The computer age was still in its infancy when humankind started building a list of things it wanted the automated gizmos of the future to do.
For one thing, people wanted to be able to talk to their machines and have the machines talk back.It didn't take long before those expectations were being depicted in the movies by the HAL 9000 supercomputer in "2001: A Space Odyssey," and the Saturday-morning cartoon "The Jetsons," whose automated cast included a runaway treadmill and Rosie the robot maid.
Also in the archives are The Robot on "Lost in Space," the computer simply addressed as "computer" in "Star Trek" and the host of droids in the "Star Wars" trilogy.
In the real world, the persona of all of these computing machines is absent in the monitor/mouse/keyboard setups that are today's personal computers. WEEBO, the floating, feminine computer orb in the recent movie "Flubber" suggests the dream of a more animated computing companion still exists.
A Draper company, fonix, has bet the farm on the notion that people want their computers and other electronic devices to be humanized like the ones in the movies. Not just the choppy voice on the telephone that recites your bank balance, or the software package that can be trained to recognize a particular person's voice and then take their dictation on a computer.
Skiers will get a taste of fonix interactivity this winter with a phone service scheduled to let callers ask for Utah ski information. The computer will track conditions and respond to caller's voice commands.
Next spring, the company hopes to package its technology on a microchip scheduled for production early next year by German chip maker Siemens that would make it feasible to install voice commands on non-PC electronic devices. Answering machines with more realistic voices will likely be first on the market, followed by smart phones, VCRs, even home heating and cooling thermostats.
"In the car, it would dial a cell phone, turn on the radio or roll down the windows, things like that," said Siemens marketing director Winfried Lotter. "There is a real safety component to all of those uses."
At home, the blinking "12:00" on the VCR may be just a flash from the past as the machine talks its owner through the clock setup process and does not require any button pushing.
Farther down the development road, fonix chairman and CEO Stephen M. Studdert said he hopes to see speech recognition incorporated with a translation component. "A person giving a speech in Santiago in English could be heard real-time in Spanish."
Fonix bought text-to-speech company AcuVoice Inc. in March and has co-mingledi the two companies' technologies. Fonix in July announced a joint marketing agreement with French-based elan informatique, which has text-to-speech technology available in German, Spanish, French and British and American English - in female and male voices.
John Oberteuffer, fonix vice president for technology, said interest in speech technology is also driven by the shrinking size of computer hardware: desktop computers shrink to laptops, and laptops shrink to palmtops. "There is no room for a keyboard. So speech and pen input are the kinds of interfaces you're going to have" as computers continue to get smaller.
As computers with monitors start talking, the voice will be incorporated with an intelligent agent - "an animated figure on the screen that can understand you and talk back to you," Oberteuffer said. In June, fonix bought 3D Planet, a developer of on-screen assistants and intelligent agents.
The company's business objective is to be more like Intel than Dell or IBM - it wants to make the components inside the computer that make it work rather than building and selling its own finished product. Deliberately absent from fonix's development pool is technology to give computers the attribute that would make them truly human: an attitude problem.