A team led by researchers at the University of Washington has developed a shape-changing smart speaker
The smart speaker uses self-deploying microphones to divide rooms into speech zones and track the positions of individual speakers.
With the help of the team’s deep-learning algorithms, the system lets users mute certain areas or separate simultaneous conversations, even if two adjacent people have similar voices.
Like a fleet of Roombas, each about an inch in diameter, the microphones automatically deploy from and then return to a charging station. This allows the system to be moved between environments and set up automatically. In a conference room meeting, for instance, such a system might be deployed instead of a central microphone, allowing better control of in-room audio.
The team has published its findings in Nature Communications.
“If I close my eyes and there are 10 people talking in a room, I have no idea who’s saying what and where they are in the room exactly. That’s extremely hard for the human brain to process. Until now, it’s also been difficult for technology,” said co-lead author Malek Itani, a UW doctoral student in the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering. “For the first time, using what we’re calling a robotic ‘acoustic swarm,’ we’re able to track the positions of multiple people talking in a room and separate their speech.”
Previous research on robot swarms has required using overhead or on-device cameras, projectors or special surfaces. The UW team’s system is the first to accurately distribute a robot swarm using only sound.
The team’s prototype consists of seven small robots that spread themselves across tables of various sizes. As they move from their charger, each robot emits a high frequency sound, like a bat navigating, using this frequency and other sensors to avoid obstacles and move around without falling off the table.
More information: Creating Speech Zones Using Self-distributing Acoustic Swarms, Nature Communications (2023).