Saturday, 1 December 2012

The Spectrum Show #11

The new series starts here - and we're in High Definition too, so remember to use those YouTube controls to get the best resolution.

1984 kicks off and we get all the Sinclair news and latest game releases as Xmas fades away and a new year begins.

We take a look at the Currah Speech Unit, letting your spectrum talk back!

Some old Abbex games get scrutinised with varying results and we look at a newer title.

Best viewed on Youtube.

Currah Speech |Unit

We had all seen movies and television shows that depicted computers that could take, some in realistic human voices, others in a metallic and robotic way, so when a small add-on arrived on the market in 1983 that promised to give your Spectrum the same functionality, I was eager to get one and hear what my micro sounded like.

The unit was quite small, just 7.5 x 8 cm and only 1.8cm thick and offered the added bonus of allowing your Spectrum's sound to be outputted through your television.

Connecting it up was easy, just plug it into the expansion port of your Spectrum, swap the aerial leads and plug in the 3.5mm jack into the Mic socket. The unit had no pass through port, so had to be the last device attached, which could prove troublesome if you had a few other things plugged in.

Once connected and the Spectrum powered up, the copyright message appeared indicating you were read to make your computer talk. By default it was turned on, and so pressing a key would prompt the unit to speak the input command. This could be turned off by using a reserved variable KEYS, for example LET KEYS=0.

The unit used the S$ variable to allow BASIC programming, so anything set within that would be picked up and sent to the speech interpreter. This made incorporating speech into your own games easy. The result was not always perfect and to get it to pronounce things correctly, you had to play around with the various syntax options. You could swap out letters , for example C and K, or you could wrap letters up in brackets to produce a new sound.

A single ‘i’ for example would sound like Ei. As in ‘brick’ but add two in brackets would produce ‘eye’. The same went for ‘o’. On its own it would be ‘o’ as in ‘box’, two would be ‘ooo’ as in ‘shoe’.

A typical sentence could take a while to get just right, changing the letters and adding brackets to get the interpreter to produce the right sound.

‘Hello YouTube, this is your spectrum talking’ would have to be created by using ‘hel(oo) y(oo)t(uu)b (dth)is iz Yor spectrum torking’. Once you get to grips with the different sounds, it soon become easy to get what you wanted, but it wasn't long before the novelty wore off. To be honest I spent a lot of time making it swear, no doubt along with hundreds of other kids, much to the annoyance of their parents.

The unit used up some of the Spectrum's memory, taking up 256 bytes and moving the UDGs and RAMTOP down, the result of this caused problems with several games.

The ability to speak was taken up by many game companies, like Quicksilva, Firebird, PSS and Ultimate, all adding speech to some of their games.  The affects were underwhelming and for me and didn't add anything to the game.

One game though had a trick up its sleeve, Booty from Firebird Software, detected if the device was connected and if it was, game you a completely different game.

Instead of the usual platform based treasure collection game, you got an underwater swimming game!

Currah were acquired by DK'Tronics in 1985 and slowly the unit went out of favour, with DK'Tronics pushing their own speech unit instead. Maybe this was a strategic buy-out, which had the desired effect, and the speech unit slowly disappeared from the market and games.

At the end of the day though, it was just a bit of fun that never really took off, and event today, with the exception of satellite navigation and maybe Apple’s Siri, computers that talk have not really made it into our homes, the only exception being the usage of devices for sight impaired people.

So, to sum up; it’s a bit of fun to mess about with, but the novelty soon wares off, and it will be quickly removed and forgotten.

Watch the video review in Episode 11.

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