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Vintage MASTERVOICE Series II | Kevin Rye.net - Main

Kevin Rye

Geek Extraordinaire. Yeh, I said it.

Vintage MASTERVOICE Series II

The MASTERVOICE Series II is a voice-activated home automation system. It can recognize up to 4 different users. It responds to your commands and carries out your requests. With it, you can turn on or off pretty much any light or appliance in your house. (Provided they are connected to an X-10 lamp or appliance module.) It also has macros. So not only can you turn on a single light via voice command, you can turn on a series of lights and appliance by issuing one simple command like “good morning”.

It’s amazing what the Series II can do. You can even connect it to your phone line and use it to call someone. You can also call in and listen in on the house.

It has a built-in motion detector. You can configure a light or appliance to turn on when motion is detected. You can also configure the Series II to enter Alarm Mode when motion is detected. It has 99 built-in timers that you can set to go off whenever you want. Maybe turn a light on or off at a specific time of day. Automate sprinklers, shut the house down at bed time, etc. It’s very helpful to make the house look lived in when you’re away on vacation.

There’s no doubt speech recognition has come a very long way since the 1980s. It’s amazing this thing worked at all! So you have to be a little patient and forgiving when using it.

In 1987, my family was featured in the April issue of Electronic House magazine for being a bunch of tech geeks. We had a Series I MASTERVOICE back then, the same one that was featured on the back of the magazine. It was originally called the “Butler in a Box”. In 1991 my Dad convinced the folks over at MASTERVOICE to take the old one back and send him a new Series II.

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The magazine may be from 1987, but the ad is dated 1986.

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Wow, $1495! That’s a lot of money to spend on such a thing even today. That’s MacBook Pro money! Adjusted to 2013 dollars, that’s a whopping $3,179.18! Now we’re talking Mac Pro money!

This must have been a niche product for the cutting edge types who had a ton of money to drop on toys. There’s not a lot of information on the internet about it, and it certainly seems that not many people remember this product. It’s amazing how worthless tech becomes over the years. I found two units on eBay. One had a Buy It Now price of $120 bucks, and the other sold for $70.

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My Dad dug it out of the garage and gave it to me. I’m so glad it survived the past two garage sales he’s had. I loved playing with this thing when I was a kid. I guess I got “keeping the box” from my Dad. It’s amazing how may people I’ve seen, be it a Blu Ray player or an iMac, who throws away the box after it’s set up. Keep the box!

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It originally came with an X-10 lamp and appliance module, Who knows where they are now? We’ve had so many come and go over the years.

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It still has the manual. Good thing too! You have to follow some really detailed instructions in order to program and teach the Series II. You’d have a pretty hard time figuring it out without it.

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Whenever I come across some vintage tech like this, I usually open it up to make sure no caps have leaked all over the place. For this, I kind of forgot to do that and powered it right up. Luckily everything was in order and I didn’t do any damage to it.

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It powered right up, displayed the splash screen and ran a self-test.

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ENTER PIN? What? WHERE’S THE PIN?!!! Oh man, this thing is useless without the PIN. You can’t get past this screen without entering the PIN.

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I flipped down the from panel hoping it was on a Post-It or something, but nothing. I then found a 4-digit string of characters written in pencil on the inside of the back cover of the owner’s manual. Is that it? I punched it in and it took it! Lucky! +1 for Dad writing it in the manual!

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I dug through the box of X-10 stuff in my closet and grabbed an old lamp module and connected it to the light in my computer room.

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I then ran through the process of training the Series II to my voice and configured the lamp to turn on via voice command.

Once the Series II is in voice control mode, it’ll happily sit there waiting for a command. The green and red LEDs are infrared activity and light level indicators.

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The back of the Series II has some sliders for the system volume and sensitivity along with connections for an external microphone, external speaker, phone jack, RS232 port, parallel port, and an external security jack. There was a DOS program available back in the day where you could dump all the data to your computer and save it to a floppy disk. You could then use the disk later to reprogram the Series II if needed.

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It does take a while to program and train the Series II. It would be a shame to lose all that in the event of a power failure. For that, the Series II has a battery backup feature. It takes 5xAA batteries to save all your settings in memory. (PS - I subsequently found that missing PIN on a label that was fixed to the inside cover of the battery compartment. Who would think to look there?)

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Here’s a short video of it in action.



Let’s crack it open and have a look at some vintage electronics! All it takes to get inside is the removal of 4 screws.

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It’s then just a matter if disconnecting the leads that run to the battery box and the housing can be moved out of the way. Wow! Take a look at that!

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Very busy indeed There’s even two boards underneath. I didn’t want to remove the top board since it looked like a real pain, and I didn’t want to run the risk of breaking it. Check out the two INTEL chips dated 1975!

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I always get a kick out of seeing the “oopsies” on old boards. I guess things were so expensive back then that there was no way there were calling a do-over when they could just fix it with a hack.

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Very cool. When it worked, it worked, but you really had to be patient. You have to speak loudly and clearly; almost yelling at times. The demo video I show above took several takes to get it right. It’s very unforgiving of ambient noise. It takes a lot of training to get it just right so that a TV or stereo doesn’t inadvertently set it off. Throughout the day it sometimes randomly says, “May I help you?”. Whatever it was it thought it heard, it thought it sounded like “Alfred”. I remember back in the day if you had a TV on and a bunch of people talking, it would think you were talking to it and lights would go on and off.

It’s amazing how far voice recognition has come. Anyone that knocks Siri’s functionality should spend a few hours with the Series II. Still...very cool for a ~30 year old piece of tech!