Robotic telescope control may be the perfect application for speech recognition. Trying to fumble your way through computer menus, in the dark, when your hands are cold, is probably not the most enjoyable part of an evening of deep sky observing... Wouldn't it be nice if you could just tell someone what object you wanted to view and have them find it for you?
VAL, the Verbal Astronomical Locator is at your command. VAL is designed to work with Meade AutoStar robotic telescopes. It has been specifically designed to work around some of the limitations of the AutoStar when used with the LXD55 equatorial mounts in remote mode. VAL should also work with the AutoStar powered ETX and LX90 Schmidt Cassegrains.
What can VAL do?
For a few examples, click on the Sound Bytes located on the left side of this screen. In the interest of keeping these sound files to a manageable size, the time delays that occur when the AutoStar is in its final "creep-mode" have been edited out. VAL was running on my old 366mHz PII Toshiba Notebook but was connected to some desktop speakers to give his voice a little more authority. The telescope mount you are hearing is a one-of-a-kind Synta EQ6 which has been retrofitted with LXD55 servo motors. The EQ6 is a massive mount and a great bargain. This EQ6 hybrid is a marriage of an excellent low-cost heavy duty mount, coupled with a very inexpensive, but amazingly capable Meade AutoStar 'Goto' controller. I have under $900 US invested in the entire thing! But, let's get back to VAL...
When VAL is first started, the AutoStar is queried for the currently active observing location. The Date and Time is automatically set from the computer's real time clock. There is no need to enter this information into the AutoStar manually each time you turn it on. Simply accept the defaults and then start VAL. Put the telescope in the home position and have it do the "Easy alignment". VAL can be used to control all of the commonly used functions once the alignment is done. Any one of the 7950 objects in the Messier or NGC catalogs can be located with the click of the mouse or a simple verbal command. The current telescope position is constantly displayed. If you ask for an object that is below the horizon, VAL will tell you. If you ask for an object what will cause a possible collision between your telescope and the mount, VAL will also tell you.
As of firmware version 26Ed, there are a few limitations in the AutoStar that will cause difficulty for some other telescope control programs, especially with the LXD55 equatorial mount.
The first limitation of the AutoStar is that - unlike the classic LX200 - the internal object library cannot be accessed by external software. This is true of all of the AutoStar models that VAL can control (ETX, LX90, LXD55, etc). VAL has an onboard database and is able to pass the raw coordinates of any object to the AutoStar in order to overcome this limitation.
There are also a couple of problems that seem specific to the LXD55 equatorial mounted telescopes. The first concerns when the AutoStar indicates that an object slew has been completed. Quite frequently, the LXD55 telescopes will pause immediately after DEC slewing has begun in order to determine the proper side of the central meridian to move the RA axis to. During this pause, the AutoStar essentially tells the external program that the slew has completed. This is a problem because the software may incorrectly announce the completion of the slew and may enable the coordinates match (synchronization) command - which can not be properly done until the telescope has reached the vicinity of the intended target. VAL ignores the signal which indicates that the slew has completed and directly monitors the motion of the telescope in order to determine when the target is actually acquired.
A similar problem exists with regard to elevation position limits. Both the LXD55 equatorial mount and AutoStar fork mounts seem to be affected, but in different ways. In the case of the LXD55 mount, any attempt to remotely command the telescope to a position above the max elevation limit will result in the telescope not moving. Unfortunately, the AutoStar (as of firmware version 26Ed) incorrectly reports that the slew is possible and that the telescope is moving. This problem would leave users wondering what is going on if it were not given special attention by VAL. In order to overcome this problem, at least until a firmware fix is made available, VAL watch will over the telescope position for the first two seconds after a move has been commanded. If no motion is seen, VAL will announce that the slew cannot be carried out.
VAL screen controls
Here is a screenshot of VAL...
The slewing command buttons located on the right side of the control panel allow you to move the telescope around at different speeds with the click of the mouse. The Jog mode causes the telescope to move in the desired direction only as long as the button is held down. As soon as you release it, motions stop. If you do not wish to hold down the direction buttons, the Jog mode can be disabled, and the Stop button will be activated.
Here is a screenshot in "Night Vision Mode", which can be switched on/off under voice command...
VAL is a spin-off of another larger, more ambitious project that I have been working on for several months - the Alt/Az drive system called the Equatrak. An enhanced version of VAL, with many more features, will come standard with the Equatrak when it ships.
If the "DarkSkyWare" idea works, and people are donating to the Dark Sky Fund in exchange for their use of VAL, I will be motivated to continue to add new features as time permits.
Hardware: The minimum hardware requirements are a 233mHz PII processor. 128MB of ram is recommended for best performance. A good quality soundcard is very important. Some older soundcards may not work at all. A high quality close-fit headset microphone with noise cancellation will greatly improve the speed of speech recognition and will reduce the number of failed recognitions. A switch on the microphone is also very important so that you can speak to others without VAL hearing.
Software: VAL has been tested under Windows 2000 and Windows XP. VAL should also work fine under Windows 98, but that has not been verified at this time. Windows 98 or newer is required. Windows 98 users must also have IE 5.0 or newer installed. VAL should also run under Windows Me. Refer to the download page for more specific information that describes exactly what files you need to download for your version of Windows. Windows NT 4.0 may also support VAL, but only if SP6a and IE 5.5 are installed. Installation under NT is completely untested.
Frequently asked questions:
VAL is currently limited to working with AutoStar powered telescopes, which includes the Meade ETX, LX90 and LXD55 series instruments. Although it would be fairly easy to allow VAL to work with LX200's and other telescopes which use the LX200 command set, I have decided not to support them at this time. There are at least two good commercial voice command products on the market which are designed to work with a broad range of robotic telescopes. Specific support for the AutoStar, especially when used with the LXD55, is not something the commercial products are necessarily optimized for. At the present time, VAL is focused on these telescopes.
When clicking on this button for the first time after the program is run, the speech files must be loaded into memory before speech recognition is activated. Wait until VAL says "I am waiting for your command".
Be sure your computer is fast enough - please observe the minimum system requirements. The quality of your soundcard - or built-in sound hardware on your laptop/notebook - may not be good enough. Microphone quality is also important. A very common source of problems is background noise. Other people speaking at the same time can confuse the speech recognition engine. Wind noise will also wreck havoc with speech recognition. Almost all microphones will generate loud rumble and popping noises when used under even moderately windy conditions.
There is a minor bug with the AutoStar when used with the LXD55 mount that can cause a false signal of slew completion. Because of this, VAL is designed to allow extra time after receiving a slew completion signal before announcing "slew complete" and reactivating all of the controls.
VAL does not use the optional voices which may be selectable in the Windows XP control panel. Just because you have a voice selected and working in the control panel does not mean that VAL will speak. The file SAPI4.zip must be downloaded and installed separately on all supported systems EXCEPT Windows 2000.
VAL utilizes MicroSoft speech recognition and synthesis engines. Windows 2000 comes with the speech synthesis engine that VAL uses already installed. The required speech recognition engine is included in the VAL setup file and will be automatically installed.
If you are running Windows XP, Windows Me, or Windows 98, the speech synthesis engine must be downloaded and installed separately .
The main VAL setup program, which includes the speech recognition software, is a very large file - about 45 megabytes. If you are having problems downloading the file, you might want to contact me about getting the software on a CD. I am willing to provide it for a nominal media cost and shipping fee.