Emily Prokop from The Story Behind with Voice Recon, Keyboards and Fidget Cubes – HGG296

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Jim Collison  https://twitter.com/jcollison is joined by Emily Prokop from The Story Behind Podcast for show #296 of Home Gadget Geeks brought to you by the Average Guy Network.

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The Story Behind Voice Recognition

  • Finding out about the history of voice recognition reminded me a lot of teaching my daughter to speak. And it started with numbers.
  • In the 1952, Bell Laboratories developed a machine that could recognize the spoken numbers 0 through 9.
  • This was called Audrey, which was a portmanteau of the words AUtomatic Digit REcognizer, plus an extra Y at the end so it would more match the common name spelling.
    • And it was huge. Literally huge — the relay rack, alone, was six feet tall.


  • Audrey didn’t talk back. That technology came much later.
    • She responded by flashing lights. And she wouldn’t respond to just anyone.
    • In order to maintain the 97 percent accuracy of the machine, the speaker had to become acquainted with Audrey and she was constantly fine-tuned and adjusted.
  • IBM introduced the Shoebox machine at the 1962 World’s Fair, which understood a whopping 16 English words.
  • But it was the Department of Defense in the ‘70s who really advanced the technology of speech recognition. A department called the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) created “Harpy,” a voice recognition software that could understand more than 1,000 words.
    • DARPA or ARPA as it started out in 1958 was created by President Eisenhower for the purpose for forming and executing research and development projects to expand the frontiers of technology and science.  Out of this group was formed both the Air Force and the Department of Defense Directive 5105.15.  It was authorize in response to the Soviet Union’s launching of Sputnik.  It’s first director, Roy Johnson, left a $160K management job at GE to take ARPA for $18K.  Herbert York from the Lawrence Livermore National Lab was hired has is scientific assistant.
    • Johnson and York with both big fans of space projects, but when NASA was later established in late 1958 and most of ARPAs funding was funneled to it, Johnson resigned and APRA was repurposed to do “high-risk”, “high-gain” and “far-out” projects. 
    • During the late 50s and early 60s, APRA worked on major national issues, including space, ballistic missiles defense and nuclear test detection.  In the late 60s all of it space program move to NASA and the military programs to their respective services
    • The agency was renamed to DAPRA in 1972 and made great progress in Information processing.  Initially through its support of the development of time-sharing or Multics (Multics stands for Multiplexed Information and Computing Service) was a mainframe timesharing operating system that began at MIT as a research project in 1965. It was an important influence on operating system development (all modern operating systems rely on concepts)  The Multics system, was developed by a cooperation among Bell Labs, General Electric and MIT, which DARPA supported by funding Project MAC at MIT with an initial two-million-dollar grant)
    • DARPA supported the evolution of the ARPANET (the first wide-area packet switching network), Packet Radio Network, Packet Satellite Network and ultimately, the Internet and research in the artificial intelligence fields of speech recognition and signal processing, including parts of Shakey the robot. 
    • DARPA also funded the development of the Douglas Engelbart’s NLS computer system (from where we get hypertext links, the mouse, raster-scanvideo monitors, information organized by relevance, screen windowing and video conferencing to name a few) and The Mother of All Demos (which highlight all those technologies in 1968!)
    • Of course, all these system influcence both the Apple and Windows UIs in the 80s and 90s
  • One thing to note about voice recognition is the machines aren’t actually recognizing whole words — they are recognizing the smallest elements of spoken words, known as phonemes, and putting them together within the software to determine what word you are most likely saying.
    • Phonemes are the elements such as vowel sounds or something podcasters are familiar with called Plosives, like a P or T sounds, which things like pop filters over microphones soften.
    • The software may not always catch every phoneme nor are they always able to format your speech and translate it to something the computer can understand.
  • In 1990, a company called Dragon introduced the first speech recognition program available to everyday consumers called Dragon Dictate. For the low price of only $9,000, you could talk and have the program type what you were saying.
    • Even as the years progressed and the technology improved and became more affordable, seven years later, when Dragon NaturallySpeaking came out, the program could only recognize 100 words per minute.
    • The average rate of speaking is about 163 words per minute. So you would have to say a word, pause, say a word again and pause over and over again.
    • That was even after the initial set-up you needed to go through with the program that took about 45 minutes for it to recognize your voice and speaking patterns. Even at almost $700, it was 80 percent accurate.
    • DragonDictate is still around, by the way. In fact, getting back to science fiction, writer Peter David, known for writing for numerous comic books, including Star Trek comic books, began using it in 2012 after his stroke.
  • BellSouth introduced the first voice portal called VAL, short of Voice Activated Link, in 1996. This technology could be used over telephone for “quick” access to information about anything from movie times to restaurant suggestions to troubleshooting and customer service.
    • You can thank VAL for services like AOL MovieFone and a very memorable Seinfeld episode.
    • In a July 1996 (Remember, the internet is just coming on line for some people via Compuserve and AOL) PRNewswire press release: Customers shopping for a car will be able to tell VAL the make and model they’re looking for as well as the estimated price range. Using the AutoTrader(TM) magazine classified advertising listings for Central Florida as a database, VAL will search for automobiles matching the customer’s preference. VAL will give search results verbally, or, if customers prefer, in written form via fax.
      Customers looking for a restaurant will be able to tell VAL the cuisine they want, the price range and general location. VAL will search The Real Yellow Pages database of information for restaurants fitting the customer’s preferences.
      Once VAL has enough information — based on customer comments — to narrow the list of choices to five or fewer, VAL will read out the matching listings. VAL will also offer Restaurant Guide callers the option of connecting directly to the restaurant of their choice.
  • Being able to talk and get a spoken-word response was the piece of technology that really astounded us, though. But did you ever notice that many computer voices, such as navigation software, Siri and the new voice-activated assistants, have female voices?
    • This is intentional. Think back to the computers featured in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “WarGames,” and even the auto-pilot computer voice from “Wall-E.” It’s no wonder we’re more comfortable having a female computer voice when movies exacerbated our fears of computers outsmarting humans with menacing male voices.
      • By the way, if you do a Google search for the infamous WarGames line of “Shall we play a game,” the first result will be a game of Tic-Tac-Toe you can play with Google. (Found this out while researching and lost about five minutes kicking Google’s butt!)
      • However, one alternative to Google Home and Amazon Echo is voice-controlled software called Home Automated Living, otherwise known as HAL — you would think they would have considered the super computer, the HAL 9000, from 2001: A Space Odyssey before picking that little nickname.


    • Did you know there were some strange things that happened around 2001 a Space Odyssey?
      • According to Arthur C. Clarke, Stanley Kubrick wanted to get an insurance policy from Lloyd’s of London to protect himself against losses in the event that extraterrestrial intelligence were discovered before the movie was released. Lloyd’s refused.
      • The total footage shot was some 200 times the final length of the film.
      • A working title was “Voyage Beyond the Stars”. When Fantastic Voyage was released, Stanley Kubrick reportedly so disliked that film that he did not want his film to sound anything like it. In the end, “2001” was chosen as it is the first year of both the 21st century and the 3rd millennium.
      • There is no dialogue in the first 25 minutes of the movie (ending when a stewardess speaks at [25:38]), nor in the last 23 minutes (excluding end credits). With these two lengthy sections and other shorter ones, there are around 88 dialogue-free minutes in the movie
      • Rock band Pink Floyd was at one point approached to perform music for the film. However they turned it down due to other commitments.
      • The entire film contains only 205 special effects shots, compared to 350 in Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope and over 2,200 such shots in Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith
      • The last movie made about men on the moon before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked there in real life. 40 years later, conspiracy theorists insist that this is not a coincidence, claiming that all footage of Armstrong’s voyage was a hoax film directed by Stanley Kubrick using leftover scenes and props from this movie.
      • HAL 9000 never once says, “Good Morning, Dave,” despite this line being one of his most recognized quotations
      • Aside from the film’s music, no sound is heard in the space sequences. This is because technically in space, there is no sound.
      • The movie was not a financial success during the first weeks of its theatrical run. MGM was already planning to pull it back from theaters, when they were persuaded by several theatre owners to keep showing the film. Many theater owners had observed increasing numbers of young adults attending the film, who were especially enthusiastic about watching the ‘Star Gate’ sequence under the influence of psychotropic drugs. This helped the film to become a financial success in the end, despite the many negative reactions it received in the beginning.
  • Even though now the voices of voice activated assistants like Amazon Echo or Google Home are synthesized, there is supposedly a real person behind the voice of Siri.
    • Susan Bennett is a voice actor from Atlanta who took a job in 2005 recording different phrases four hours a day for a month for an unknown project from software company ScanSoft.
    • When colleagues began playing with Siri in 2011, they recognized her voice and she was just as surprised as they were.
    • Apple will not confirm the voice of Siri, though.


  • Just this week, Amazon updated their units to respond to the Wake word of “Computer.”  This of course to the delight of Star Trek fans everywhere!
















17 little known facts about 2001: A Space Odyssey



The Story Behind Mechanical Keyboards


WASD 6 Key Cherry MX Switch Tester – https://www.amazon.com/WASD-6-Key-Cherry-Switch-Tester/dp/B00AZQKCD4


  • In 1714, Englishman Henry Mill filed a patent for “an artificial machine or method for the impressing or transcribing of letters singly or progressively one after another.”
    • Maybe he just had the idea for a typewriter but not the invention, or maybe he was working on it but never got it quite right. Because the first working typewriter was created by Pellegrino Turri in 1808 in Italy for Countess Carolina Fantoni da Fivizzano, who was blind.
  • In the 1870s, a typewriter known as a writing ball was introduced, and supposedly Nietzsche received one for Christmas one year and he hated it.
    • If you see illustrations of the writing ball, you could easily understand why. The keys were arranged in a dome pattern over a piece of paper.
  • Only a few years later, Remington’s Sholes and Glidden typewriter was introduced by newspaper man Christopher Sholes was more like the old fashioned typewriters we may be more familiar with.
    • Except that the words were type onto paper under the carriage, meaning anyone typing at the time couldn’t see what they were typing until it was complete and they lifted the carriage to retrieve the paper.
    • We won’t get too much in-depth about the typewriters, themselves, but I wanted to get to this point because it was the Sholes and Glidden typewriter that was the first to introduce what’s known as the QWERTY or Universal keyboard we still use the today.
      • If you’ve ever wondered why keyboards are set up in the letter configuration they are,one of the theories– although it’s never been proven — is because when Sholes was developing his typewriter, he studied common combinations of letters to make sure letters that were commonly typed together weren’t too close to one another, since it might cause the keys to jam for those with quick fingers.
      • A few other keyboard layouts have been introduced over the years, since we no longer really have to worry about typewriter keys jamming, but even though they may be more efficient for typing, the learning curve for everyone using the QWERTY keyboard would make it difficult to convince everyone to switch.
  • Typewriter keyboards generally stayed the same through the turn of the century through the 1950s. When a key was pressed, a corresponding bar would come up and strike a ribbon against the paper. IBM came out with its Selectric Typewriter in 1961, which featured a Type Ball, as opposed to individual Type Bars for every letter.
    • The Ball had all the letters on it and when a key was pressed, the ball would turn and pivot to the correct letter. This cut down on keys jamming.
      • IBM, by the way, had been making typewriters since the 1930s, even though we know them more for computer technology today.


    • One more thing about Type Balls — they could be changed out of the Selectric Typewriters, making it easier to change fonts. I couldn’t find any evidence of Type Balls offering Comic Sans, though. If you want to find out more about that particular font, check out my episode, The Story Behind Comic Sans.
  • When computers started becoming available with screens that could display what was being typed, programmers made their own keyboards piece by piece.
    • Personal computers made in the 1970s did come with their own keyboards, but these were more like switches on the front panel.
    • IBM also sold converted electric typewriters to those who wanted separate keyboards, but since it was more programmers who bought computers and the idea of every home having its own computer was laughable at the time, many converted their own electric typewriters or built their own second keyboard specifically for data entry.


  • Starting in 1977, the first real Apple keyboards were built into the cases of the Apple II series and the later Apple III series systems. These first keyboards had chocolate brown keycaps with white legends. The Apple II and Apple II+ keyboard had 52 keys, the Apple III keyboard, which included a numeric pad and some other additional keys, had 74. In 1983, the new Apple IIe and Apple III+ models introduced a beige keyboard with smaller black legends. In the same year, Apple introduced its first separate keyboard with the Lisa; it incorporated a numeric keypad and lighter taupe-colored keycaps. It connected via a unique TRS port. The Macintosh updated the look somewhat and separated the (optional) numerical keypad from the alphanumeric unit, all of which connected by telephone-style modular cables. By 1986, the Macintosh Plus re-integrated the numerical keypad and became the standard for all successive keyboards. However, it also marked the last of the beige Apple-II-era designs which were usurped by the newer Snow White design language.
  • From the end of 1986 until mid-1998, all new Apple keyboards were “Platinum” gray and connected via the Apple Desktop Bus (ADB). The Apple IIe and IIc line continued with integrated keyboards, as did the PowerBook portable line of course, those of the latter being a darker gray color called “Smoke”. During the 90s, Apple offered various styles of keyboard, including the large extended keyboards which included the features of their IBM PC AT counterparts.
  • The release of the first iMac in October 1998 introduced a matching compact, translucent-plastic keyboard based on laptop technology and marked the transition from ADB to USB. In July 2000, it was replaced with the full-sized Pro Keyboard, having slightly translucent black keys and a clear case. The PowerBook and iBook integrated keyboards followed suit with translucent keys first in bronze (PowerBook), then in black (PowerBook) and white (iBook). Coinciding with the introduction of the iMac G4 in 2002, Apple started making its keyboards white. On the Bluetooth Wireless Keyboard, Apple removed the adjustable feet from the back of the keyboard, giving it a solid base. This design was later quietly introduced on the wired version. The Aluminum PowerBooks added another color, opaque aluminum with sometimes-backlit translucent legends, to the array of keyboard styles in use.
  • Just like anyone even remotely familiar with early cars would know the terms Model T and Model A, keyboard aficionados would be familiar with the terms Model M and Model F.
    • These were keyboards introduced in the 1980s, starting with the Model M in 1984, introduced by IBM.
      • If you remember back in the early days of home computers, they keyboards had a distinct “click” made by what’s known as a buckling spring in each key, giving users tactile and audible feedback.


    • A lighter, quieter (and, more importantly, cheaper) keyboard was introduced in the ‘90s using cheap rubber domes and membranes.

IBM in the 80s

  • Jim – (Sources from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IBM_Personal_System/2) The best known IBM computers in the 80s was Personal System/2 or PS/2. It was IBM‘s third generation of personal computers. Released in 1987.  Before it came:
    • IBM PC (Introduced August 12, 1981) the Famous IBM 5150
      • The generic term “personal computer” was in use before 1981, applied as early as 1972 to the Xerox PARC‘s Alto, but because of the success of the IBM Personal Computer, the term “PC” came to mean more specifically a desktop microcomputer compatible with IBM’s PC products. Within a short time of the introduction, third-party suppliers of peripheral devices, expansion cards, and software proliferated; the influence of the IBM PC on the personal computer market was substantial in standardizing a platform for personal computers. “IBM compatible” became an important criterion for sales growth; only the Apple Macintosh family kept significant market share without compatibility with the IBM personal computer.


    • XT(March 8, 1983 – XT stands for eXtended Technology) and Apart from the hard drive, it was essentially the same as the original PC, with only minor improvements.  The IBM Personal Computer XT originally came with 128 KB of RAM, a 360 KB double-sided 5¼ inch floppy disk drive, a 10 MB Seagate ST-412 hard drive
    • AT (1984 – Advanced Technology), was IBM‘s second-generation PC, designed around the 6 MHz Intel 80286 microprocessor 84key AT keyboard layout with the 5pin DIN connection (Big) Later ATs had 101-key keyboards which featured integrated numeric keypad with Num Lock key.  They also came with very faulty 20MB Hard drives.  PC DOS 3.0 was released to support ATs
    • PC Convertible in 1886 and wasIBM’s very first Laptop and the first to use the 3 ½ inch floppy disk format.  It was replaced in 1991 by the IBM PS/2 L40 SX, and in Japan by the IBM Personal System/55note, which was the predecessor to what we know today as the Thinkpad line
      The machine sold very poorly for a number of reasons. The Convertible was heavy, not much faster than the Portable it replaced (despite the newer CMOS processor and use of static RAM), didn’t come with traditional PC expansion ports (such as serial ports and a parallel port) without an add-on, and had a hard-to-read, oddly-shaped LCD screen (the first screens lacked a backlight). It also competed against faster portables based on the Intel 80286 that offered optional hard drives, from companies such as Compaq, and laptops from companies such as Toshiba and Zenith that were lighter and offered similar specifications, sometimes at half the price. The keyboard was also widely criticized.


  • The PS/2 line was created by IBM in an attempt to recapture control of the PC market by introducing an advanced yet proprietary architecture. IBM’s considerable market presence plus the reliability of the PS/2 ensured that the systems would sell in relatively large numbers, especially to large businesses. However the other major manufacturers balked at IBM’s licensing terms to develop and sell compatible hardware, particularly as the demanded royalties were on a per machine basis. Also the evolving Wintel architecture was seeing a period of dramatic reductions in price, and so these developments prevented the PS/2 from returning control of the PC market to IBM.
  • However, many of the PS/2’s innovations, such as the 16550 UART (serial port), 1.44 MB 3.5-inch floppy disk format, 72-pin SIMMs, the PS/2 keyboard and mouse ports, and the VGA video standard, went on to become standards in the broader PC market.[1][2]
  • The OS/2 operating system was announced at the same time as the PS/2 line and was intended to be the primary operating system for models with Intel 286 or later processors. However, at the time of the first shipments, only PC DOS was available. OS/2 1.0 (text-mode only) and Microsoft’s Windows 2.0 became available several months later. IBM also released AIX PS/2, a UNIX operating system for PS/2 models with Intel 386 or later processors.
  • Weirdly, people missed that clicky response after a while, and PC gamers became keyboard aficionados, and now gaming keyboards range in what I can only describe as clickiness factor.
  • You may wonder why people would want louder, harder to press keys when keyboards, such as those on laptops, have been made to be lighter and much quieter, but the tactile feedback helps prevent typos, more efficient and have been shown to be easier to clean and longer-lasting.

Note: If you want to learn the story behind the mouse or other computer technology, I recommend the episode of the podcast Liar City called Great Artists Steal: The Xerox PARC Story, and there will be a link in the show notes. http://liarcity.com/great-artists-steal-the-xerox-parc-story/










MEDIA (for TSB, but I love the clicky sounds!):

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Typing_-_Model_F_122_1984.ogg (Model F)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Typing_-_Model_M_1986.ogg (Model M)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Typing_-_Model_M13_1999.ogg (Model M13)

Switch Keyboard Tester







Ratoop Fidget Cube – https://www.amazon.com/Ratoop-Fidget-Relieves-Anxiety-Attention/dp/B01MS9UZVS



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