June 01, 2006
| by Julie Jacobson
Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s pulling into my driveway?
Snow White’s evil stepmother would have a field day. Instead, the joy belongs to Craig Barr, principal of Themeaddicts Inc., a startup company that makes, among other things, a talking mirror.
When nothing is happening, the mirror looks like any other ... until some event occurs, like a visitor trips the driveway sensor. At which point a fairy-talish character called Basil appears to announce the breach.
As far as automation goes, I thought I’d seen it all. This one is really out there.
Even Barr will concede that. “We’re aiming at the cribs like you see on TV,” he says.
*Where Did Craig Barr Come From?*
Now Barr is taking his theme park and cinematic experience to the home, with some products that make HAL’s voice-controllable automation and D-Box’s motion-simulated chairs seem mundane.
The so-called Magic Message Mirror is one of the products in the Themeaddicts line. The patented product is not just a modified version of today’s mirror-###-TVs. The proprietary hardware package is custom-engineered and manufactured to operate in the portrait mode and to actively mix video images.
For example, the mirror is at one point a traditional looking mirror with a frame of the customer’s choice. Then it morphs into an animated character (above photo, right). Then it becomes a traditional display for surveillance cameras. In true fairy tale fashion, of course, surveillance video doesn’t just appear. It fades into view like a dream sequence in the movies.
But the real coup is the animation, reminiscent of the talking mirrors in “Snow White” and, 103 years later, “Shrek.” The character, Basil the Butler, boasts the “quintessential snooty British accent,” says Barr, who says his company “spared no expense” in bringing the theme park world to the home automation market. The Butler gets its voice from Grade “A” Hollywood voice talent. Basil has about 133 lines, all of them scripted by Hollywood writers to nail the theme (here’s a sample audio clip).
Barr’s polished version of Basil follows years of crafting and living with its predecessor, “Animatronic Pirate Skull,” for which the inventor himself voiced the lines. He claims that each message is designed to be “short, yet entertaining and not bothersome to the user long after the original ‘wow’ factor wears off.”
Just what do these characters say? Typical things that any butler might say, like, “Ah, yes, the Jacuzzi’s now at the selected temperature.” Back at the Barr house, Basil announces—by way of tripped driveway sensors—that a car or a person is approaching (he can distinguish between the two), and then summons up the surveillance video.
But what if talking mirrors aren’t your thing? Not to worry, Themeaddicts also offers a patented animatronic talking toucan and pirate skull with similar vocabularies. The mouths on these babies keep better synch than Ashlee Simpson.
Themeaddicts will also quote custom animatronic and mirror characters if requested.
What They Talk To
So just what do the toucan, skull and mirror integrate with? Barr’s own automation system is something you shouldn’t try at home, kids. He incorporates products from Anitech Systems, normally used for controlling theme-park rides.
But he is working with Crestron to create the drivers that allow automation events to trigger the appropriate responses from his characters. The devices communicate via RS-232.
At CEDIA, Themeaddicts will demonstrate its Magic Message Mirror 30p (30-inch portrait mode) and Magic Message Animatronic Skull reacting to a Crestron automation system.
How much will it cost? Barr says he is still finalizing the pricing structure, but by CEDIA he’ll have it figured out. One thing’s for sure—it won’t be cheap. “It will be expensive,” Barr says, citing the very costly development costs for animation and the “anticipated relatively low production volume.”
Barr insists there is a demand, though, claiming, “Every integrator we have discussed our product with has indicated that they have at least one client who would be more than interested in our products.”
Why not? Integrators are also building bat-cave home theaters and greeting homeowners with avatars.
Barr has been working with several themed-entertainment professionals on Themeaddicts products for a few years, and says he has a couple “more mainstream” products for the home automation market in the patent application process.
Still, he hasn’t given up his day job. Right now he’s working on a project with [http://www.technifex.com Technifex Inc.] developing simulated hazardous training environments for emergency first responders—basically a programmable “Backdraft” type of themed attraction for emergency personnel.
This animatronic home control toucan—yes, toucan—is programmed with more than 100 verbal announcements.
If magical mirrors aren’t your style, try an animatronic pirate skull. The skull’s mouth is perfectly synched to its audio track.
In its default state, the Magic Message Mirror from Themeaddicts, Inc. looks like any other looking glass. Homeowners can customize the mirror frame. (Right) Basil the Butler appears in the mirror to announce visitors, alert bathers about the Jacuzzi temperature, remind residents to take out the trash, and otherwise communicate the status of the house. Surveillance cameras fade in and out of view.
Julie Jacobson is co-founder of EH Publishing and currently spends most of her time writing for CE Pro, mostly in the areas of home automation, networked A/V and the business of home systems integration. She majored in Economics at the University of Michigan, earned an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin, and has never taken a journalism class in her life. Julie is a washed-up Ultimate Frisbee player with the scars to prove it. Follow her on Twitter @juliejacobson.