Wednesday, June 26, 2013

VIC-VODER now shipping!


VIC-VODER is a new voice synthesizer for the Commodore VIC-20 / 64 / 128 featuring some of the latest advancements in speech technology. The system is developed by Rick Melick of San Francisco, California and is available to order at his web site right now. VIC-VODER features an all-in-one design that simply plugs into the User Port to produce quality text-to-speech (English). Talking is as simple as a PRINT statement. A built-in amplifier and speaker complete the entire package. The architecture is "open," which makes it a terrific platform for the development community. You can upgrade your system as new features become available in the months and years ahead.  Click here for VIC-VODER product specifications and sales information.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Change Observations

Change Observations

Moore's Law, the observation that, over the history of computing hardware, the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles approximately every two years, has given rise to a number of other interesting observations:
  • Wirth's Law is a computing adage made popular by Niklaus Wirth in 1995.  It states that, "Software is getting slower more rapidly than hardware becomes faster."
  • Gates' Law is a variant on Wirth's law, borrowing its name from Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft. It is a humorous and ironic observation that, "The speed of software halves every 18 months."  (Presumably at Microsoft.)
  • May's Law, named after David May, is a variant where, "Software efficiency halves every 18 months, compensating Moore's Law."
With most of the world's CPUs running at 99% idle, I don't know that I agree with all of this.  We're doing more with less in many ways:
  • Enterprise and comsumer systems are easier to use then ever before.  This is thanks, in part, to simple interfaces that just have a high overhead.
  • More people have access to more technology than ever, at lower cost, leading to more creativity and educational opportunities for people all over the world.
  • Object Oriented Methodologies and Service Oriented Architectures allow exponentially more opportunites of code re-use, driving down the development time for new innovation.
  • Open Source Software and new licensing models allow many, many individual contributers to collaborate, develop and perfect massive software initiatives, such as Operating Systems, from all over the globe.
  • With new markets and distribution channels, such as app-stores, we see more entrepenureship.  Pull-requests allow for systems to keep themselves up to date with the latest developments.
  • Networking protocols are leveraged to distribute the processing power required to drive many of today's advanced applications.  This has allowed new ways for people to network socially and stay connected.
Of course, most "innovation" is really just the same tired old ideas re-imagined and repackaged.  At the end of the day one has to ask if the world is really any better off for all of this change and "progress."  Are people any more fulfilled or any happier?  We're more isolated than ever.  All the toxic stuff required to produce our technology is impossible to get rid of and destroys our environment.  We consume more non-renewable energy than ever to power all of our junk.  The commoditization of software in our Capitalistic and consumer-driven world ultimately just makes information disposable, and you're left wondering if there is any enduring value to any of it.  Destroying information is akin to burning books, and where they start burning books they will soon start burning people.  The right to privacy and the protection of one's personal identity are just two ways people are getting "burned" in a virtual world where information is a disposable commodity.  The long-term prospects are really very cloudy. 

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Build a Speech Synthesizer for VIC-20

Build a Speech Synthesizer for VIC-20

Speech Synthesizers for legacy systems are getting harder and harder to find. Back in the day, there were the high-end units that featured text-to-speech translation processors. The Cadillac systems were the Votrax "Type-N-Talk" and "Personal Speech System." Then there were the low-end units, requiring manual translation of allophones or phonemes from tables in manuals, combined with PEEKs and POKEs, to form words and sentences. The purpose of this project is to simulate the high-end units of the time.

The biggest challenge today is finding modern parts that are willing to communicate at 1200 baud. For example, the SpeakJet allophones synthesizer, combined with a 8-bit microprocessor programmed with letter-to-sound rules for text-to-speech (such as the TTS256), popular in today's robotics, will only operate at 9600 baud. That is too fast for poor, old VIC!

These days it is actually easier (and cheaper) to dedicate an entire computer and software to the task versus a purely silicon approach.  The dedication of a computer to a specific task as part of a larger system is not so different than the intelligent peripherals of the day, like disk drives and printers, where processing was offloaded to the device.    Today this is common place.  We're surrounded by dedicated systems interconnected in highly flexible ways.  Even the "walled gardens" of our cell phones, tablets and consumer appliances have full-fledged operating systems underneath their slick user interfaces. 

So, this solution does expose one to some really cool things: Raspberry Pi (University of Cambridge’s Computer Laboratory); Debian Linux configuration; hardware-level general purpose input/output (GPIO); TTL serial communications; logic level converters; the Festival (offline manual in PDF format) text-to-speech synthesis system (University of Edinburgh's Centre for Speech Technology Research and  Carnegie Mellon University) which has a Scheme-based (SIOD) command interpreter for control; basic soldering techniques and more!

This project can easily be completed in a weekend, and done together with a child or friend. Only a Raspberry Pi, simple components and basic soldering are required.  What you will have in the end is a unit that operates very much like the high-end Votrax systems of the day. ... You OPEN a command channel for writing and PRINT the sentences and words you want spoken.  Now you're talking!

So, what about the Scott Adams adventure games?  My hope was that Commodore was using a similar technique as this project for communicating with the Votrax.  Unfortunately, Votrax had some proprietary control codes that could be sent to their system and not be interpreted by their text-to-speech processor in the manner we're communicating for this project.  My belief is that only a Votrax Type-N-Talk (not even the Votrax Personal Speech System) is the only way to get voice from these adventures.  Bummer!

I have additional VIC-20 material over on my web site:

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