics (you can have HAL talk in a male or female voice and adjust the tone etc.) I have HAL sounding just like his predecessor of “Space Odyssey” fame.
wpe95.jpg (16243 bytes)To configure the system open a program called HAL Config and get at it. There are several options here and you must tell the system all about your hardware and preferences. For example, the Telephone configuration screens allow you to setup such things as Caller ID, Distinctive Ring, Call Forwarding, Faxing and Paging and Voice Mail. You can configure your weather station, security system etc. etc. etc.
For example, the key to voice recognition is to adjust the parameters to suit your environment. Background noise, speech patterns, and computer hardware all have an impact on HAL’s ability to recognize speech. I found that I had to fiddle around a lot with the somewhat obscure parameters to get HAL to perform with any reliability. The defaults were way off for my particular needs. Best to phone for tech support if you need help with this one. They’re co-operative and good at what they do.
Another important configuration screen is called “Personal Assistant”. Here is where you set up HAL’s computer voice and give him a new name if you like. This name is used to “wake up” the system when you want to send a voice command. You can only use one word for a name so I chose “HeyDudeInTheWall” as an apt name for my system. Now when I utter the words “Hey Dude In the Wall”, the space odyssey like computer voice replies with “Yes”. More rolling on the floor in unbridled laughter.
Use the Internet configuration to set up your system so HAL can go and get traffic reports, stock quotations, TV listings etc. This feature sets HAL apart from the others and I’m sure we’ll see more options in the future. Just ask for a weather report and HAL reads it back to you (in a very clear voice) from data it retrieved from the internet … WOW! How about TV Listings:
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This screen configures the television programming information HAL will retrieve from the Internet. Select up to five (5) favorite channels. When HAL is asked the general question “What’s on at (time)?”, HAL will respond by listing the programs on your favorite channels. You may inquire about programming on any individual network or cable channel by asking HAL “What’s on (network/channel) at (time)?”.
Data and Programming
The System Data screen is where you configure devices, set up macros, create conditions, schedule events, and build a reminder list. Click the appropriate tab and go to work.
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Here’s a brief summary of each function (taken from the help files. Wizards walk you through the process of configuring all devices and functions.
MACROS: You can program the system to run a series of commands by giving only one command. For instance, you might create a macro called “entertainment”. Within that macro you could have commands to turn on the TV in the family room, set the channel to 3, turn on the VCR, turn on the home theatre system and dim the lights to 20%. To have all that happen, you would tell HAL to “set mode to entertainment” or “run macro entertainment”. Better still, you can program HAL to respnd to a custom phrase you’ve programmed for the macro. How about “Lights … Camera … Action”.
DIRECTORY: This screen is where you add individuals and businesses to your Telephone Directory.
DEVICES: Here’s where you add X-10, Infrared, HVAC, and Relay devices to your system. Name the device by entering its location in the house. Use one or all three available fields. These fields will not permit spaces between words; the system will automatically combine the words. For instance, “living room” appears as “livingroom”. A possible three-field entry might be UPSTAIRS HALL TABLE. As you type the Location entries, the corresponding text will appear in the field below the Device field.The name that appears in the field below the Device field is the full name of the device, as you will identify it to HAL. In the example below, you would refer to the device as “billiardsroom laserdisc”. Any time you converse with HAL, you must use this full name. Otherwise, HAL may not recognize your command.
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SCHEDULES: HAL2000 delivers maximum scheduling flexibility. Users can schedule devices on an hourly, daily, weekly and completely customized basis. Once entered via voice or manually via keyboard, the list of scheduled events is displayed in this screen.
SENSORS: Use this screen to configure the sensors connected to your system. Sensor information must be entered in this screen before sensors can be used in macros or conditions.
CONDITIONS: The Conditions screen uses some or all of the previous System Data topics (Macros, Directory, Devices, Schedules, and Sensors) in mini-programs that HAL will perform when certain conditions are met. Sensor information triggers Conditions. Sensors must be present and configured in HAL in order to establish Conditions. These are the IF / THEN statements in HAL’s logic.
REMINDERS: HAL can keep a list of reminders for you (ie a grocery list etc.) which can be spoken back to you or printed on command.
So, as you can see, this is a powerful set of tools and therefore requires some time to configure. Generally I found the process to be quite intuitive however with a good use of wizards and help screens. Now on with the show … or is it on with the tell?
Enough technical stuff already … let’s have some fun with this stuff. “HeyDudeInTheWall”
HaHaHaHaHaHa “Open TV listings”
“I have opened the TV listings”
“What’s on ABC at 7:00 PM”
“On ABC at 7:00 PM … NFL Football”
Yikes … he’s right OK … “What is the weather forecast for tomorrow”
” Cloudy with showers expected. The high temperature will be 61 degrees Fahrenheit (16 degrees Celsius), and the overnight low will be 49 degrees Fahrenheit (9 degrees Celsius).”
Crap … there goes my golf game. “Open sports”
“I have opened Sports”
“Read the baseball scores”
“Do you want me to read baseball scores?”
“Baltimore 6 Chicago 4, New York 7 Toronto 5” etc etc.
“Turn on the TV to channel 5”
“I have dimmed the living room lights to 12%”
OOOOOOps it’s getting dark in here. “Stop … help … HeyDudeInTheWall …” OK Bob … get a grip and think … oh yea “Reset Living Room Lights”
“I am resetting living room lights.”
And on it goes. A slight exaggeration here though. HAL is very good at asking permission before it carries out commands such as dimming the lights etc. While this may be annoying to some, it is necessary to avoid unwanted actions taking place.
The following screen gives you an idea of what to expect from the Internet features of HAL2000. This in my opinion is the most powerful part of the software. It makes HAL an information provider rather than just a dumb robot to turn the light on and off and answer the phone.
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As you can see, you can get HAL to download all sorts of info and read it back to you on command (and the voice that it reads back to you is very clear and understandable). The excerpts of conversation above are not fictional … they actually work (and sometimes don’t work or work wrongly).
HAL is capable of an incredible variety of functions far beyond basic home control and as such I believe the product could evolve into a killer application. Is it there yet? To this I must answer not quite. The voice recognition functions are as yet a bit too unreliable. Don’t get me wrong … it works and the control functions seem solid, but I have been unable to set the program up in such a way that it doesn’t misunderstand or ignore many of my commands especially when there is background noise. I’m told by a representative at Home Automated Living that this will improve with the introduction of Lernout & Hauspie’s latest speech engine revision due in December. I must say that technical support for HAL is excellent though. They bend over backwards to help get the software configured correctly and with some fiddling helped me improve the voice recognition substantially.
I’ve showed this system to many friends (young and old) and the reaction has been amazing but consistantly positive. Most seem to accept the fact that 100% reliability is not there yet but are extremely impressed with the features (especially information services) that HAL provides. Even those who are very skeptical about Home Automation and Technology (and there are many of them) admit that they would be interested in this type of system.
This program is pioneering in a new field and as such I believe we must support the efforts made by it’s developers. The telephone was far from clear or reliable for years after Alexander Graham Bell invented it and the PC is still one of the most unreliable and frustrating bits of technology around but both have evolved to do some pretty incredible stuff with the support of the consumer. From what I see and hear, Home Automated Living (the company the developed and markets HAL2000) is committed to supporting and improving this software. They need support from consumers and I think they deserve it. As their product information says “HAL2000 software is a living product, which is growing and evolving daily.” New releases and updates have been continuous since version 1 arrived and I expect that will continue.