Excuse me," said the elevator as its door brushed me
And now, America, the talking elevator. Walk into the sleek compartment, and it may greet you: "Good morning." Press button No. 10, and the elevator will announce, "Floor 10.Going up."
And, when you walk out, if one of the doors should nudge you, the elevator can apologize by saying, "Excuse me."
Those are some of the features of Otis Elevator's new Elevonic 401 -- the "talking" elevator. And the sound doesn't come from an old-fashioned recording machine. Hidden somewhere inside is a computer, capable of "speaking" 111 words.
The Elevonic is one of the newest products on the market using computer speech synthesis. But it is by no means the only one, not even the only talking elevator (Westinghouse has one, too). Already, several popular games, one of Datsun's new line of cars, one type of alarm clock, and a brand of microwave oven can manage a few words.
And the gift of gab is only beginning. The coming months will see many more talking products reaching the market -- an avalanche of chattering cars and appliances, says Sharon Crook, products strategy manager of speech and technology for Texas Instruments, a leading electronics firm.
But this rush of talking is more than a lot of hot air. It signals a trend to computerize consumer products, making them more sophisticated and self-operating.
"The future will come," predicts Frank Goforth, engineering manager in appliance electronics for Texas Instruments, "when the user places denim jeans in the washing machine, the machine asks the user to select the proper type of fabric, and the machine calls the user when the clothes are clean and dry."
"No doubt about it," says Allan Wennerberg, director of electronics systems research at Whirlpool Corporation, a leading maker of home appliances. "I think you'ill find the use of microcomputers spreading. It's the number of functions that can be performed by the microcomputer that makes it cost-effective."
Increasingly, manufacturers are finding that computerization allows their appliances to offer more options without forsaking simplicity. Panasonic's computer micorwave oven, for example, uses a computer voice to tell users what they have chosen -- whether defrosting, warming, or cooking, and at what temperature.
Theoretically, a conventional oven could perform the same number of functions , but the control panel would look like the flight deck of the space shuttle Columbia -- too difficult for the average consumer.
"People are wanting all these choices," Mr. Goforth says. "The problem is information flow. The person has to know what he's asking the machine to do. The machine can feed that information back with speech easier than by using dials and lights."
Another reason for using a "voice" in consumer products is its attention-getting facility. One Datsun model has a voice that warns drivers "Please turn off the lights" when the lights are on and the driver starts to leave the car.
Sharp Electronics Corporation now markets a talking alarm clock. When set for, say, 6 a.m., it announces: "It's now 6 o'clock." Five minutes later, if the alarm isn't turned off, if says: "Attention please. It's now 6:05 a.M. Please hurry."
Compared to a buzzer, Mr. Wennerberg says, "A verbal sort of command or reminder is a little more effective. . . ."
The biggest technological hurdle facing electronic appliance designers is the development of sensors cheap enough to justify use in an appliance, but sophisticated enough to measure humidity and othe conditions, says T. S. (Stony) Edwards, a director of marketing for National Semiconductor Corporation.
The other hurdle to be crossed is consumer acceptance of electronics, Mr. Edwards says.
But future consumers will be used to electronics, he says. "You have a whole new generation. My kids, who are college-educated, have grown up with electronics. Their children will be playing with toy computers by the time they're four years old."
By that time, technology may have moved ahead to where the communication isn't one-way, he says. With the work now being done on computer voice recognition, you may by then talk to your elevator:
"Tenth floor, please."