Monday, November 12, 2012

BlueAnt S4 to the Rescue?

On my continuing journey looking for the perfect cell-phone system for someone who can't use his/her fingers, my stop today takes me to the BlueAnt S4. As I mentioned in a previous post, I require a truly hands-free solution to make and receive calls since God chose to make my life just that much more interesting.  Anyway, as you may recall, I have tried several voice-triggered devices that work in conjunction with a cell-phone, like the DriveBlue and the Moshi Bluetooth speakerphone, but I always felt that I still hadn't found what I was looking for...

I still feel that way, even after trying the BlueAnt S4, but at least I know what I want now.  The BlueAnt feels like the more refined older brother of that bitch Moshi. He has a deep manly voice, and he sounds a little stern ordering me to "Say a Command" when I utter the magic words, "BlueAnt Speak to Me".  Mr. BlueAnt is very similar to Ms. Moshi in many ways, but he seems to be more specifically designed for today's smartphones and refuses to even pair with my old Sony Ericsson T637. On top of that, BlueAnt is not designed to dial any of the contacts directly... and he makes your smartphone handle all of the heavy lifting to figure out if you want to call your friend Steve. I understood this from the start, and set out to find the correct smartphone to pair him with to make my life easiest. After extensive research, and hours upon hours of reading blog posts and Amazon reviews, I settled on the original Motorola Droid RAZR. See, I'm not satisfied with just making and receiving calls... I'm always looking for the most adaptable solution to needs (or wants) I may have in the future, and the RAZR seemed like a good candidate. Since my fingers don't work to slide/tap/long-press/pinch/flick whatever images or words appear on the magic glass-like screen, I needed a phone that would give me the option of using an alternative input device to interact with it. For the longest time, no elegant solution existed for the smartphones on the market... until EasyBlue... a little Bluetooth dongle for the PC that pairs correctly with most Android 3.2 or higher devices, and enables the (mostly) full control of the phone using the mouse/keyboard (yes, and even voice software like Dragon NaturallySpeaking) you already own (check out this YouTube video for a great demonstration). I want to try to focus on the BlueAnt for now, so I won't get into all the particulars of the EasyBlue or the RAZR, but I will say that the path I went down works the best for me at this point and the voice commands built into the RAZR work pretty darn good (more details below). Sure, I wish I could've gone with the iPhone 5, but Apple (to this day) refuses to allow a Bluetooth mouse to interface with its iOS (even through EasyBlue) and I am dependent on this technology to work with my phone in certain situations. I am a fan of Android however, and I love the open-source feel to all of it, but man... Siri would have been nice.

Anyway, back to BlueAnt... first impression is that he is much bigger than I thought he was going to be, and heavier. This wouldn't be a problem if I planned on using him on my visor in my car, but since my voice is weak I still need him pretty close to my mouth and hanging him on my shirt looks extremely goofy. Fortunately, I quickly discovered that the BlueAnt can hear me just fine, and I am pleased to report that BlueAnt uses a microphone-array setup that filters out background noises and amplifies my voice better than anything I have ever used. He understands almost all of my commands, and when I am speaking commands to the RAZR to dial Steve (for instance), I've had very good results. On top of this, everyone I call is reporting that (for once) they can hear me loud and clear. This has allowed me to take him off on the front of my shirt (when I go out) and hide him inside my shirt pocket... the quality is ever so slightly diminished, but voice commands and phone calls work almost just as good so I am happy. I still wish that there was an external microphone option so I could mount him permanently on my wheelchair somewhere, but what are you going to do?

Pairing him with my RAZR presented no problems, and all of my phone book contacts were automatically transferred into BlueAnt. When a call comes in he will announce either the name of the caller (weirdly in a female text-to-voice kinda way) or the phone number (in his voice), and will then ask if I want to "answer or ignore". As long as the choice is made fairly quickly, these voice commands work wonderfully. Unfortunately, there is still no way to hang up the call by voice, and I miss that feature every-single-freaking-day and wish someone would bring it back. When not on a call, BlueAnt is always listening for his command phrase, "BlueAnt Speak to Me" and he is very quick to respond when that exact phrase is spoken anywhere near him... and thankfully, he almost never false-triggers because of the complicated phrase. Some users have complained about this in their review of the S4, but I am happy he doesn't go off every time I sigh (like Moshi did). He also hasn't locked up on me yet, and has survived a drop to the floor already. He will last almost 2 full days between charges (I leave him on day & night) and the speaker quality is excellent. However I hate the touch-sensitive buttons on the front for volume & trigger... they are not responsive when you really need to use them, but they will react like crazy when someone is trying to slide him into my pocket or put him on the charger.

After triggered with his command phrase, he will ask you to "Say a Command" and he will respond if you ask him to "check battery" or "call back" the last incoming call or "redial" the last outgoing call or "cancel" if you changed your mind. He will also allow you to "pair" him with more than one phone simultaneously or adjust the "microphone sensitivity" or to turn on/off the "LED lights". He also will directly dial Bing-411 using the "favorites" command and then a certain service like "weather" or "news". If you forget the commands, you can always ask "What Can I Say" and he will quickly spew off everything he knows.

Of course, it would have been nice if he was able to directly dial your contacts by saying "call Steve at home", but alas he cannot. To accomplish that goal, you must say "Phone Command", and BlueAnt will take way too much time by saying "activating the built in voice commands on the connected phone"... and will then hand you over to your phone's internal voice command options. The RAZR has a pleasant female voice, and she will first tell me to "please wait", then she will ask me to "Please Say a Command". The most useful commands I have found, strictly using my voice, start with "Call" then the name of one of my contacts like "Steve Kelly". I can follow it up with a certain phone, like "Mobile 1" or "Home 1" or I can wait till my female RAZR voice confirms and dials or asks me which phone. If she wasn't sure what contact I wanted to call, she will ask "Did You Say..." and wait for confirmation after saying a name. Otherwise, I am instantly connected. I discovered, quite happily, that she can also directly dial any phone number I say aloud, so a command of "Call 614 555 1212" will get a confirmation from you (with a few alternatives of what she thought she heard, if you answer in the negative) and then a dial out of the number you spoke. I love this feature, and I won't be dependent on only calling people/businesses I have already pre-programmed in my phone. Other useful commands I have discovered include "check battery" and "check time".

Of course, I have a wish-list of other things I could do entirely by voice... hanging up by voice is on the top of that list, speaking dial-tones to be able to select "3" when prompted by some automated answering service sure would be awesome, and sending/receiving text messages completely by voice prompts would be great as well... which leads me to a thought that I perhaps chose the wrong phone for BlueAnt. I have tried several different Android apps which supposedly allow you to receive/send text messages directly by voice, but none of them seem to work through BlueAnt. I don't know if it is a specific BlueAnt communication issue, or a problem with the RAZR not tying the voice prompts correctly in the Bluetooth stack to the BlueAnt microphone, but something isn't working. The best I can do is to run the official BlueAnt android app that will (sometimes) read out incoming text messages over the speaker. That is something, but after seeing some examples of how Siri can interactively prompt you to respond to text messages entirely by voice, I am envious. There is a review of the S4 on Amazon which seems to indicate that BlueAnt works well with Windows Phones using version 7.5 (Mango) that also have the type of built-in voice texting reply prompting that I want... look at this YouTube video to see what I mean. Fortunately, I'm not on a contract with Verizon so I may get the chance to try BlueAnt on a Windows Phone someday... and I sure hope it works like it looks like it does.

Anyway, I am mostly satisfied with my new cell-phone solution. At least I feel like I'm living in the 21st century now and not tied down to an old T637 candy-bar style phone anymore. I wish I could do more things by voice directly on my RAZR, but thankfully the world seems to be heading in that direction.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Obama the Lightning Rod

My sister came in town the other day, and refused to go with me to a Barack Obama rally that was happening in downtown Columbus. This led to an interesting discussion that gave me a slightly better insight to where this rage toward Obama is coming from on the right. It's still incredibly fuzzy, and I wholeheartedly disagree with their position, but at least I kind of have a tiny little bit better underst... oh hell, who am I kidding?

My sister Stephanie's highly paraphrased quote on Obama: he's the most socialist, food stamp making, Israel hating president ever... she basically said she hates the man (which, coming from a Christian is illuminating). When I confronted her with similar comparisons to Clinton, Bush (food stamps, marginal tax rate, etc.), she quickly dived into a different-reality-based reason: the end times are being ushered in faster with him as president, and her facts come from her relationship with God more than anything else... She is especially troubled with Obama's stance that {though we still support them *mostly* unconditionally} Israel needs to work with others in the region and learn to get along with them.

We {me & her} cannot agree even on what the *facts* are, because we are interpreting things from different beginning points. At that point I didn't know where to go. The bubble that Bill Maher talks about, I better understand now... it isn't a conscious plot to lie to others, but these people truly have a different worldview that isn't based on rationality. It is based on a faith that something *other* is better, and more correct, than what we see around us... that *other* thing can be family values, religious experience, societal pressures, etc., that are much more likely to improve {in their mind} if Obama isn't in the White House. He is the lightning rod for their rage about America and what its citizens and society have become {Internet porn watching, food stamp receiving, single parent gay activists}. And untruthfulness, dishonesty, and irrationality {when talking about these things} are common tactics... Because the end {getting Obama out of the White House} will justify the means to them.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Fuck the Olympics

The Olympics is a celebration of what a physical body is capable of. I have Spinal Muscular Atrophy, which is a degenerative motor neuron disease, and all it is good for is TAKING AWAY everything that the physical body is capable of doing. So, I am an expert at what the physical body is UNABLE to do... I can't walk, I can't speak loudly, I can't reach out and touch anyone, I can't feed myself, and I can't express many outwardly physical emotions.

As I'm watching the opening ceremony tonight of the 2012 Summer Olympics, all I'm reminded of is the millions of people around the world who are physically unable to display any type of grace, expression, or excitement BECAUSE of their physical disability. Sure, there is a segment of the Olympics that occurs after the regular games (the Paralympics... typically unaired on national television, of course) that includes those with physical impairments, but it is still focused on what a person is physically capable of doing.

I am physically capable of moving one finger to drive my electric wheelchair, and I'm physically capable of speaking well enough for a software program to convert my speech into text. Where it is the celebration for what I am physically capable of doing? Who is TiVoing the program where my physical abilities are expressed and shared with the world?

Am I bitter? Perhaps... I must admit that I have been drinking tonight... but this does trouble me. In a world where it seems that the only thing that matters is what one is physically able to do, I wonder where I fit in. Sure, some of these thoughts tonight are probably a result of me being single... and the fact that I am constantly reminded of how difficult it is to attract a mate without the ability to reach out and touch... but it is there.

I apologize for the negativity tonight... wait, no I don't... fuck that... this is what I'm feeling.... I hope you enjoy the 2012 Summer Olympics, as I'm having a hard time doing so.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Voice-Activated Devices

My disability has made it difficult, or nearly impossible, to push the simplest or softest of buttons. 10 years ago I could feed myself, pick away on a standard keyboard, play my PlayStation 2, push my cell phone keypad buttons, turn on the radio, and use a well designed remote control. Today, I can't do any of those things because Spinal Muscular Atrophy is a cruel bitch.

But, technology to the rescue, at least for some of those things. The fewer things I can do with my fingers, the more things I seem to be able to do with my voice. When I first started seeing these gadgets on the market, I made it a point to try as many of them as I could afford. Please note: I'm going to provide links to all the devices I mention, but these are not paid or sponsored in anyway… I just like to be helpful.

Today, I'm going to focus on cell phones because I found it the most useful of voice-controllable devices. Outside of a computer, a cell phone will give the most bang for the buck when it comes to freedom and independence… as long as it can be used independently without help from anyone. In future postings, I will be sharing about remote controls, radios, alarm clocks, lamps, and tons of other devices. Thankfully, the list is expanding each and every year.

In my search for voice-controllable cell phones, I quickly discovered a major problem. Sure, while some interesting gadgets were starting to appear in the consumer marketplace, almost all of them required some type of physical activity on the users part to put the phone into "listen" mode. To this day I don't understand why someone would want to push a button on their cell phone just to then ask their cell phone to call Steve. Why not just push the button on the phone that calls Steve directly? This type of "voice control" doesn't interest me and can't help me because if I can push one button, I can probably push all of them.

But sometime in the year 2000 I found it. A fancy new Qualcomm QCP-2760 cell phone through Sprint. The phone itself was unremarkable by itself and the buttons were really difficult to push, but Kyocera sold a car speakerphone kit specifically for that model that interacted with it in some magical way that promised total dialing control just by talking to it. My dad & brother helped me wire it to my 12-volt wheelchair batteries, and after clipping the "visor" microphone to my shirt lapel I turned it on. After programming keywords, contacts, numbers, and other stuff it asked me to say, I tried it out. It truly was "always listening" for a trigger word and it was quite responsive with a quality sound on both ends. It could dial all of my contacts, and it could dial any number I needed just by me saying the numbers out loud. Incoming calls were not announced by name or number, unfortunately, and I discovered quickly that the voice "answer/don't answer" options didn't really work. I was forced to put my phone in auto-answer mode and it just answered every call no matter where I was. Occasionally, it would lock up and quit responding but a simple on/off always took care of it. Looking back, a lot of thought was put into its design and though it has its quirks and problems, it has not been topped yet feature-wise in my opinion. Firstly, the trigger word was required to be heard twice within 2 seconds of each other… what an innovative idea. Today I'm using a Moshi Bluetooth Speakerphone (more on that later) and it will activate several times per hour just by the TV or by me sighing (I still can't figure out how a sigh sounds like "Hello Moshi", but I digress). For activation by voice, the Kyocera speakerphone would beep when it heard the "magic" word/phrase that you chose when you first programmed it… then, if it heard it again within a very short time it would start the voice dialing prompts. There were a few false calls here or there I made accidentally, but otherwise I felt this was a very good system. The obvious drawback (besides being speakerphone-only) is how bulky the entire kit was, and the difficulty for most people to wire it to their wheelchairs. And, while using it, you are stuck with the Sprint Network and that 1 particular phone. It served me well, however, for 4-5 years but I knew I had to keep looking for its inevitable replacement.

The day finally arrived, I believe sometime around 2005… I found a cell phone and speakerphone option that was much simpler in its design and implementation. The Sony-Ericsson T637 through Cingular (now AT&T) and the DriveBlue Speakerphone made by the French company Parrot. Without any wires to the phone, the DriveBlue could dial and receive calls entirely by voice. A wired microphone was still used, but the speakerphone itself was a 1-piece 12-volt plug-in gadget that was amazing in its simplicity compared to the Kyocera kit. And, since it didn't need wired to the cell phone it seemed too good to be true. Bluetooth was in its infancy, and the companies that included it as an option on their cell phones all seemed to have a different idea on what protocols and handshaking modes to implement. Because of that, the DriveBlue had to be paired with just the right phone to take advantage of everything it could do. The Sony-Ericsson T6xx series along with 1-2 others were the only cell phones that the DriveBlue could interact fully with. Having one of these phones paired with it allowed it to activate voice dialing by using the "magic word" instead of pressing a button.

Now, the Sony-Ericsson T637 was special in itself. To this day, it is only one of a handful of phones that had a built-in "magic word" voice dialing option. In a pinch, with a headset, you can dial the T637 without any other kit or speakerphone. Unfortunately, the programming is poorly done and you only get a weird series of beeps, sounds, and tones to indicate what your voice is being interpreted as. There is no confirmation on who you are dialing or where you are in the prompting modes. Answering is only possible using auto-answer or pressing a button. But, voice dialing with a "magic word" is there inside my phone, so I still felt good about it :-)

However, I was much more satisfied using it in combo with the DriveBlue. Bluetooth pairing was simple enough, and it quickly copied over my phonebook. A DriveBlue application appeared in my Bluetooth menu on my phone, and going in there allows complete configuration and programming of the keywords and names of all your contacts. Unlike the Kyocera kit, this one announces incoming calls by name (if they are in your programmed contacts), but it still won't announce the number for unknown callers. The "magic word" was needed to be heard only once for the voice prompts to start, so I had to make it a very weird complicated 3-tone phrase to stop it from activating all of the time. It still did, but that was the best I could come up with. The voice dialing prompts were basic, but effective, and allowed different numbers for each contact to be dialed (home, office, and cellular), but unlike the Kyocera kit it cannot dial a non-programmed number. It would rarely lock up, and accuracy was pretty spot-on. One great feature not repeated with any other device was the ability to hang-up using only your voice while on a call. Every other device required me to wait until the other side disconnected (and that can be several minutes if the call went to voicemail). During the call, the DriveBlue listened for the "hangup" magic word and would respond immediately. Unfortunately, I did lose more than a few calls due to inaccurate interpretation, but I love that feature and miss it every day. Sound quality was, however, poor compared to the Kyocera as it sounded very tinny and crackly with the T637, and the people I called said it didn't sound as clear either. The build quality was suspect as well and the microphone wouldn't work unless it was pulled out of the socket ever-so-slightly. Again, to make it work on a wheelchair you still need to wire a 12-volt cigarette lighter socket to the batteries, but this is a much simpler modification for a friend to do. Parrot quickly released version 2 of the DriveBlue and called it the DriveBlue + and they promised better sound, better compatibility, and a better microphone. I upgraded when I could, and found the build quality was better with the microphone connection but not with the microphone itself. Sound was only slightly improved for me, but this one seemed to lock up several times per week.

I bought several original kits, and several + kits and they lasted me until almost all of the microphones broke. Replacements are difficult to find, and they quit making the DriveBlue sometime in 2008. You still see the occasional original kit available on eBay, but they are getting rather rare. Parrot later produced one additional car kit that included the "magic word" option, but it was a complete fail. With the EasyDrive, Parrot not only did away with the external microphone, but they made the voice prompting much more complicated and not as responsive. I didn't feel like mounting something so big so close to my mouth anyway, so I quickly sold it on eBay before it lost its resale value.

Well, now I'm using the Moshi Bluetooth Speakerphone. Moshi is a company that sells various items that are entirely voice-controlled, and for a little while in 2009-2010 they made a cell phone speakerphone meant for a car visor. It is completely self-contained, charges with USB, and is always listening. It works out of the box with most Bluetooth phones, and does a fair job doing what it was designed to do. Unfortunately, it seems a little too simple and/or dumbed down for the general population and doesn't allow any customizing or programming your own voice for better recognition. The microphone isn't sensitive enough for my weak voice, and everyone complains they can't hear me very well. On my end, the sound is a massive improvement over the DriveBlue, and quality wise Moshi is pretty solid and has survived several large falls to the floor. To activate voice dialing, you must say "Hello Moshi" then one of several pre-programmed key words. You can't directly program your contacts and dial them by voice, but a simplified version of "call favorite 3" or "redial" is used. Incoming calls at least announce a text to speech version of the contacts name, or the number (finally), and the incoming options of "answer/ignore" work flawlessly. It does lock up sometimes, but no worse than anything else. One thing Moshi can do is to interact directly with the voice-control/command options on your cell phone. By first saying "Hello Moshi", then saying "Phone Command", you are then able to interact directly with your particular cell phone's built-in voice options (play a track, call Steve at work, etc.). Moshi has been a good intermediate step, but the major drawback for me, besides the microphone quality, is the physical size/shape and lack of an external microphone jack. Since I speak quietly, to have any chance of anyone hearing me I wear it on my shirt collar. It looks a little goofy, I've been told.

The future awaits, but my next attempt will be the BlueAnt S4. It is the only "magic word" enabled cell phone option (that I am aware of) that hasn't been discontinued. It is very similar in all respects to the Moshi, except for 3 very specific differences. #1: there are no favorites it can directly dial (Moshi at least had 6); you must use the "phone command" option to call anyone, #2: there is an android app that interacts directly with the BlueAnt that supposedly allows you to listen to and respond to text messages completely by voice, and #3: it can stream music from your phone. I just bought one, and once I have the chance to try it out, I'll post the results. But, I may just skip android and try it with the iPhone 4s and Siri to see what I can do just by talking :-)