The Wall Street Journal --
Date: 10 March 1998

Sensory Circuits' Cheap Chip Has People Talking

By Dean Takahashi - Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal

The Wall Street JournalSUNNYVALE, Calif. -- The multitalented Mozer family has achieved a technology breakthrough: a $5 microchip that allows people to talk to refrigerators and plenty of other machines. The question: Just how much do we have to say to the fridge?

 Most of the burgeoning field of voice recognition is focused on expensive gear that allows someone to give verbal instructions to a computer, or to a telephone system. The Mozers started closely held Sensory Circuits Inc. in 1994 with a much humbler goal in mind: a dirt-cheap chip that can be embedded in just about any mundane object, including doors, telephones, light switches and treadmills, that would allow those objects to recognize simple voice commands, such as "Call Mom," "Lights on" and "Go slower!"

 For the most part, they've succeeded, selling close to a million voice-recognition chips so far. Uniden Corp., the big Japanese telephone handset maker, is about to market a $150 phone through chains like Sears, Roebuck & Co. that will respond to spoken names instead of buttons. It works about 19 out of 20 times: when it misses, it asks the caller to speak closer to the mouthpiece and repeat the name. Other orders come from Mattel Inc.'s Fisher-Price line for a robot that converses with children, and from VOS Systems, which makes voice-activated light switches.

 "We're at the point where we've got some killer applications," enthuses Todd Mozer, Sensory's 37-year-old chief executive officer and a Stanford business school graduate (and a dedicated guitarist).

 The trick was finding an inexpensive solution to a seemingly intractable problem. Digitizing, sorting and recognizing the complex patterns of speech is very difficult, especially because accents and cadences are so varied. Other approaches require souped-up microprocessors and complex software, resulting in systems that can cost thousands of dollars.

 But Mr. Mozer had good help. His 69-year-old father, Forrest, is a physics professor emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley (he is also a demon guitarist) who liked tinkering with chips that recognized voice signals. His brother Michael, 39, is a professor of cognitive science at the University of Colorado who wrote the chip's unique neural-network software, which simulates the human brain's approach to processing large problems in parallel. The technique is useful for finding complex patterns, such as human speech, which allows the company to cut the chip's cost by reducing the amount of data it has to process and store.

 Sensory, which now has 36 employees, shipped its first chip in 1995, for a phone. The Mozer have since learned to program commands to get around a lot of human confusion. They have engineers and linguists tour the U.S., recording hundreds of samples of spoken words such as "Mom." They then feed the samples into the chip, telling it that each sample is the same word. Sensory also comes up with clear-cut commands. For example, its light-switch chip responds to the word "lights" and then a pause before "on." Before that, Forrest Mozer says, "it might turn the light on if you said something similar, like 'put your tights on.' "

 But voice recognition doesn't make sense for every machine. Duds include chips that told a fridge to crush ice or dispense water, and a front door that greeted visitors. These weren't technological failures: but they apparently aren't as compelling as alternatives, such as pressing a glass against a lever or knocking on a door.

 That hasn't deterred Todd Mozer. He wanders around his home babbling to his phone, his lights and his door. And he has high hopes for another convenience: an alarm clock that turns off when yelled at.

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