Siemens introduces talking therapy for sick machines

That leaking boiler or second-hand car may soon be able to say exactly what's wrong with them, thanks to a new device built from off-the-shelf parts

Diagnosing faults in machinery may become as simple as talking to it, according to Siemens researchers at the company's Princeton, New Jersey labs -- and the same technology may extend to our daily lives.

Using off-the-shelf technology, the company has combined wireless networking, voice recognition and Webcam-like devices to create a new way to integrate expert systems and human skills, and it could be in service in a few months' time.

The system works by embedding various sensors into the machinery in question, and tagging the outside with visual identifiers, much like bar codes. Engineers working on the equipment have a wearable computer with a USB camera, a hands-free headset and 802.11b wireless networking. By pointing the camera at the tag and asking questions, they identify the equipment in a central database and generate queries through voice recognition software in the wearable computer.

A computer on the network checks the sensor readings from the equipment being checked, works out the correct response and sends it back -- the wearable computer then converts the text to speech and talks back to the engineer. By working out where the engineer is and where he or she is looking, the system can also guide its user to where attention is needed.

Speaking to New Scientist magazine, researcher Yacop Genc said that the system could recognise different voices and could also generate visual overlays over the real world through a head-mounted display. That would be particularly useful, he said, in environments such as power stations where the right pipe out of 20 had to be quickly identified.

The company has identified the need to have a wireless network installed as one drawback, but some industry observers note that 3G phones with built-in cameras will provide the essential interface features for any user.

"This kind of interactive information service will be within everyone's reach," said Perdita Patterson, editor of What Mobile? magazine. "If you've got a leaking boiler at home or are checking out a second-hand car, you'll be able to relay images and questions over the Internet to a third party providing image and voice recognition services. That will then tell you what to look for and what to do, in effect having an automatic expert by your side." Camera-equipped phones are expected to become commonplace as high bandwidth GPRS and 3G mobile networks are rolled out: over three million such devices have already been sold in Japan.


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