The VoicePod: You Speak. It Obeys.

CEDIA 2012 has receded into the poorly lit reaches of my cobweb-covered memory. But the one thing that most stood out in the cornucopia of all things custom-install still stands in sharp relief today: HouseLogix’s absolutely amazing VoicePod. Actually, it sits in sharp relief—right on the top of my desk thanks to HouseLogix’s CEO and Founder, Ted Rosenberger, who shipped a beta version of the VoicePod for me to play for the last few months.

So what exactly is a “VoicePod”?

The VoicePod is a small, plain looking, four-inch by five-inch oval-ish black (or white) box with a built-in microphone and a two-inch speaker sitting on top. It looks boring as hell, but it’s not meant to be looked at—it’s meant to be spoken to. The little device is designed to “speech enable” any room, providing voice control of your AV system as well as the lighting, temperature, shading, and plenty of other stuff with the proper programming. The VoicePod doesn’t do all this on its own, however. At present, it’s an add-on component for Control4 home automation systems. But this doesn’t mean you’ll have to spend tens of thousands of dollars to have voice control of your home. The VoicePod will work with a home theater system controlled by Control4’s entry-level controller (the $750 HC-250) just as well as it will with a sprawling multi-room, five-figure+ system with multiple controllers. (HouseLogix notes that the VoicePod’s firmware can be customized and potentially embedded in other manufacturers’ devices, so it’s possible there’ll be VoicePods for other automation systems in the future.)

The VoicePod is different from some of the other voice recognition systems out there in that there’s no need to teach the device to recognize your voice. That’s partly because—out of the box—the VoicePod is programmed to recognize a quite large collection of commands and command phrases, such as, “Good Morning”, “Room Off”, “Turn the Lights On”, “Watch TV”, and “What is the Weather Forecast?” to name only a few. The VoicePod is an interactive device in that it not only listens to commands; it also provides confirmations of commands and can announce requested information.

For example, if I say the wakeup phrase, “Hello VoicePod”, the box responds with, “How may I help you?” which indicates that the VoicePod is ready to receive instructions. (A wakeup phrase is important so that phrases spoken during ordinary conversation in the room the VoicePod is located in don’t send it into a flurry of unwanted activity.)

If I then say, “Watch TV”, the VoicePod will ask me to “Please say a TV channel name.” If I reply with “Comedy”, the VoicePod will repeat the channel name (“Comedy”) and then helpfully inform me that Comedy Central’s channel number (in my case, on DISH) is 107. While this “conversation” is going on, the Control4 HC-250 in my home office system turns on the TV, switches to the input for the DISH Joey DVR, and then tunes the Joey to channel 107.

Of course, these actions only take place because I’ve programmed the Control4 system to do them based on triggers from the VoicePod. From that standpoint, the VoicePod is really nothing more than a typical remote control, keypad, touch screen, or other interface device. Like any other remote control or touch screen, it’s only as powerful as the programming behind it. By saying that, however, I don’t mean to minimize the VoicePod’s incredibly accurate voice recognition capabilities. I’m simply pointing out that, in the end, the VoicePod is an alternative interface device.

But what a device it is! I’ve been extremely impressed with the VoicePod’s ability to recognize spoken commands, especially considering the fact that, unlike Siri for instance, the VoicePod does not rely on access to the Internet for its voice recognition capabilities. The technology used for deciphering voice commands is entirely built into the tabletop box. Constraints on the memory and processing power—and associated costs—that can be crammed inside the VoicePod is what limits the number of built-in commands that are available. However, in addition to the preprogrammed commands, you can record a large number of personal command phrases that the VoicePod will recognize. If that’s not enough for you, HouseLogix offers a BeSpoke customization service in which the company (for a fee) will create a completely customized voice menu system with custom audio responses recorded by the company’s voice talent.

The VoicePod, however, isn’t an end-all be-all device. As anyone who has used a variety of control devices knows—handheld remote controls, keypads, touch screens, motion controllers, etc.—the task at hand (pardon the pun) often determines which type of interface is the most appropriate. For example, activities requiring maneuvering through many menu levels are usually best accomplished with a handheld remote control or, sometimes even better, a handheld touch screen. Raising or lowering the volume can be done just as easily with a keypad as it can be with a remote control. In the case of the VoicePod, you wouldn’t want to use it to go through the test tones and set up the speaker levels for an AVR. On the other hand, turning the room lights on or off (or dim to a preset level), turning the entire home theater system on or off (and tuning to a specific channel), or even unlocking the doors to the house when your significant other arrives home from work are things the VoicePod is absolutely ideal for.

There are other activities the VoicePod is perfectly suited for. The command, “Good Morning”, for instance, can initiate a complex set of actions—including turning on the bedroom lights, turning up the thermostat, raising shades, turning on the coffee pot, starting to stream a local radio station on the speakers in the bathroom, and (in my case) raising the door on the chicken coop out back—at the end of which the VoicePod announces the outside temperature followed by the weather forecast for the next 36 hours. The only limitations are your programmer’s creativity, the number of devices you have that can be controlled, and the amount of money you can spend on it all.

Speaking of money, at $649, the VoicePod costs a bit more than the typical programmable remote control—but it’s totally in line with, and cheaper than, some of the higher-end touch screen remotes and in-wall touch panels. Of course, you have to figure in the cost of programming and installation, so my guess is that you’re looking at a lowest-cost scenario of at least $1,000 to add one VoicePod to your Control4 system—regardless of how elaborate that system is. You’re not limited to one VoicePod in your home, either. If you have the desire (and the bucks), you can put a VoicePod in multiple zones of your house. While each VoicePod is designed to operate in rooms up to 700 square feet, multiple VoicePods can be spread out in larger areas to control the same zone. Since having more than one VoicePod in your home might cause interesting conflicts with various VoicePods responding to a command, the VoicePods have a patented technology that allows them to work together and, based on the arrival time of the voice command at each VoicePod, figure out which VoicePod is closest to the person issuing the command. This VoicePod than becomes the designated driver.

The VoicePod, by the way, isn’t limited to sitting on the top of a table or desk. VoicePods can be wall mounted or made totally invisible by installing a hidden, external microphone and using a special preamp from HouseLogix that allows the VoicePod to speak through the speakers in the room.

If you’ve read any of my previous reviews and features on home automation systems, you’ll know that I’m a huge fan of automated control. (I still have a soft spot in my heart for my original, not-always-100%-cooperative X10 system.) I’m especially fond of Control4, both from a pricing and a functionality standpoint. But the VoicePod takes a Control4 system to another level. As I’ve said, it’s not the only way you’ll want to control your A/V system or your home automation system; but the VoicePod is definitely one of the ways you’ll want to have to control the system. In addition to greatly simplifying some tasks and being very assistive in others, there’s also the incredible cool factor of being able to speak a command and have it happen. If only I could get my kids to respond the same way. (Hell, I’d be happy if I could just get my dogs to respond to my commands…)