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UNCW students design voice-activated controls for household system

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Working on a grant from an international Fortune 100 technology company, University of North Carolina Wilmington computer science students are testing a home automation system that gives users control of many household functions by speech commands.

The project is a collaboration between Honeywell International and UNCW professor Dr. Curry Guinn’s speech recognition lab, which gives students an opportunity to work with industrial partners and prepares them for real-world applications of the concepts they learn in class.

“Students can take their skills to the next level of mastery by allowing them to work with a top-tier industry,” Guinn said. “It’s an invaluable model for companies because they can hire experienced workers who are fully prepared to hit the ground running.”

Guinn’s students have built the first phase of a voice-activated system for household controls that they describe as “Siri for your house,” in reference to Apple’s widely used speech controls. Using just the sounds of their voice, users are able to control security alarms, thermostats, lights and  door locks.

The system is comprised of a light bulb, a thermostat and a model alarm system with sensors that detect voice commands from a computer.

“It tries to engage users in a conversation,” Guinn said. “We can use pronouns, words like ‘it’ and ‘they.’ It’s flexible, in terms of language.”

Guinn demonstrated how the system works.

“I’m a little hot,” he said, speaking into a microphone.

“I turned the AC down to 71 degrees,” the system replied.

The project gives the students the chance to apply coding skills to systems that have practical uses for consumers and industry. They are working to “create a system that can be used by real people in the real world,” Guinn said.

Guinn and his students have been assisted by Tom Schmidt, a senior engineering fellow at Honeywell.

“The part of Honeywell that I come from is concerned with security systems, commercial and residential, which are becoming more and more complex,” Schmidt said. “Our goal is to manage that complexity for our users. The CEO of Honeywell [David M. Cote] believes voice technology is something we need to keep in front of us all the time.”

Stephen Murphy, a UNCW senior majoring in computer science with a concentration in digital arts and film studies, is one of two undergraduate students who spend 10-20 hours each week on the project.

Murphy, who is scheduled to graduate in December, said he hopes to work with voice-activated technology in the future.

“I was unsure what I wanted to do before this,” he said.

Murphy already has received a job offer from a technology company in Durham. Guinn said the practical experience Murphy gained working on the Honeywell project should help him land other offers.

The practical experience is important, as students need both technical skills and applied skills to truly compete.

“That’s a powerful one-two punch in today’s economy,” Guinn said.

Honeywell International, which creates and manufactures a wide range of aerospace, healthcare, energy and security technology, funded the project with a $98,000 grant.

Honeywell will integrate Guinn and the students’ findings into their home security technology.

The project expands on work Guinn did as a researcher for the Research Triangle Institute, where he designed a spoken word interface system for tank repair at Fort Knox in Kentucky.

“Soldiers spoke to the system, and the system listened and spoke back, guiding them through the repair of the tank. No manual necessary,” Guinn said.

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