Siri-ous business

Matt Carnes

Matt Carnes
Nov 13
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Self-taught programmer connects Apple’s virtual assistant to the homeland.

A great many science fiction writers of the last half century have presented a future in which turning on the lights is as simple as saying “lights on.” Ditto for channel surfing on the TV or, say, setting the thermostat. It’s just one of those things like hoverboards and flying cars that we expect the future to hold for us. But Little Rock’s Matthew Carnes doesn’t really see any reason to wait, at least when it comes to automated control.

For about a year now, Carnes has been tweaking and perfecting a little project that’s made a lot of buzz nationally. He’s interfaced Siri, the famous, sometimes snarky digital personal assistant introduced on the Apple iPhone 4S, with a processor designed to automate the home produced by a company called Crestron. The result: Carnes’ phone can do a lot more than schedule a meeting for 9 a.m.

“A lot of really neat things are possible,” said the programmer of the interface.

How far does the application go? Well, how about a shower that turns on with a (groggy) voice command as you’re smashing the snooze bar on the alarm clock. Maybe a security system that can be armed remotely or on site with a word. Same goes for turning the sprinklers on or – and this can get tricky thanks to digital media laws and lawsuits – accessing a movie on a home entertainment server. The detail of command, assuming compatibility with the target device and the system, is pretty staggering, Carnes said.

“If electricity runs through it, it can probably control it... and if Crestron can control it, Siri can tell it what to do.”

Not a bad result for a spare time project of a self-taught programmer. A Jonesboro native, 32-year-old Carnes went to Nashville to earn his degree in audio engineering. But a move back to Little Rock for his wife’s education left him without a recording industry to work in. So the career path took him into home entertainment.

But the growing sophistication of the home theater world turned out not to be a bad place for someone who admits he’s “always been a computer nerd kinda guy.” Growing up in the coming of the digital age, originally poking around on an old 8088 DOS-based PC, Carnes said he’s still got an Atari and an original Apple IIe among the various electronics piled up at home. And it doesn’t hurt that he always had an imagination captured by the pop culture of the day, films like Hackers and The Net.

“Nothing makes a guy wanna program like Sandra Bullock,” he laughed.

So, with that background, when the opportunity came to connect to Crestron, a company more traditionally about home automation than consumer electronics, it seemed to be a right fit.

“There’s still this sort of disconnect,” said Carnes. “People come in and they want to buy a TV ... Well, I’d love to sell a TV, but what I really want to do is much more than that.”

The essential idea is for “a home that lives around you,” with lights that “learn” as they get used each day and eventually come on themselves. You’re driving down the road and think you forgot to shut the garage door? Check your phone to find out — and shut it if so. The list goes on.

Small wonder, then, that the idea for the Siri interface was seeded from the first minute Carnes got his hands on the 4S late last year. After kicking it around a while, a weekend came along in January during which the kids were away and the wife was working, and so Carnes set about a marathon programming session on an old box he’d dug out of the bottom of a closet. In the end, he figured out a way for the Crestron processor to know when Siri wanted something and be able to either do it or tell her it couldn’t be done.

“It was definitely one of those two fists in the air, thank God nobody was home moments,” he said of getting it all to work out. “I’m self taught, so pretty much everything was trial and error.”

The real surprise came after he made a demo video of the system in action and got a callback from his representative at Crestron within five minutes. It wasn’t long before higher-ups in the company were also calling, and this during the Consumer Electronics Show, pretty much the industry’s biggest event of the year in this country.

Since then, the goal has been to both expand the functionality of the system and figure out how to implement it broadly. For example, hardcoding a command to turn the lights on in the living room won’t work when people may use different terminology like den or great room, or not to mention a foreign language. So the system is designed to label each room by number and, during setup, users assign a name to that number. Siri just processes it as “lights,” “on” and whatever name is assigned to what she knows as “Room One.” She’ll even learn specific pronunciation, so the system works for the specific user.

“She’s just looking for several specific key words,” he explained.

Of course, such conveniences come at a price, but right now the whole thing is literally priceless. And that’s despite offers. Carnes said the system is out in beta testing in two homes here locally while the process of figuring out logistics like manufacturing are being worked out on the back end. He can’t exactly install a computer out of his closet in every customer’s home, after all.

But as the tech industry swings into its proverbial Oscar season with big shows here and abroad in early 2013, the goal is to really get the system out there and get exposure, likely with a large-scale roll out to come later. So far, things are looking good for that. And, no, despite apocalyptic fears of the machine revolution, there have been no incidents of Siri countermanding commands even to users named Dave.

“So far she plays nice,” Carnes laughed. “There haven’t been any crazy issues. She’s not HAL.”

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