Hands On: VoicePod Voice Commands for Control4

A hands-off approach to home control.

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A couple weeks ago when I was having a Control4 system programmed in my home theater (as part of a Sony DA2800ES receiver review, which I’ll post shortly), the local installer who was helping, HouseLogix, told me they had something else cool they wanted me to try at the same time. Sure enough, they were right.

It turned out that HouseLogix is the developer of the VoicePod, a voice control device that Electronic House’s executive editor, Lisa Montgomery, ran across last year at CEDIA and was suitably impressed by. HouseLogix’ Ryan Quinby told me the VoicePod was designed for use with Control4 and would permit voice control over anything the Control4 system could do.

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A few days later, the installer arrived, got the Sony receiver (with its built-in Control4 processor) all suited up, and then set up the VoicePod. That took a little longer, and I could hear Jonathan from HouseLogix in the basement testing key phrases while the room lights dimmed and brightened.

A little while later he said it was done and ready for me to use.

If you’re familiar with Apple’s Siri, and I know you are, then you understand the concept. Say something, and something happens. The magic is in how well it actually works. Anyone who’s struggled trying to get Siri to send a text message without tragically misinterpreting it will no doubt be skeptical of VoicePod. However, I can assure you that VoicePod is considerably better at hearing and understanding commands than Siri or my 16-year-old daughter (to be fair, I haven’t asked VoicePod to clean toothpaste off the bathroom mirror).

The product itself is a little bigger than a hockey puck and contains both a speaker and a microphone. It doesn’t send out any commends itself; rather it sends a signal wirelessly via Zigbee to the Control4 system, which then does all the heavy automation work it was programmed to do. The module is small enough to not be noticeable in most rooms, but it includes a microphone input and speaker output so you can hide the main unit.

The product idea was born after HouseLogix was involved in putting a control system into a rehabilitation hospital near Allentown. The team realized that one thing which would go a long way toward giving disabled people more independence was voice control. They soon set out to develop a product, and three years later we have VoicePod.

My VoicePod installation was pretty basic. I just had one room, a standard theater with a projector, receiver, a couple of source components and some lights. HouseLogix programmed some sensible lighting scenes on Control4 dimmers. The company gave me a cheat sheet of commends, which included some special “remote” commends that allowed me to drill down a little bit, but for the most part I was able to ignore the cheat sheet and just wing it. VoicePod can be pretty forgiving.

The device can be used to control just about anything. For instance, when I enter the room I wake up the device with the keywords “Hello VoicePod,” in the same way that some Samsung 2012 smart TVs responded to “Hi TV.” The neat thing about VoicePod is that you know it heard you because it answers, “How may I help you?” The system recognizes about 300 commands, but most installations will use only a small fraction of those—300 is a lot of custom commands for a person to remember so it makes sense to pick just the ones that will be used.

In my room, it easily handles most theater requirements. Speaking the command “Watch,” causes the VoicePod to ask me what source. In my room that means a choice between Blu-ray, Roku and Playstation 3 (incidentally, VoicePod doesn’t know the word Roku, but it does know Media Player, and speaking that caused the Sony receiver to switch to the Roku input). From there I can either pick up the Control4 remote to find my streaming service and select my video, or issue another command, “Remote Control” which lets me says things like “Move Left,” “Play,” etc. to navigate around a menu (this works with any onscreen menu including Blu-ray players and DVRs). Commands like “Set Volume Low” are also convenient. For my room, HomeLogix programed in three volume settings to make selection easier. Light dimness settings were also programed in for multiple scenarios which could easily be activated through voice commands.

For me, VoicePod made sense for some uses more than others. It was convenient for turning my system on and selecting my video source as I was settling down into my seat. I also liked using it to turn the whole system off (by using the “Room Off” command). Not having to pick up a remote or tap a touchscreen made it feel like I had an invisible butler assisting me. I also liked VoicePod for turning on the lights. In a whole house control system, I can imagine VoicePod being perfect for a nighttime all-off command or for arming a security system. For navigating around Blu-ray and Roku menus I preferred using the Control4 remote.

One especially nice thing about the product is that it will give you voice feedback so you know it understood your instructions. For instance, if you ask it to raise the room temperature to 70 degrees it will answer with something like “Temperature now set to 70 degrees.” You can also ask it to report on a system’s status, such as your security system, and it can tell you whether the system is armed or not.

VoicePod can be used in conjunction with other automation devices, such as a motion sensor or door trigger. For instance, a when the door to your theater opens VoicePod can automatically ask you if you want to watch something.

Like any voice-control system, it takes some adjusting on the user’s part to know what kind of inflection and voice volume works best, but it’s not so picky that most people couldn’t master it. When I first demonstrated it to my wife, she quickly figured out that you shouldn’t address the system with the inflection you’d use if you were addressing a real person. Don’t say “Hello VoicePod” as if you were really greeting it, but rather say the words flatly, as if they were just words. Ambient noise in the room also makes a difference. If you’re watching a movie with the volume raised, you probably won’t be able to get VoicePod’s attention. Device placement probably also makes a difference, and an installer will suggest the best place to put it.

While we’ve seen several DIY attempts to use voice control in the home, mostly by tying Apple’s Siri into a system, this is the first of its kind available to the public. People looking for more convenience out of their Control4 system (or just more cool) will like the potential in VoicePod. People with disabilities which make using remotes or touchpanels difficult will also find a solution in VoicePod. For most people, the device will be a supplement, not a replacement, to a remote or app control, but it’s the most interesting supplement I’ve ever experienced and think anyone considering a new Control4 system should try it in at least one room. The devices will become available through professional integrators around May.

Here’s a video demonstration of VoicePod from the 2012 CEDIA Expo:

VoicePod
$650

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