If you're a hard-core, dyed-in-the-wool gadget freak, Popcorn, Indiana LLC may have a design task for you.
The maker and seller of snack foods recently introduced the Popinator, which it calls a "fully automated, voice activated popcorn shooter." In videos, the device reacts to the spoken word "pop" by launching a kernel of popcorn into someone's mouth.
It's supposed to be a novelty -- a modern-day, mechanized version of the Pet Rock. And public reaction to it has been virtually off the charts. A YouTube video from the company (at the bottom of this post) has drawn 1.7 million hits. National and local television news shows have featured it, and newspapers around the country have written about it.
Popcorn, Indiana calls its Popinator a "fully automated, voice activated popcorn shooter." (Source: Popcorn, Indiana)
The problem with the machine is it doesn't work -- at least not in the way described in the company's video. "It does shoot popcorn, but it is remote-operated, not voice," Amanda Tiberi, marketing coordinator for Popcorn, Indiana, told us in an email. "It does exist, but only one, and it is a prototype in our office."
The video claims otherwise. "The Popinator uses a binaural microphone system, which is similar to the way the human hearing system works," says Ted, an electrical engineer seen in the video. "Basically, it is able to calculate, using the small differences in the arrival time of sound waves and their reflections, where a sound originated from."
Technically, Ted's description sounds good. But when a CNN reporter tried to use the device, it launched popcorn all over the floor. And it didn't react to the word "pop." It wasn't clear if the binaural microphones were even installed.
Of course, Popcorn, Indiana's idea -- post an embellished video on the Web, wait for it to go viral, and reap the name-recognition benefits -- isn't new. In truth, it's no different from what Volkswagen did this year with the Hover Car we discussed in June. In terms of plausibility, however, the Popinator and the Hover Car are in different leagues.
Randy Frank, an expert in sensing technology, told us it would be feasible for the Popinator to have a binaural MEMS audio sensor, which is often used in smartphones. Moreover, there's no reason the device couldn't find the source of the sound and launch a kernel in the appropriate direction. "Using a reasonably sophisticated software algorithm and some sensor fusion, you can make that projectile travel accurately to the direction of the sound."
The project could be expensive and could have its challenges. "Any time you do voice activation, you have to worry about false triggers," he said. "You don't want this thing shooting popcorn at your dog every time it barks, and that takes some engineering expertise. It's not trivial."
Can it be done? Popcorn, Indiana (which, by the way, is located in New Jersey) isn't asking for our help. But we encourage readers to weigh in with a comment. After all, who hasn't dreamed of owning a voice-activated machine that shoots popcorn into your mouth?
Meh. We do it every day with hearing aids that have inter-ear coordination (via ear-to-ear RF communication), which among other things allows the directional microphones to "steer" towards the voice and away from the noise.
In a previous life I designed toys and developed more than one prototype of a toy that responded to voice control. Some used algorithms running on nothing more than a PIC, others used more sophisticated devices. There was no mention of the budget for the thing. Nontheless, check out Sensory, Inc. for voice control IC's. We've used these for many (many) toys: http://www.sensoryinc.com/.
Though no one has asked I'll answer it anyway; I'm not interested in working on the thing.
Two comments: First I notice that the film shows every kernel hitting the "bull's eye." I wonder how many hours of video they had to edit to catch that many perfect hits. The speaker raises a very important point that because popcorn has a low density, random aerodynamic effects can dominate over Newtonian mechanics.
My second comment is to second those who point out that this is a silly idea to begin with. Don't we engineers have enough real problems to solve?
I would make this thing use a digital camera face detect function for aiming the shooter and audio for the trigger. Perhaps you could combine the two to figure out which face if more than one. Even better, fire one at each face!
This would have really come in handy at last night's VP debate!
Naperlou wrote: "Actually, the system to detect the sound and figure out where to put it should not be too difficult. On the other hand, variability in the popcorn itself could pose a problem, I would think."
Probably not, but you couldn't do it with "binaural microphones." A binary set (two) of microphones would be sufficient to get the speaker's azimuth but you would need another one (at least) to get elevation.
Then a classic set of artillery tables (such as were computed by the very first digital computers during the waning days of World War II) would define the aiming algorithm. As noted, compensation for popcorn variability would be necessary. Perhaps a MEMS scale to measure projectile mass would reduce this error. Correcting for air resistance variability would be more difficult of course.
With time, money, and manpower there is no question engineers can make this novelty work. This is engineer fun. This puts a smile on peoples faces. Its not directly solving any world problems, but my Mom always tells me how important it is to have a little fun every day, and she is 96. As a business decision, is it worth the investment? I'm estimating that it isn't worth a big corporate effort, but more like one or more people exploring it on their own, more for the interest and science than getting rich.
As an engineering project, I would view the three primary functions as the "pop" command, the detection of desire to launch, definition of the specific location of the the target mouth, and finally the targeting function to send the popped kernel to a specific location. I would develop these threee functions somewhat independently, and then integrate the three working functions. The interfaces between the functions must be defined carefully as early as possible in the development process so that successful system integration will not require miracles to occur. In this application, I would focus on high volume sensors from other fields for design simplicity, high reliability, and low cost. I would not presuppose ultrasonic, vision, MEMS, or any other technology would be superior to any other without testing in this application. I would look forward to systems testing and am willing to bring my own diet root beer to wash down some popcorn.
Design engineers need to prepare for a future in which their electronic products will use not just one or two, but possibly many user interfaces that involve touch, vision, gestures, and even eye movements.
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