A Voice Recognition App Adds Sound Effects While You Read to Your Kids

iStock
iStock

Technology is coming for kids’ story time, but maybe not in the way that you think. The future of bedtime stories, as MIT Technology Review describes it, won’t involve tablets or reading off screens, but it will have sound effects.

Novel Effect is an app that uses voice recognition to track the bedtime stories you’re reading to your kids and insert sound effects and music in response to certain cue words. It’s similar to a home assistant, such as the Amazon Echo or Google Home, except instead of playing music and setting kitchen timers for you, it’s on the ear-out for keywords contained in certain kids’ books.

Four mobile app screenshots side-by-side of the Novel Effect app.
Novel Effect

The app doesn’t work for all titles, but it offers effects for popular books you probably already own, like Where the Wild Things Are, The Hungry Caterpillar, and The Cat in the Hat. When you open the app on your phone, you select which book you plan to read. As you read the physical book out loud, the app listens for where you are in the text and adds sound effects, from dramatic music to monstrous roars.

It’s not going to trigger odd sound effects every time you say the word “caterpillar,” though. (Unlike the Amazon Echos that heard the words “Alexa, buy me a dollhouse” on a TV news report and rushed to fulfill the order.) The words have to correspond to the book you’ve selected in the app, though you don’t have to read the text from the beginning or keep any specific time. The app can recognize where you are in the book no matter where you start or whether you dive off into a tangent about how cool caterpillars are before resuming the story.

Novel Effect is part of Amazon’s Alexa Accelerator for voice recognition technology, and it seems feasible that one day this kind of functionality would be a skill you could enable on your Echo or other voice-controlled assistant. According to MIT Technology Review, the company hopes to allow users to create their own sound effects sometime in the near future.

[h/t MIT Technology Review]

Now Ear This: A New App Can Detect a Child's Ear Infection

iStock.com/Techin24
iStock.com/Techin24

Generally speaking, using an internet connection to diagnose a medical condition is rarely recommended. But technology is getting better at outpacing skepticism over handheld devices guiding decisions and suggesting treatment relating to health care. The most recent example is an app that promises to identify one of the key symptoms of ear infections in kids.

The Associated Press reports that researchers at the University of Washington are close to finalizing an app that would allow a parent to assess whether or not their child has an ear infection using their phone, some paper, and some soft noises. A small piece of paper is folded into a funnel shape and inserted into the ear canal to focus the app's sounds (which resemble bird chirps) toward the child’s ear. The app measures sound waves bouncing off the eardrum. If pus or fluid is present, the sound waves will be altered, indicating a possible infection. The parent would then receive a text from the app notifying them of the presence of buildup in the middle ear.

The University of Washington tested the efficacy of the app by evaluating roughly 50 patients scheduled to undergo ear surgery at Seattle Children’s Hospital. The app was able to identify fluid in patients' ears about 85 percent of the time. That’s roughly as well as traditional exams, which involve visual identification as well as specialized acoustic devices.

While the system looks promising, not all cases of fluid in the ear are the result of infections or require medical attention. Parents would need to evaluate other symptoms, such as fever, if they intend to use the app to decide whether or not to seek medical attention. It may prove most beneficial in children with persistent fluid accumulation, a condition that needs to be monitored over the course of months when deciding whether a drain tube needs to be placed. Checking for fluid at home would save both time and money compared to repeated visits to a physician.

The app does not yet have Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval and there is no timetable for when it might be commercially available. If it passes muster, it would join a number of FDA-approved “smart” medical diagnostic tools, including the AliveKor CardiaBand for the Apple Watch, which conducts EKG monitoring for heart irregularities.

[h/t WGRZ]

Uber Passengers Can Now Shush Their Drivers with a Mute Button

Spencer Platt, Getty Images
Spencer Platt, Getty Images

Even friendly and sociable people don't always feel like talking, especially if it's late, they're sad, or they're in the middle of an arduous trip. For customers of the ride-sharing service app Uber, there's now a way to terminate conversation with drivers. You simply push a button on your phone and request they stop talking.

This slightly dystopian feature is part of Uber Black, the app's premium interface for people looking for a ride in a luxury vehicle and drivers with top satisfaction ratings. If a passenger isn't in the mood for chatting, hitting "quiet preferred" on the app will notify the driver to stop speaking. They can also opt for "happy to chat" if they care to engage in conversation. It's part of a bundle of features that also allows users to ask for help with their luggage, request more time to get to the vehicle, or adjust the temperature inside the car.

The button is an attempt by Uber to address some of the ambiguity surrounding the relationship between driver and passenger for the service, which allows both parties to rate the other on the overall experience. Some passengers have felt that being uninterested in speaking to their driver might lead to a lower score.

The quiet button might eventually be rolled out to encompass all of Uber's platforms. If the idea of a human mute button is uncomfortable, passengers can also choose "no preference" and let conversation—or the lack of it—takes its natural course.

[h/t Vox]

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