When Nassir Navab talks to inanimate objects, they usually answer him. That's because Navab, a Siemens researcher, helped develop a system that gives industrial equipment the power to vocally answer questions posed by humans. The technology is designed to provide an easy way of checking on the operational status of various gadgets, including valves, pumps, switches and motors. Equipped with a wearable or mobile computer containing a built-in camera, a user could determine the status of any piece of equipment simply by walking around the factory floor. An 802.11b wireless network transfers data from the equipment to a central server and from the server to the user. A microphone-equipped headset and voice-recognition and synthesis software supply the user interface.
Using images of visual markers provided by the mobile camera, as well as localization software, the server automatically calculates the user's exact position and orientation. "He or she can walk around the workplace, point the camera at the object and ask how it is," says Navab, who's an imaging and visualization project manager at Siemens Corporate Research in Princeton, N.J. "One simply says something like, 'Current status.'" The server will then query the object and divulge the item's current operating condition -- temperature, pressure, voltage, flow rate and so on. The user can then request specific historical information about the object, such as its model number, age, service history and the name of the employee directly responsible for its maintenance. The user can also leave a voice message that will be supplied to the next person who talks to the object.
Navab believes that the technology could be used in a wide range of fields. "Factories, power plants, refineries—any place that might have thousands of different pieces of equipment," he says. Siemens is currently testing the system with a variety of different wearable and mobile computers. The company plans to install a pilot version at a working industrial facility sometime next year.