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Talking washing machine gets a CeBit spin

The trade show sees the debut of Hermine, a high-tech washing machine that can talk and guide laundry dummies through the mysteries of wash cycles, spin speeds and stain removal.

A talking washing machine on display at CeBit this week could pave the way to home electrical devices that respond to voice commands--and can even help inexperienced users to operate them.

The German company Speech Experts is demonstrating a prototype of the machine with voice-recognition capabilities at the CeBit technology trade show, held this week in Hannover, Germany. Called Hermine, the device is being developed in partnership with Siemens, but Speech Experts believe that a commercial model could be in stores as early as 2004--if their prototype proves popular enough.

Hermine is designed to help people who are foxed by the complexity of modern washing machines, with their wide variety of program types. Speech Experts demonstrated on Wednesday that when a user told Hermine what clothes they needed to clean, it could tell how they should be washed.

Hermine could also be programmed by voice--understanding commands such as "prewash," "press wash cycle at 60 degrees Celsius," or "wait 30 minutes before starting."

Speech Experts have also tried to give Hermine something of a personality. When told that a certain garment has been stained with red wine, it responds by recommending beer in future--as beer stains are easier to remove. Upon being told that some diapers had to be washed, the electronic washing machine emitted an anguished yelp.

This version of Hermine has a vocabulary of several hundred German words, but Speech Experts explained that a future version would be designed to understand up to 4,000 words in several languages.

Angelika Salmen, chief executive of Speech Experts, told ZDNet UK that the technology could be applied to other home appliances, but that a voice-enabled washing machine was of much more value to users than a voice-enabled toaster, for example.

"It depends on what kind of service you can provide. If it's a difficult process, then it's possible to design a machine that can help (by understanding voice commands)," Salmen explained.

The commercial future of Hermine depended in part on the reception that the device gets this week, Salmen said.

"We're checking the commercial reaction at CeBit, and the final decision is with Siemens," Salmen said. In a best-case scenario commercial models could be on sale in a year's time, she said.

Future versions of Hermine could also include Internet connectivity, making system updates easier.

The model on display at CeBit received voice commands via a headset and 'spoke' through a separate loudspeaker. Speech Experts said, though, that any commercial version would have an integrated microphone and speakers.

Graeme Wearden reported for ZDNet UK in London.