How to: Control TV, VCR, DVD, cable and more with voice using USB-UIRT

Difficulty: 2.5

USBUIRTOnce I was able to voice control my home theatre PC, I still needed to use my remote control to turn on the TV and receiver. I wanted to rid my lounge room of remotes altogether, so I needed to find a way to get my computer to control the rest of my audio visual gear. I wanted to be able to control everything in the lounge room with just my gadget and my voice.

It was logical to use Infra Red (IR) technology for this, because that is the only way we can control most AV gear currently. Often the buttons on a device (such as a TV set) don’t offer as many options as its remote control unit.

The USB-UIRT is a magic device that can send and receive IR signals. It connects to a USB port on our computer and enables us to send IR commands from our computer to our peripheral AV gear. It sits at the back of the room and has good range and reliability. This device removes the need for remote controls in our TV room altogether as we can tag a voice command to tell the USB-UIRT which IR signal or signals we want it to send.

The result is that we can walk into the room, press the trigger button and say “TV on”. This will turn the TV and stereo on. When we say “I’m finished”, the TV and stereo will turn off. 

It gets really impressive when we start controlling our VCR, BluRay or cable box with voice. I have added some extra scripting which will enable just this. When I put a video into the video player, I can say “Video Player” and the TV will change the channel to AV, to show the VCR. I can then use the usual play/pause/stop/rewind/fast forward voice commands to navigate through the video. When I return to the media centre, the tape will stop, rewind and 3 minutes later, eject the tape and turn off. This is while all the other media centre voice commands are working as per normal.

This article will show you how to setup the USB-UIRT to control your audio visual gear to control everything in your lounge room/home theatre by voice. The scripts need to be installed, and IR signals learnt, which is thankfully quite easy with to do with EventGhost. The speech macros have also been updated to simplify the commands to their shortest abbreviation. I have also included another speech macro which enables the “Play artist/genre/track” commands. It’s a bit harder for the computer to pick up the new commands, though they do work. The old commands still work and are worth learning because the computer is much more likely to recognise them. The commands will be progressively tweaked until each command is as simple as we can make them. It’s not far off as simple as it can get now.

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My Projects: My Gadget – One button to control everything around the house.

Difficulty: 4

LogoSoon after I figured out how to voice control my media centre, I realised that I needed an easier way to trigger it. The trigger would set the volume of my media centre to a level I could naturally talk over, so I could navigate around it using my voice. I was using the 0 button of my remote control for this task, so I still needed to keep my remote control in hand. There was very little to be gained by the voice control if I were to still continue using traditional remotes to trigger it. I only needed the one button as all other commands were given by voice. I needed a one button infrared (IR) remote. The only remotes I could find commercially were for garage doors or car alarms, but these did not use IR technology, so I had to make my own.

Four months have passed since I started working on this project and I have succeeded in getting it working, though aesthetic improvements will still need to be made. I have been enjoying tinkering with it. This is a very simple device compared to many other electronic projects, so someone with experience may have it going in a few hours.

While I was making my gadget, I discovered that it would be capable of doing far more than just enabling the voice control of the home theatre PC. What I made was a very simple tool. A single button that I could point at any computer or robot around the house, to let it know I needed it to start listening to me. This could ultimately mean that I would have a portable button combined with my voice to control any electrical device in my house. The more I think about it, the more likely this is to become a reality, in time.

I have come up with a number of other methods to trigger the voice control systems in my house. I will explain these solutions over the coming weeks, months and (hopefully) years. If these future solutions end up being inadequate, my gadget will become a necessary accessory. The need to carry something around the house with us all the time is a bit of hassle, no matter it’s size and ease of use. I want to be able to trigger the technology with empty hands, hence why I want to avoid using my gadget. One thing is for sure, we do need something to trigger voice control in high noise areas. A computer needs to know if we are talking to it or another family member.

This article will explain how I have gone about making my gadget. While my gadget does currently work reliably, it is at this stage only a proven working prototype. These instructions will show you two possible methods you can use to make it. The first method is simple to get going, and I recommend this option for anyone who wants fast results without too many complications. The second method will achieve the same result, but will allow you to investigate IR technology in more depth. I have not played around with circuit design much yet, but the information in this article should give you enough to start playing around with your own design if you so choose.

All of my future articles will somehow be related to my gadget – a single button to control everything. Much of this is about changing or using current, past and future technology to make my gadget be more useful. I know that it will work as I am currently using the one button approach to control a few things around my house, and I am enjoying the benefits of the technology.

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How-to: Voice control Windows Media Center

Difficulty: 2.5

WSR voice controlI have been interested in the voice control of computers for a long time. My first attempt was around 10 years ago, and I had some success with it. In the right environment, I was able to say commands to my computer and it would respond based on what I said. The problem was that I didn’t have a practical use for it yet. It was clear in this early testing that using a keyboard and mouse was far more convenient, reliable and a quicker option than using voice. It will remain that way for many of the standard interactions (i.e email, facebook) we have with computers, at least in the short term.

The day Microsoft Kinect was launched in Australia, I saw the promotional video showing people waving their arms around to navigate through their media centre. It seemed to me that this would be a fairly unreliable and exhausting way to control anything, apart from games specifically designed for the technology. I was way too lazy to consider using this technology into the future.

I concluded that voice is the simplest way to control anything, and that it always will be. This led me to start playing around with voice control again. I ran through the voice tutorials and was able to get the computer to understand my voice some of the time. It did stuff up on me a whole lot, but it was clearly much more reliable than software I had used in the past.

Now around 6 months on, I have written an AutoHotkey script and a WSR macro that interact with Windows Media Center and Windows Speech Recognition software, allowing my media centre to be controlled completely by voice. This is a practical use for voice control. I can navigate faster with my voice than I can with a remote control. Instead of needing to know which button to press on my remote (or remotes), I simply speak my mind. I no longer use a remote at all. This is something I have wanted for a long time and I am excited about this outcome.

This system far exceeds any other voice control setup on the market today in terms of reliability and practicality. Most of the problems as to why systems haven’t worked in the past has not been because the software was inadequate for the task, (the software has worked fine for many years). Most of the problems are environmental, and my solution tackles these environmental issues. Rather than trying to make technology that works in our environment, my solution changes the environment to enable the technology to work. I believe it is inevitable that all future voice control systems will need to take this approach for the system to work.

This article will give you all the information you need to control your Windows Media Center home theatre PC with your voice. I will provide the easy to edit scripts and show you how to install them on your PC. I will also explain what works and what doesn’t, as well as explaining why previous attempts have not been successful. The more I explain how it all works, the easier it will be for you to set it up and get it working reliably. This will not be as easy as installing the software and having the results you want right away. You will need to train it to recognise your voice, and you will need to learn the correct commands to make. A solution that can understand the whole English language is a long way off. It is much more difficult to synthesize human understanding than it is for a computer to understand dictation. That is why we need to have set commands.

There is a video of my home theatre PC running this system after the jump.

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Windows Software: Windows Media Player

Windows Media PlayerWindows Media Player was a program that I never gave much respect to, until I recently found a new use for it. Windows Media Center relies on Windows Media Player to playback most media files. This means that any changes we make in the Windows Media Player settings will carry through to Windows Media Center. i.e. Windows Media Center does not have cross fading built in, but if we turn on cross fading in Windows Media Player, the music we listen to in Windows Media Center will also have cross-fading. The same goes for setting up visualisations, CD ripping options etc.

There are so many expected and unexpected features in it, and many of them are relatively well hidden within the program. This is great as the hard to find features such as cross-fading or SRS WOW effects won’t need to be changed often. This has allowed the interface to show us the features we want to use all the time. The way the software is laid out lets us use the full screen to organise our media with a very simple drag and drop layout.

CrossfadingWindows Media Player makes it very easy to make playlists that can be used with Windows Media Center. The interface also makes it very easy to add information to files, such as producing your own star ratings. It even makes burning a CD simple. It is a comprehensive package that has now become my tool for managing my media.

This is by no means a review, or an encouragement to use this as your main media player, but it is worth having another look at it to see what it can do. It is a great resource to pull out when it is needed. If there is something you want to do with your media, where your normal media player doesn’t have the facility, it is likely Windows Media Player will. It is very likely to serve your needs. Because it has been tested on every Windows machine, it has become very stable and the chances of it crashing are very low.

After giving it another run, I have found it to be an outstanding media player.

Windows Media Player is available for free from your start menu. 

My Projects: My Home Theatre PC

Difficulty: 3

Windows Media CenterWith Analog TV being turned off in Australia and around the world in the next couple of years, set top boxes, PVRs and Tivo are all going off the shelves and into peoples homes very quickly. Many people are unaware that Windows Media Center is an option to switch to Digital TV, and there are considerable benefits over the PVR units above.

You can view ALL of your media on your TV, you can record more channels at once, you can store more media, with automatic meta data fetching and you can even play games. It was a no brainer for me to choose to use a computer to control my media.

If you have a computer running Windows 7, there is a huge chance you already have everything you need to set up the basic configuration in your house. The only cost may be to purchase a TV tuner which start at around $20. It is worth dedicating a computer for this task, but there is little harm in experimenting on what you already have. Consider re-purposing your current machine as a dedicated media centre when you upgrade. If you want a new feature, eg. BluRay, you can generally just plug in a new drive at a considerably lower cost than buying a stand alone unit.

This is a “What more could you want?” scenario. With the system being capable of handling full screen HD video chat (pending internet connection), only minor software updates are likely to be necessary to allow new technology to work with this system. This system should keep me ahead of mainstream consumer technology for many years.*

I have spent a lot of time over the last 12 months, trying to create a Windows Media Center that would work flawlessly. With the strong foundation of Windows Media Center 7, a bunch of free programs and a lot of research and tweaking the puzzle pieces have come together. I hope that this guide will help you build a system that will give you as much enjoyment as this system has for me.

Check out a video of my media centre in action after the jump.

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