New Product Review – June 1991

There are a number of routine tasks which able-bodied people take for granted, but become impossible for those without the […]

There are a number of routine tasks which able-bodied people take for granted, but become impossible for those without the ability to manipulate simple switches and controls. Turning off a light, turning on a TV or radio, and working the control on an electric bed are examples.

Mastervoice or “Butler-In-A-Box”, a very flexible voice activated control system, distributed locally by Willis Anderson, is an answer which can be utilized by anyone who can speak, even whisper, commands to a “Butler-In-A-Box”. The Butler can be trained to respond to an individual’s speech patterns, even though they are unusual or not clear to other individuals.

Mastervoice is manufactured in California and is normally sold as an innovative method of controlling various functions in upscale homes. Voice commands by owners can perform any task that can be accomplished by activating switches; “close garage door!” “turn on the coffee pot!” etc. In addition, the device can answer phones, set timers on lighting, heat, air conditioning or any other household system from verbal orders.

Willis Anderson, the owner of Minnesota Automated Technologies, sees a whole different application for people with disabilities which is why he brought it to our attention. I saw it perform and agree that it could lessen dependence on personal care attendants and create some independence for certain people. It would probably pay for itself by reducing the number of daily hours of help required for these individuals. The voice controlled Butler-in-a-Box is ideally suited for people with little of no control of their arms. With the Butler programmed, the individual would be able to control his or her environment, turning on lights or fans, watching that favorite TV program and even dialing the phone. With the ability to control 256 items by voice, the possibilities are almost unlimited. One of the best “features” is Mr. Anderson, who is willing to help customize the Butler in the user’s own environment.

Cost is a big factor, of course. The basic unit is $1500.00, and a realistic minimum set of accessories to controls lights in a home, fans, airconditioner, TV, and bed controls would probably almost double that figure. Mr. Anderson would advise the buyer of the necessary items after surveying the home, and “train” the equipment to respond to the user’s voice.

It is possible that insurance or medical assistance would pay for the system if it prescribed by a doctor or therapist. I should point out, however, that devices recommended for someone not recently disabled are sometimes very tough to sell to the people who pay, even though they may save money in the long run. Mr. Anderson is exploring “alternative” ways of funding the Butler. These may include asking service clubs or foundations to purchase the equipment for people who are in need, but may not have the resources.

Summary: An imaginative use of existing technology, backed up by an individual willing to use his extensive knowledge of engineering to tailor-make each application. A winner for those who can afford it.