Are You Going to Touch This? Voice Technology Offers an Option

In this new age of social distancing, it may be time to think about not only keeping our distance from those around us, but also from surfaces that others touch. Voice technology offers an option.

According to this article, public access terminals with touchscreens present a major risk of transmitting infectious diseases. Keypads for entering PIN codes and remote-control units in public areas are not far behind. Whether it is because of COVID-19 or for many other health-related reasons, staying away from surfaces that are touched by too many people seems like a smart idea these days. There’s just one problem: how are we expected to get our money out of an ATM, pay for a subway ticket, get our boarding passes, confirm the correct amount at the supermarket, adjust the air-conditioning settings in a conference room or change the TV channel in a doctor’s waiting room?

The key to solving the problem of physical contact with public devices is the ability of voice control. Over the last few decades, a lot of self-service systems have been rolled out all over the world, all sharing one common characteristic: touch interaction.

Retrofitting these millions of appliances for a zero-touch world seems like a tall order, and doing so would be prohibitively expensive if it involved replacing all existing equipment. However, there is a better way: mainstream voice assistants like Amazon Echo or Google Assistant have built-in voice commands to control connected devices. And with a small amount of work, they can be made to cooperate with legacy tools and systems that were never expected to be driven by voice commands.

At the moment, the market for voice assistants has one of the fastest growth rates among information technology. The utilization of voice assistants is becoming increasingly popular due to how easily we can interact with them. Major players in the voice assistant market are Google, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft. So far, voice assistants are most popular in English-speaking countries, but with the development of this technology, they will become available to a wider audience.

Here at ELEKS, we’ve created a prototype that uses voice controllers (Amazon Echo, Google Assistant, or custom-built devices) to manage legacy non-connected appliances like air conditioners, heating systems, or television sets. The system works by instructing the voice controller to accept commands like ‘set temperature to 20 Celsius’ or ‘switch to channel 7’. The voice controller is connected to a Raspberry Pi that will then send the corresponding infrared signal to the legacy device without the need for the remote control to be touched.

ELEKS’s Deputy CTO Vitalii Yuryev, who created the prototype with a small team of software engineers, explains: “This technique allows very rapid deployment and opens additional integration possibilities. For example, air-conditioners could become weather-aware or turn themselves off when people leave the room”.

Now, let’s take a closer look at the system architecture using the example of cooperation with an air conditioning system. In our office there is an Amazon Echo voice assistant and a conditioning system with which we could only interact in a traditional way – through the physical control panel. After the Amazon Echo ‘wakes up’, it is ready to recognize voice commands. Upon receiving such a command, it sends an appropriate command to the CPU, which in turn generates an infrared signal. Next, the CPU sends the generated signal to a device containing an infrared transmitter that is attached to the air conditioning system.

Obviously, we could achieve similar results with a smartphone. Today, many applications are able to generate infrared signals and transmit them. But our system has a significant advantage. It extends the functionality of various devices. For instance, if we go back to the example of air conditioning, through our system we can not only control the temperature or humidity, fan or blinds, but also ‘ask’ the air conditioning system to set the optimal temperature for the number of people in the room. The air conditioning system can remember a specific person and its preferred room temperature. Or we can ‘teach’ the air conditioning system to determine the optimal temperature relative to the weather outside. There are many similar examples to expand our interaction with the air conditioning system.

Making legacy appliances cooperate with the IoT infrastructure requires parsing the commands sent by the remote-control unit and translating them for a Raspberry Pi. An additional benefit is that a Raspberry Pi can also be used as the IoT controller for several types of legacy devices. The system is not limited to interactions via infrared – it is also able to communicate via Bluetooth controllers or use hardwired connections if necessary.

This architecture intercepts the control chain built into the legacy device to allow for an additional user interface – in this case, through voice commands. A very similar strategy could be used for almost any public terminal. The effort varies depending on the types of interactions that are possible with the device and the number of voice commands that would need to be implemented. But the cost and time to market in all cases will be far less than having to roll out an entirely new set of appliances. In cases where a terminal is powered by an iPad or Android tablet, the fix could be as simple as a software update and the addition of a microphone.

Yuryev cautions, “The biggest challenge will be environmental noise. Overcoming this will require the use of high-quality microphones or noise reduction strategies.” He also points out that security-conscious applications may prefer to avoid a connection to devices like Amazon’s Echo and instead opt for custom integration of a non-connected device that has better options to restrict remote access.

The ELEKS IoT Controller works with both types of voice controllers. Naturally, transmitting things like PIN codes by voice would make the process implicitly vulnerable to bystanders who could overhear our interaction with the ATM. Some areas will continue to require the equivalent of today’s touch interfaces, but at least an option now exists to minimise this kind of interaction.

Retrofitting legacy appliances with a zero-touch user interface is made very simple with the ELEKS IoT Controller, and the device can be deployed to work with almost any public terminal.


Yurii Laba, Data Scientist at ELEKS, and Mariana Mysak, Research and Development Engineer at ELEKS

Post details